Along with The Haunting and 13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill completes the trio of iconic haunted house horror films from the late 50s/early 60s that got the “modern” remake treatment in the late 90s/early 00s.
In many ways, House of Haunted Hill set the stage for this original trio by creating what a haunted house movie can be, and of course by featuring the legendary Vincent Prince. So after recently rewatching both back to back, we thought it would be fun to objectively compare them and determine which is the superior House on Haunted Hill!
Round I – Story/Characters
Both version follow the same storyline pretty closely, an eccentric millionaire rents out an infamous haunted house for the night and hosts a party with several guests. Whichever of them survives the night will be given a vast sum of money, and they slowly discover the terror contained within the house.
A lot of minor details are the same as well with guests’ arrival via hearses, and handguns being given out as party favors. But when it comes to characters, this is where the divergence really shows. The original features an amazingly creepy lead performance by Vincent Price in the prime of his career.
This version does a great job of quickly introducing the guests and helping the audience understand their motives for being there. Given that it was the late 50’s most of their performances seem very theater, but ultimately they’re all pretty believable, as is their fear.
Featuring a solidly talented cast, the remake unfortunately fails to live up to the potential of said cast. Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, and Christ Kattan have all been great in other performances, but here they just come off as cartoonish and over the top (especially Kattan). They feel less like real people and more like caricatures.
The only ones who are halfway decent are Rush, who gives it his all but it’s not enough to save the movie, and Jeffrey Combs, in a very fitting role as a mad scientist. The whole point of a remake is to take the concept or idea from the original and expand upon it or take it into a new direction. The issue with this one was that it played out all the same story beats, but with a more annoying set of characters.
Round I Winner – 1959
Round II – Production Design
But of course, a haunted house movie is only as good as the haunted house itself, and it’s in this category that the remake does really shine. The original is definitely creepy, but the house itself seems like a very typical Victorian mansion of its time. The interiors (which are all shot on sound stages in a studio) feel very generic, which is not at all a slight against the movie. This was the style of filmmaking in that era, and it’s simply a product of its time.
The remake shows us an intimidatingly tall and looming edifice that literally sits in the edge of a cliff. Its interior, while still a film set, is far more vast and creative in its design. For a movie that cost $37 million to produce (which is relatively large for a horror film), they clearly spared no expense on building sets.
The house looks like a place that you would want to explore, while simultaneously being terrified to do so. While the original film showed us a house that merely haunted, the remake gave audiences a sadistic dungeon of death and despair!
Round II Winner – 1999
Round III – Style/Tone
When it comes to horror, the story and characters only go so far. The creepy atmosphere and sense of dread go a long way with scaring audiences. The original opens up with a really coot floating head effect of Vincent Price introducing the house and the guests he had invited. The whole movie has a very eerie tone throughout.
While it does have its share of jump scares and creepy moments, most of the fear and tension comes in the form of suspense in not knowing what will be around each corner. From the first to last shot, we spend the entire duration of the movie at the house, which adds a sense of isolation.
In this area, the remake does make quite a few bold choices, some of which pay off, some of which don’t. As was the trend in the late 90s/early 00s, a lot of the pacing and editing is made up of quick cuts reminiscent of a music video.
In fact, the movie uses (a pre-disgraced) Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” so frequent that at times the movie begins to feel like a music video. Mr. Price’s (Geoffrey Rush) background in amusement parks does make for an interesting twist, especially where no one’s sure who’s doing what.
For a lot of the movie, he thinks it’s someone else behind it all, swearing that it’s not him. This version also overcomplicates things quite a bit with love triangles and secret affairs that don’t really do much to add to the overall story. It tries to be “extreme” in a lot of ways, but this term and style was fast becoming cliché, even by the time this came out in 1999.
Round III (and overall) Winner – 1959
Which one do you prefer and why? Let us know in the comments!