Two of my all-time favorite horror movies are the 1959 William Castle gimmicker "House on Haunted Hill" and its deliciously demented 1999 remake. Both films are woefully underrated, and both films embraced their status as B-grade shockers. My love for these movies is what led me to welcome, not bemoan, the idea of a direct-to-video sequel to the remake. Even if a cash-grab sequel couldn't maintain the high level of ghoulish fun of its predecessors, surely it would still contain some sense of devilish charm, right?
My mistake. The clumsily titled "Return to House on Haunted Hill" is straight-up awful, hampered by a deliriously inane screenplay (from rookie scribe William Massa) and direction (courtesy effects vet and first-time feature helmer Víctor García) that takes the dimwitted story so gosh darn seriously that the viewer becomes immediately embarrassed for everyone involved. Remember that great line from the 1999 remake, with Geoffrey Rush gushing about a roller coaster that starts with "twenty stories worth of top"? "Return" is a movie that starts with twenty stories worth of bottom. And it's all drop from there.
Here's what the sequel gives us: years after all those nice folks got killed at that cliff-side insane asylum (book your birthday party today!), one of the survivors, Sara (played by Ali Larter in the original, and by a faceless extra here), has gone more or less insane from the memories, eventually killing herself. Her suicide attracts the attention of sister Ariel (Amanda Righetti), a magazine editor who also gets entangled in a plot to find the "Baphomet Idol," a cursed statue thingie that's worth millions and hidden away somewhere inside the asylum. Her entanglement lands her in the company of a gang of gun-totin' treasure hunters (among them a lesbian martial artist, a former ultimate fighting champ, and Erik Palladino!), who drag her along for the search. Meanwhile, a smarmy professor, smartass assistant, and buxom student have all come to the asylum looking for the idol.
This alone is enough dumbassery for three or four DTV movies (did I mention the lesbian martial artist?), and we're just getting started. It turns out that all the ghosts in the asylum are trapped there by the powers of the idol, which acts as an on switch of sorts for the undead - destroy the idol, and the ghosts will move on to greener pastures. Destroying it will prove difficult indeed, partially because the characters are such imbeciles that their first attempt at such a task is to shoot it (!), partially because the idol itself resides in a dingy core - the "heart" - of the building, and getting there is dangerous business, what with all those ghosts pulling out your entrails and whatnot.
In order to up the gore quotient, the filmmakers give us a steady stream of ghost flashbacks. Every time a spirit attacks a character, we get a quickie blue-tinted sequence showing how the mad Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs, the lone returning cast member) tortured his patients. Flashing forward, we watch as these ghosts then return the favor.
Problem is, García and Massa mistake gore for scares, and so they ignore any attempt at tension. "Kill scenes" just sort of pop in at random throughout the story, leaving a plot that's too disjointed to ever work as a whole. Gore hounds may approve of some of these sequences on an individual basis, but the film moves from death scene to death scene so clumsily, and the kills, while definitely grisly, are presented in such a drab, generic style, that even the hardest of hardcore horror fans will find themselves bored far more than thrilled.
The cardboard characters are played by mostly cardboard actors, the usual sort of up-and-comers forced to stumble their way through the most ridiculous nonsense imaginable. Only Andrew Lee Potts, as the smartass assistant, makes any impression (his comic timing rescues a couple of tiny moments); the rest are remembered only for either their cup size or their character's method of death. And come to think of it, I barely remember how most of 'em died, and I just watched the damn thing.
"Return to House on Haunted Hill" premieres on home video in several wildly dissimilar editions. On standard DVD, there is the 82-minute movie proper, labeled as the "unrated edition," and a 79-minute edited version, rated R. The unrated cut is the edition reviewed here; not having seen the R-rated cut (they hit stores the same day), I cannot attest to any differences, although I assume it's all a matter of minor snippets of sex and gore and nothing actually relevant to the story.
On HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, meanwhile, you get both the unrated edition and the "Navigational Cinema" version of the movie. This is the film reworked as a "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style game. At certain points throughout the feature, the viewer is presented with two outcomes for the given scene; select your choice with your remote, and the movie continues as instructed. The movie's official website promises 96 possible outcomes, which sounds like a lot until you realize that this does not mean 96 separate endings, but merely 96 ways in which the story can play out. (Heck, take any four characters, shuffle the order in which they get killed, and that's 24 different outcomes right there, all with more or less the same end result: four dead idiots.)
Of course, I haven't seen the movie in this version, so it's probably iffy of me to make such comments, which are all mostly assumptions. So I urge you to instead wait for DVD Talk's upcoming review of the title's HD-DVD release.
Update! Adam's HD-DVD review, available to read here, pretty much confirms my suspicions about the branching version of the film. Click away to see what Adam had to say.
Video & Audio
One upside to the recent DTV boom is an increased budget for such titles. While still relatively cheap when compared to theatrical releases, the added attention (Warner even has a couple of imprints to handle their DTV efforts; Warner Premiere tackled this one) and cash does let a modest picture look pretty darn good. "Return" arrives with a spiffy anamorphic (2.40:1) transfer - a flick made for the home video market yet still shot in wide, wide widescreen - and a beefed-up Dolby 5.1 surround soundtrack. Both are impressive. The widescreen imagery comes across cleanly, with the blue-tinted flashbacks (ripping off a visual gimmick of the remake) and deep, rich black levels putting this on par with most theatrical releases.
The soundtrack, meanwhile, is not overloaded with surround gimmickry, and the bass is rather restrained (most horror flicks really let that lower register rip), and the result is very solid. A workable, if less impressive, Spanish dub is included (also in 5.1), as are optional subtitles in Spanish, French, and English for the Hearing Impaired.
"Return" comes bloated with some mighty obnoxious bonus features. "Return to House on Haunted Hill Confessionals" is a collection of nineteen bite-sized clips (16:01 total) mixing movie clips with footage of the cast talking in character about the plot. It's like watching a cast's improvisational warm-up routine that just won't end. "The Search for an Idol: Dr. Richard Hammer's Quest" (2:51) is along the same lines, with actor Steven Pacey chatting about his character's history. These are a major snooze, considering the movie itself doesn't bother to do anything with the characters, so we never come to care about what they think outside of the story. (These extras are presented in 1.78:1 flat letterbox, with movie clips shown at 2.40:1 letterbox.)
Four deleted scenes (7:45 total) add nothing to the story. These do not appear to include any footage from the "Navigational Cinema" edition. (Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic.)
Video for dopey metal band Mushroomhead's dopey metal song "Simply Survival" (3:15) is dopey and metal. And lame. (Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic.)
Previews for "The Reaping" and "Blade Runner" play as the disc loads; you can skip past them if you choose.
You'd think with all this effort to launch a new way of watching movies, the producers would have bothered to ensure the movie was actually worth watching. Seen here on its own, without the "Choose You Own Adventure" enhancements, we discover that the film's nothing but a sloppy, boring gorefest. Skip It.