As Halloween grows nearer and Scream Factory prepares to break out the big guns over the next few months in the form of titles like Trick ’r Treat, Creepshow, and Candyman, the company is still busy putting out smaller and less universally beloved titles to round out the library of every obsessive horror fan. Our latest Scream Factory roundup runs pretty much the whole gamut: we have a modern classic, an undiscovered gem, and a pretty forgettable dud. The world, as they say, is a rainbow.
Once upon a time, I would have called William Malone’s 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill one of the most underrated horror movies of the ’90s. But like so many other films that have the benefit of time and distance, a cult of fandom has developed around the remake in the almost two decades since it was released. The first film from Dark Castle Entertainment, the production company formed in part by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, House on Haunted Hill does precisely what a good remake should do: it uses the bones of the original premise to create something new. Truth be told, the remake is more successful than its predecessor in achieving what director William Castle was after in his 1959 original: it’s fun, but it’s also actually scary.
Geoffrey Rush ably fills Vincent Price’s shoes as Steven Price, an eccentric amusement park titan who rents an abandoned mental hospital (and the site of a horrific slaughter years earlier) to throw a birthday party for his wife (Famke Janssen). The guests who arrive are all strangers, not the people Price invited, but so be it. He offers each of them $1 million if they can stay and survive the night; anyone who dies has his or her million divided up among the remaining survivors. Of course, the guests soon realize they’re not alone in the hospital, and that living long enough to collect their money is going to be a lot harder than they think.
The best of all the Dark Castle remakes (a list that also includes House of Wax, Thir13en Ghosts, and Ghost Ship), House on Haunted Hill strikes just the right balance of being fun and irreverent while still taking the horror very seriously, conjuring up some effective and disturbing images. Sure, there are ghosts that look like evil Rorschach ink blots or Satanic doilies, and there’s a heavy reliance on late-’90s “shaky guy” syndrome, but they’re mostly used to good effect, and, as Malone points out on the Blu-ray’s special features, were done quite often in camera. The abandoned hospital offers great creepy atmosphere, the scares happen early and often, and the ensemble cast is terrific together. Even Chris Kattan, then hot on Saturday Night Live, is effective in his role as the one guy who knows this is all a bad idea. He’s funny, but only because his reactions are nervous and believable, not because he’s going for cheap laughs or used purely as comic relief. No one is having more fun than Janssen and Geoffrey Rush, though, and House on Haunted Hill is worth seeing just to watch the two of them spar with one another.
It’s hard to believe that the movie hasn’t been available on Blu-ray to this point, but now I’m glad it’s Scream Factory that is giving it a long overdue HD debut as one of their “Collector’s Edition” titles. The film is presented in a new 2K scan, ensuring it looks better than it ever has before and bringing life to director William Malone’s very deliberate washed-out palette. There’s a pretty lengthy new interview with Malone to complement his commentary track, ported over from the original DVD release, as well as new interviews with special effects supervisor Robert Skotak and composer Don Davis. There’s a gallery of never-before-seen storyboards, concept drawings, and behind-the-scenes photos, plus the usual promotional gallery of trailers, TV spots, posters, and production stills. The remaining bonus features, including two archival featurettes and some deleted scenes, have been carried over from the original DVD as well.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5
As much as I enjoy House on Haunted Hill ’99, the real crown jewel of Scream Factory’s recent output is the new-to-Blu Scream For Help, directed by Michael Winner and written by horror royalty Tom Holland. This 1984 offering stars Rachael Kelly (in her third and final acting role ever) as a teenage girl who suspects her stepfather, Paul Fox (David Allen Brooks), is trying to murder her mother to collect an inheritance. There are twists throughout the movie I won’t spoil here, but that’s the basic setup, as outlined by the literal first line of dialogue in the film.
Words can’t do justice to the insanity of Scream for Help, a movie which presents itself as a traditional thriller but is not traditional in any way. Nothing about it adheres to rules of narrative storytelling or filmmaking as we know them, but not intentionally so. It is, I’m sorry to say, completely inept despite being made by people who have all done good work somewhere else. Holland can’t really be blamed, as he explains on an interview included here that his script was altered so severely that it no longer made sense, eventually inspiring him to direct Fright Night in 1985 because he no longer trusted another director with his screenplay. Michael Winner has made crazy, tasteless movies before, but he’s also made genuinely good movies like Death Wish and The Sentinel. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones contributes a score that is wrongheaded in every single way, part TV-movie, part melodrama, and it’s played wall to wall across the movie whether it fits a given moment or not. The editing makes almost no sense, the acting is bizarre and atonal. It all comes together in a movie so singular and completely crazy that it’s one of the most entertaining titles you’ll see all year. It’s not good, but it is kind of great.
Scream Factory gives Scream for Help a new 2K scan and a host of new bonus features, including the aforementioned interview with Holland (who is quite candid about his frustration and disappointment with how the finished film turned out) and an interview with star David Brooks, who covers part of his career, how he came to be involved with the film, and his approach to playing this kind of deceptive character. A very enjoyable commentary has been contributed from Justin Karswell, author of the slasher movie book Hysteria Lives!, and TV movie expert Amanda Reyes, author of Are You Alone in the House? They approach the movie with the right amount of affection and bafflement, which is really the only way to appreciate it. Theirs is a fun discussion.
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5
Finally there’s The Bride, Columbia Pictures’ lavish attempt at adapting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the ’80s crowd. The titular bride is played by Jennifer Beals, hot off of becoming a household name in Flashdance, while Dr. Frankenstein is played by Sting because it was 1985. The great Clancy Brown dons prosthetics to play the monster and has all of the best stuff in the movie alongside David Rappaport (of Time Bandits fame) as the pair travels the east European countryside and the monster—now named Viktor—learns about what it means to be human.
I know that the cast and director Franc Roddam all mean well with The Bride, and the film represents an interesting attempt to make a “classy” adult interpretation of a classic horror novel at a time when horror was exploding with rubber monsters and gore effects and slashers. It’s very handsomely made and positively drenched in gothic atmosphere. Nothing about The Bride really fits within the framework of ’80s horror, and for that the movie should be commended. But not much about The Bride works especially well, either. It’s stiff and stodgy and overly long, and worst of all never really knows what questions it’s interested in answering. The “why” of the remake never comes into focus beyond focusing more on Beals’ Bride character, who hadn’t been the subject of her own movie to this point (even James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein only introduces Elsa Lanchester in the last 10 minutes). What it has to say about her character is nothing new, nor is her relationship to Dr. Frankenstein, played by Sting in what is a perfectly fine performance, but can only be explained as stunt casting. The movie’s saving grace is Clancy Brown, who presents a new interpretation of Frankenstein’s monster that is touching and sweet and moving, making me wish the entire movie was just about his friendship and adventures with his pal Rinaldo. Now that might be something.
While I desperately wanted to see The Bride as a little kid because I was aware of its gothic horror origins and assumed it to be a remake of the James Whale movie, I had forgotten about it for the last 25 years. I suspect many of us have, which is why I’m happy to see Scream Factory rescuing it from semi-obscurity and adding it to their ever-growing catalogue of HD titles. I may not love the film, but it no doubt has its fans and they deserve to own it in the best presentation possible. Bonus features are more limited on this disc, but they’re still quite good: director Roddam contributes both an on-camera interview and a new commentary track, giving a clearer picture of what went into the making of the movie and what he hoped to accomplish. The best special feature, though, is a new interview with Clancy Brown, an actor who makes everything in which he appears better and who gives a thoughtful discussion on the craft of acting, his career, and his experience making The Bride. It’s good stuff.
Movie Score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 3/5