House on Haunted Hill
is one of the new breed of waste-no-time thrill machines, and a particularly effective example at that. The plot is pure contrivance: For a party stunt, a wealthy amusement-park manufacturer (Geoffrey Rush) offers five people a million dollars if they spend the night in a former insane asylum where the patients murdered the sadistic staff. But it turns out the five people who arrive aren't the five he invited--did his wife (Famke Janssen), who hates him, make the switch? From there events unfold with a smart combination of human and supernatural machinations; spooky jolts are dispensed at regular, but not entirely predictable, intervals. The visual effects owe a considerable debt to Jacob's Ladder
, a much more ambitious movie; House on Haunted Hill
just wants to get under your skin, and succeeds more than you'd expect. Rush is his entertainingly hammy self; Janssen, Taye Diggs, Ali Larter and Bridgette Wilson are attractive and reasonably straight-faced about it all; and Chris Kattan is genuinely funny as the house's neurotic owner. Some elements of the plot seem to have been lost in the editing process, but it hardly matters. More bothersome is that the scares go flat when computer effects take over at the end--the digital images just aren't as creepy as the more suggestive stuff that came before. But that's just the very end; most of the movie has a lot of momentum. Make sure you watch until the end of the credits for a final bit of eeriness.
Return to House on Haunted Hill, directed by Víctor García, is the equally spooky sequel where Sarah Wolfe is the only living survivor from the massacre at the Vanacutt Mansion, but no one believed her claims that ghosts were responsible for the gruesome murders that took place there. Now her recent and questionable suicide leaves her sister Ariel (played by Amanda Righetti) no choice but to devote herself to finding out who - or what - was responsible for her death. Ariel discovers that Sarah sent her the diary of the sadistic Dr. Vanacutt just before she died, offering clues to the diabolical evil that resides within the house. But the diary also makes Ariel a target in a deadly treasure hunt that leads a group of unwitting victims back to the Vanacutt Mansion, reawakening the terror imprisoned within the house on the hill. This time, the house and the evil spirits inside are out to make sure that no one leaves alive. --Bret Fetzer