House On Haunted Hill (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) This gets a lot of points for actually being scary, even if only for a while. The first hour is quite creepy, with enough ominous signs and sights to really make us believe that something baaad is going to happen to these six strangers stuck in an abandoned mental hospital… The sound effects are terrific in a good digital theatre, and the various “instruments” of primitive mental therapy (surgical blades, electroshocks, etc…) lying around cast a decidedly hair-raising spell on the proceedings. With the eerie visuals (vibrating faces and video-ghosts sent a good ol’chill down my spine) and the sudden noises, it’s easy to forget the lousy dialogue and the unconvincing characters. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. Once Price is out of the mad box, sixty minutes into the film, there’s still a worthwhile thirty minutes of “human terror” (solid if not spectacular) but as soon as the CGI creature comes out of the closet, all the suspense disappears. Poof. Bad CGI (Smoke in Dark Shadows? Please!) runs after the too-obvious heroes and frankly, we’ve seen all of this before—usually much better done. You often hear critics lament the advent of digital special effects, but House On Haunted Hill features the purest enters-CGI-exits-tension effect I’ve witnessed. A shame, because the first hour really isn’t all that bad.

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