Headbanger's Ball

The House on Haunted Hill
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Gnarly horror movies and heavy-metal music are like twin brothers. (And porn is their superhero--but that's another article.) In their Eighties heyday, horror and metal were, if nothing else, a great new way for teenagers to freak out their lame-ass Sixties parents: Both forms featured lots of big-haired blond chicks whose perfect doll parts would, in one way or another, get splayed for the viewer. And both got a lot of mileage out of the concept of Evil--thus, in a roundabout way, reinforcing Judeo-Christian ideology. (The Mötley Crüe guys now admit that "Shout at the Devil" was an anti-devil song, though nobody got it.) Maybe that's why satanic rock and a certain brand of horror movie seem so hokey and oddly comforting, eager to cleave to the good ol' rules of Good and Evil.

Round about Scream-time, the teen-horror genre got its turn in the deconstructionist wringer, an event that sparked a revival for horror films in general. (And, as you know, heavy metal is also big again, and a lot less cute, since being filtered through the postmodern strainer of rap--not to mention that the soundtrack biz now crossbreeds metal and movies more overtly than ever.) Of course, stealing riffs is an old trick, and even Seventies and Eighties metal-rockers and horror hacks were canny rhymebiters--e.g., Carrie in its skeletal form is pretty damn close to Rebel Without a Cause, but even more articulate in its critique. In a way, this is how any piece of art has to justify its inevitable thievery: Does it go somewhere new, or say something old in a new way? Failing that, does it at least bang your head for a couple of hours?

Enter sandman: The mad doctor and his victim in The House on Haunted Hill
Enter sandman: The mad doctor and his victim in The House on Haunted Hill

The Blair Witch Project, which obviously owes a debt to The War of the Worlds and cinema verité, succeeded on all three counts with an egomaniacally rock 'n' roll determination to trap and manipulate the viewer's senses. Now, The House on Haunted Hill (a remake of the 1958 William Castle/Vincent Price film) has the obvious opportunity to pull off a similar trick--it's about eight people spending the night in a haunted insane asylum, for chrissakes.

In its defense, there is something touching about this movie's attempts to build "deep" characters with "complex" relationships, like in the old days. To accomplish this, the filmmakers snagged Geoffrey Rush to play the Vincent Price figure (here named Steven Price), a rather sadistic amusement-park mastermind. (His roller-coaster "breaks," tossing a carful of passengers off the tracks.) He and his naughty wife, played by Famke Janssen, promise five people a million dollars each if they can survive the night at the now-abandoned asylum. To their surprise, it turns out that the building has bigger plans, and things get a little nuts.

The wind-up is seductive. A black-and-white flashback sequence depicts the asylum in the old days, when one Dr. Vannacutt performed surgical "experiments" on inmates. This tapping of Nazi-era horror is the film's sharpest psychic tool, and also its strongest visual statement. In a nifty later scene, one character (see: blond girl with detachable doll-parts) witnesses a surgical experiment through her camcorder's viewfinder, and sees the doctor and nurse turn to gaze at her (or us). Later Price gets locked in an old machine intended to drive crazy people sane; this nervous-breakdown sequence combines old-fashioned animation and a Brazil-ian atmosphere just for the fun of it.

Every time the film addresses the past, it wins; it's the present that seems to leave the filmmakers cold. Worse, the movie suffers from a common ailment of quality horror films, something The Blair Witch Project managed to sidestep: With such a careful buildup, its show-everything climax comes off as a letdown. This may be the fault of the producers, who, eager to update the original with fancy special effects, ended up depicting an evil spirit that looks just plain dorky. But it's also as if, in their filial devotion to the past, they were afraid of actually making a better movie than the original--which is about as un-rock 'n' roll as horror can get.

 
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