House on Haunted Hill - * 1/2*

The second of this year’s haunted house movies (following the lackluster The Haunting), House on Haunted Hill proves mildly thrilling, but ends up fatally flawed.

Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) is the millionaire master of horror. An amusement park king who makes life-and-death thrills his life’s goal, Price has found a new deadly game. For the birthday of his despised trophy wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), he decides to hold a deadly party in the House on Haunted Hill.

The House, as it is known, used to be an asylum in the 1930s. The evil Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs) used the inmates as test subjects for his sickening and deadly medical experiments. His career was ended when the inmates rebelled, and nearly everyone in the asylum was killed in a devastating fire. But the House has remained haunted by their spirits ever since.

Now, an ecclectic group of party guests are summoned by Price to the House. There’s a baseball player (Taye Diggs), a movie producer (Ali Larter), an TV reporter (Bridgette Wilson), a doctor (Peter Gallagher), and the nervous descendant of the house’s former owner (Chris Kattan). Price offers the guests an interesting deal: survive the night, and collect $1,000,000 in cash. However, the task will prove more difficult than anyone (including Price) knows.

Though endlessly cheesy, The House on Haunted Hill actually starts out entertainingly. Starting with a gimmicky, but thrilling, teaser, the film’s haunted house scares up plenty of thrills. The jerky stop-motion movement of the ghosts is creepy and eerie, despite being one of the film’s cheaper effects.

However, two thirds of the way through the film, things veer sharply off course. Deciding that homicidal ghosts weren’t nearly deadly enough, House on Haunted Hill unleashes a new all-powerful monster that makes little sense. The fragile sense of suspense and terror is instantly shattered, and the film corrodes into an inky blot.

Half of the fun in these movies is picking a favorite character and rooting for him/her to be the last left standing. In House on Haunted Hill, it’s trivially easy to figure out who is going to survive the night. That only leaves the lesser thrill of seeing the “unique” death situations…something which quickly turns monotonous.

The cast is more talented than your typical horror show ensemble. Despite being saddled with weak dialogue and weaker characters, they display a range of personalities, many of which are enjoyable. Chris Kattan and Geoffrey Rush particularly stand out, providing plenty of humor and showmanship.

House on Haunted Hill is by no means a great film. It’s barely a mediocre film. But, if you’re in the mood for a few scares, you’ll find some inside.

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