House On Haunted Hill '99

Just thought I'd squeeze in a catalog title during a quick break between all these new releases.  This is one where, just going over my own site here, I was surprised to realize I hadn't already covered it.  I've done the original House On Haunted Hill, and I actually had the cover scans and screenshots from this version sitting on my hard drive for years.  I'd compared the DVD and Blu-ray for my own edification, noting the aspect ratio shift and which extras had been carried over from the new to the old edition.  I just never... wrote it up.  Whoops.  Well, it still definitely deserves to be up on this site, so okay, here we finally go.
House On Haunted Hill '99 is the first feature from Dark Castle Entertainment, a production company dedicated to remaking William Castle films, though they only did this and Thirteen Ghosts before branching off into other projects.  And sure, remaking William Castle at the on-set sounded like a terrible idea, and I can't say I was a rush to watch this when it was announced.  It's only thanks to the fact that us horror fans ultimately wind up watching everything that I did wind up catching this in theaters and being surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
Because, actually, William Castle films are kind of the ideal to remake.  Because they're fun, they stand up as much or more on their premise than their execution, and yet they're not artistic masterpieces.  You know, you don't want to remake a piece of crap, because who wants to be associated with that?  But you don't want to remake the greatest works ever, because yours will always be the inferior option.  House On Haunted Hill gives you enough to work with, and enough room to innovate and build upon. It's why remakes like The Fly and The Thing work, but A Nightmare On Elm St and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while maybe not terrible, essentially don't.  ...Although someday, I'm sure some artist with a strong vision will come along and knock that pat little theory down.  But it's a decent rule of thumb for now.
This House On Haunted Hill stays reasonably faithful to the original, not just sticking to the same premise of a group of people staying the night in a haunted house in order to claim big prize money.  They follow most of the same twists, retaining everything that worked the first time, while still throwing in enough new scares to keep you on your toes, and Geoffrey Rush not only lives up to Vincent Price's signature performance, but revitalizes his central relationship with his hated wife.  But it's also ready to replace what doesn't work, from the creaky effects and corny scares to secondary characters who could be recast and reinvigorated to advantage.  The production values have increased to give us a bigger, more impressive house and cutting edge special effects by KNB and Dick Smith.  And the supporting cast here is full of noteworthy faces including a delectably vampy Famke Janssen, Jeffrey Combs in an all too small role, an admittedly slightly stiff Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, and a surprisingly great turn by SNL alumni Chris Kattan.  The ending kind of lays an egg, going a couple twists too far and throwing in a cheese-ball CGI climax.  But by then, you've had so much fun, how can you not forgive it?
So, House On Haunted Hill's history on home video is pretty short and simple.  Warner Bros released it as a new release in 2000 (yes, it was a snap-case) as a pretty rewarding special edition DVD.  And that was basically the whole story until Scream Factory eventually snapped it up and gave it an even full Collector's Edition blu-ray in 2018, just in time for Halloween.  And it's still the go-to release to this day.  So let's see how much Scream improved things.
2000 Warner Bros DVD top; 2018 Scream Factory BD bottom.
Enough time passed between the two that Scream Factory didn't just try to slap the old DVD master onto an HD disc.  Scream has given us a new 2k scan from "the original film elements," which clearly means not the negative (or they would've said so), but definitely an upgrade, though even the DVD was anamorphic and quite respectable.  The first thing to note is that the aspect ratio shifts from 1.78:1 to a more accurate 1.85:1, tightening up not just on the top and bottom, but on the left.  Colors have been re-timed, and while it can be subjective shot to shot, overall, I'd say they're more distinct and attractive on the blu.  It's certainly a boost in resolution, with small detail cleaning up nicely.  Film grain is soft, there's still room for further improvement in the 4k era, but it's a welcome step up from the DVD.

Both discs offer the original 5.1 mix with optional English subtitles.  The DVD also has French subs, and the BD bumps the audio up to DTS-HD.
Now, as I said, the special features were already pretty nice on the DVD, starting with an enthusiastic audio commentary by director William Malone with a lot of good information about the filming, earlier cuts, etc.  There's a great 20-minute featurette comparing the remake to the original, and a series of very short featurettes detailing each scary set-piece in the film, centered around an on-camera interview with Malone intercut with clips and behind the scenes photos.  There are four deleted scenes, including a whole excised subplot featuring Debi Mazar, so it's surprising those got cut.  And all those deleted scenes are introduced by Malone.  Plus, there are trailers for both House On Haunted Hills and a highlight reel from Malone's early film, Creature.

Scream Factory keeps all of that except for the trailer of the original House and the clips from Creature.  But they've added brand new on-camera interviews with Malone, composer Don Davis and effects supervisor Robert Skotak.  Plus they've added three stills galleries and two TV spots.  Scream's release also comes with reversible artwork and a slipcover, plus a poster if you ordered directly from Shout's site.
So at the end of the day, this may not be a showroom floor release, but it's a fun, all-around BD of a fun all-around film.  Even the DVD was good, but this is worth the upgrade.  Yes, there's room for further improvement with a stronger scan and maybe some cast interviews.  But short of a full-blown 4k restoration - it's likely the case that they're just working with an older DCP with finished digital effects, so grain detail and such is just what it is outside of an all-out reconstruction - it's unlikely anyone will be going back to the well for this little flick.  And it may not be a classic, but it's one that deserves a spot on your shelf.

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