The original House on Haunted Hill -- well, not the original, but you know what I mean -- opened with a shot of a rollercoaster, and I don't think that was a coincidence. Yeah, I know this is one of the stalest analogies an armchair movie critic can throw out there, but William Malone's remake of the Vincent Price classic really felt like a rollercoaster ride. It was sopping with blood and latex guts, sure, but House on Haunted Hill was a thrill ride...a campy, cacklingly dark hell of a good time.
Flash forward eight years, and now we're lookin' at Return to House on Haunted Hill, a title that should probably have a "the" in there somewhere. We're talking about a direct-to-video sequel to a remake, so some sort of ingenious, genre-rattling flick that redefines the face of horror...? Not so much. The story's pretty much a retread of what we got the last time around, with a gaggle of thinly-written characters once again marching into Vannacutt's haunted sanitarium. You've got your smarmy, heavily armed gun-for-hire Desmond (Erik Palladino) and his small army of thugs who are eyeing the finger-wagglingly-e-e-e-e-e-vil Baphomet idol in the hopes of pulling out a multimillion dollar payday for one of their clients. There's also Ariel Wolfe (Amanda Righetti), the gorgeous workaholic editor of a skin mag whose recently-offed sister Sara lost her mind escaping from the house a few years back, and she's shoved into the sanitarium at gunpoint with her photographer kinda-sorta-boyfriend. Dr. Richard Hammer, Desmond's one-time mentor, has spent decades searching for the statue in the hopes of lugging it over to a museum for all the world to see, with a quippy T.A. and one of his busty, kinda haggard, sexpot students (Cerina Vincent) in tow.
First-time screenwriter William Massa throws in a couple of lightly-meta winks to horror fans, having one of his characters joke about whether or not it's all that great of an idea to split up in a haunted house, and one of the first things they set out to do once inside is disable the mechanism that locked down the Vannacutt Institute in the previous flick, hoping to stave off the whole spam-in-a-sanitarium thing. While that little bit of effort is appreciated, it doesn't really amount to anything. They're all eventually locked inside anyway, and after splitting up to cover more ground in their search for the completely arbitrary Macguffi...I mean, Baphomet idol, the ghost of Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs) and the deranged spirits of the nutjobs he and his staff cruelly butchered a lifetime ago knock 'em off one by one.
Return to House on Haunted Hill doesn't have the wickedly charming cast and demented sense of humor of Malone's flick, but for a low-budget direct-to-video sequel, it knows the drill. The movie's too short and much too fast paced to ever get boring, clocking in just over 70 minutes minus credits. There's a good bit of completely shameless nudity, and with seasoned make-up effects vet Víctor García stepping behind the camera as a director for the first time, it kinda follows that there are barrel drums of blood and a hell of a lot of splatter. Gripe about Return to House on Haunted Hill all you want, but at least it earns the "Unrated" banner on the top of the case. We're looking at a ghostly gunshot to the head, disemboweling, waifish lesbian ghosts, a botched facelift, bobbing for corpses, a brain-ectomy, linen-fu, film projector-fu, Kentucky fried zombies, a refidgamator so so messy, and a par-broiled badnik. Just for the hell of it, throw in some floating chairs, a Mexican standoff, and an Irene Miracle-ish wet T-shirt dive, and there's your movie. Nah, it doesn't really rank any higher than "okay, I guess", but Return to House on Haunted Hill is pretty much the movie it sets out to be.
One thing that helps Return to House on Haunted Hill stand out from the glut of other direct-to-video horror flicks is the way it puts viewers in control. The movie can be watched in the same unrated cut that's floating around on DVD, but the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions also branch off and let the audience pick what course the story should take.
The promotional copy is kinda misleading, though; the packaging claims that there are 96 different versions of the movie on here, but it really boils down to a set of seven questions, each giving the viewer two different choices. At least as far as I can tell, it's not like a Choose Your Own Adventure story where your choices cascade, with each step you take directly influencing the next. With just one exception, the decisions viewers have to make don't leave any sort of lasting impact, with each chunk of footage ending pretty much the same way no matter what you select. It's more about what you want to see for the next few minutes rather than drastically changing the course of the movie. I mean, when asked if your gun-toting Asian lesbian should keep groping a couple of nekkid Eastern European model types, one answer is drenched in Ultraslime and has a much grislier end, while the other keeps amping up the tits and ass quotient. They're both worth seeing, sure, but Harue disappears from the movie either way, and it doesn't change the way the rest of the movie unfolds from there.
Several of the branches serve up more in the way of splatter, and one of 'em adds another layer of betrayal even if the movie ultimately doesn't follow up on it. There's only one question that really alters the story, ending the movie prematurely and on a much less supernatural note. Yeah, this is all more of a gimmick than anything else, but it's still a neat gimmick, and I enjoyed digging through the movie a few times and trying out all of the different options. To make it easier to check out all of the different paths Return to House on Haunted Hill can take, the disc gives you a chance to try out different answers after the end credits roll. The branching is really smooth, virtually instantaneous on my PS3 and a heckuva lot faster than the HD DVD I reviewed a few months back.
Video: Most direct-to-video horror flicks these days are composed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, but Return to House on Haunted Hill winds up with a more cinematic framing at 2.39:1. The overall quality is alright but unexceptional. The image tends to look pretty flat, and although crispness and clarity are both considerably improved over what I'd expect from a well-mastered DVD, they don't rank any higher than average for a high-def release. Since most of Return to House on Haunted Hill is set at night in a crumbling, decrepit sanitarium, it kinda follows that it's not all that colorful a movie, with the crimson reds in its palette being the notable exception. The photography is fairly grainy throughout, in keeping with the kinda gritty, low-budget aesthetic that horror leans towards these days.
One odd thing is that Return to House on Haunted Hill looks as if it was shot on HD video and processed to give it more of a film-like appearance, but at the same time, there are quite a few tiny white specks that pepper the image. I dunno if that means it actually was shot on film and Warner just opted not to do their usual digital scrubbing this time around.
Audio: The sound design in this Dolby Digital 5.1 track really doesn't kick in until everyone's piled into the sanitarium. Even though the mix never really gets all that aggressive, it still keeps the surrounds busy enough, cramming in ghostly shrieks, creaking metal, torrential downpours, echoing footsteps, and, um, chairs tumbling down from the ceiling. Bass response is modest but generally alright, churning out a low frequency belch to bolster such effects as the house going into lockdown and a bit of rumbling thunder. A couple of stretches of dialogue sound lightly clipped, but it's not a persistent problem. The short version is that Return to House on Haunted Hill has the same sort of sound design as a lot of TV shows that are in 5.1, anchored towards the front, using the surrounds for light atmosphere and to reinforce some of the action, and rarely coaxing all that much of a rattle from the subwoofer. 'Sokay.
The English Dolby Digital audio is the only soundtrack on here, but subtitles are also offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
Extras: There aren't any of the usual interviews or making-of featurettes this time around. That's kind of a drag since the 'choose your own adventure' concept coupled with the fact that the movie was written and directed by first-time filmmakers could've made for some pretty good stuff.
The only of the disc's extras to be presented in high definition is a set of four deleted scenes. Running right at eight minutes in total, they're pretty much just additional snippets of dialogue: Desmond's smirking response to the idea of the group splitting up in a haunted house, a quick interior designer gag, a much-too-long lead-up to the couch kill, and Ariel explaining why she came back and following up on her sister's escape from the original movie. Deleted scenes -- especially ones in high-def -- are always appreciated, but these really aren't all that great.
Also included is a standard definition, anamorphic widescreen music video for Mushroomhead's "Simple Survival", which alternates between some kinda shoddy digital video performance footage and a few short chunks from the flick.
The rest of the disc's extras are all performed in character. "The Search for an Idol: Dr. Richard Hammer's Quest" (3 min.) has the good doctor gabbing about the history of the elusive Baphomet idol and what the mysterious artifact has represented over countless centuries. Finally, there are 16 minutes' worth of character confessionals, as if Return to House on Haunted Hill were an MTV reality show instead of a blood-soaked, direct-to-video sequel. It's really just the movie's characters, one after another, recapping the plot between scenes and yakking about what's bubbling around in their heads. I'm not sure if this was supposed to be some sort of viral marketing thing or what. A couple of characters do get fleshed out a bit more -- Harue, particularly -- but none of it really matters in the end. Anyway, all of this footage is letterboxed but not enhanced for widescreen displays.
I guess I'm counting the different branching points as an extra, and that helps beef up the overall score.
Conclusion: Eh, Return to House on Haunted Hill is a mediocre direct-to-video horror sequel, so you know how these one or two sentence summaries are supposed to go. It's okay -- worth a rental for fans of the original or just to check out the novelty of the 'navigational cinema' feature -- but I wouldn't recommend shelling out twenty-someodd bucks to buy a copy. Rent It.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.