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THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL: The Director Speaks
William Malone on helming a remake of William Castle's camp classic.
By Steve Biodrowski
October 29, 1999
William Malone has vivid childhood memories of viewing William Castle's tongue-in-cheek horror opus, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, so it seems appropriate that he should have been tapped to direct a remake. After all, we've entered an era when seemingly every fondly remembered pop artifact of our youth is being recycled now that our generation is actually old enough to be making movies. Having seen the film as a child is almost more important than having directorial experience (although Malone has his fair share, having helmed the low-budget features SCARED TO DEATH and CREATURE).
Of course, the oeuvre of the late William Castle is hardly as cherished as that of Alfred Hitchcock or Robert Wise (to pick two other filmmakers whose works have been recycled for the '90s). But what difference does that make? Castle was a consummate showman with a solid grasp of the basic mechanics of suspense filmmaking. As a director, he knew how to put together the elements that would make a film work, and as a producer he knew how to use outrageous promotional gimmicks to get viewers into the theatre. Perhaps more important than that, Castle's relative obscurity is actually a bonus for those embarking on a remake. After all, unlike the situation with Gus Van Zant's retooled PSYCHO, it's not as if there are any cries of 'sacrilege!' from outraged critics rushing to defend the original against desecration.
The inspiration for the remake came from two sources: William Castle's daughter Terry, on the one hand, and producers Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, on the other. Silver and Zemeckis are the blockbuster filmmakers who previously teamed on TALES FROM THE CRYPT. A planned series of feature films based on that successful HBO television series came to a halt after the box office failure of BORDELLO OF BLOOD, but Zemeckis and Silver remained optimistic about the viability of mid-budget horror films. In fact, they formed a new company, Dark Castle, for the express purpose of making such films. Meanwhile, Terry Castle was in the process of trying to mount a remake of her late father's HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Upon finding that the powerhouse producers were also interested in a remake (the original is a favorite of Zemeckis, who wrote a college paper on it), she joined forces with them to help track down and secure the rights.
Malone was selected to helm the new version, on the basis of his previous work with Zemeckis and Silver (on episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPT and PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE). He calls the original 'an interesting picture' that has both strengths and weaknesses. 'Obviously, I went back and looked at it again before we started to do the remake,' he recalls. 'I think the strength of it is that the characters were fairly well drawn; I love the interplay between Vincent Price and his wife in the film. As a matter of fact, that's something that we tried to hang on to, because I thought that was one of the more interesting parts of the film. In retrospect, the thing that didn't work is that there are some major holes in the plot that don't make any sense, but you kind of overlook thoseit was a fun picture.'
The prime question of course was whether there was any point to a remake. After all, the first film is essentially a vehicle for the Vincent Price signature brand of bemused villainy ('I'm always evil in a clear, clean way,' the late actor once opined, 'which makes me good in a reverse sort of aestheticism.') Malone, being a horror fan himself, was well aware of Price's contribution to the original. 'I think he was great. Vincent Price was really, I think, an underrated actor; he gave some fine performances. Of course in some pictures he was a little over the top, but I think generally that's what was demanded, given the pictures he was doing. A lot of his stuff is really terrific.'
So then, without the star's presence, was there really a way to remake this film? 'Can you ever remake any film?' Malone asks rhetorically. 'Maybe that's the larger question. I don't have an answer for that. I guess the answer's no, because you don't have those actors. In our picture, I think Geoffrey Rush, who plays the Vincent Price role, came as close as anybody could to being Vincent Price, although that was not his intention. A lot of people commented, after seeing the film, that his performance is not a copy of Vincent Price, but it carries the same spiritwhich is wonderful.' (In fact, the character has been renamed Price, in honor of the late actor.'
Minus the original star, what made the project worth doing a second time? 'Well, I think, one of the things that drew me to it was the opportunity to do a haunted house picture, which I had wanted to do for a long time because there were a lot of things I wanted to explore,' Malone explained. 'Again, I think that the original film, while it's a great film and a very charming film, is not without flaws, and is the kind of picture that could be remade without doing damage to the original. That attracted me to it. And it held a lot of possibilities in the story.'
Malone explored those possibilities with writer Dick Beebe, fashioning a new screenplay based on Robb White's script for the original. 'Dick and I got together and hammered out a complete storyline, came up with what was going to happen,' said Malone. 'That was a pretty collaborative effort. Then I did some writing on the screenplay, and he wrote the lion's share of it. Dick is certainly a guy who likes the written word, and he appreciated the original movie for a lot of the smarter things in it, and retained that. What Dick brought to it, really, was the characters.'
Malone also wanted to retain the bitter, biting relationship between the lead characters, which he considers one of the strengths of the original. Nonetheless, Malone believes Beebe managed to make some improvements. 'If you look at the original screenplay, a lot of the dialogue was quite good, but some of that stuff wasn't developed because they didn't have the time in the original picture. I think we made more of an effort to develop that stuff.'
Despite their admiration for the original, Malone and Beebe drastically revised the story for their version. 'We basically just retained the set up, which is the whole idea about a millionaire who invites people to spend the might at the house, and there's a few of the events that are of a similar nature,' said Malone.
'Really, after the guests arrive at the house, it veers off fairly drastically. In fact, even the opening of the picture is a good deal different from the original film. We did cling to the original premise, because there's no point in doing a remake if you're not going to.'
The writing team also tried to fix the weak points in the original. 'We tried to fill some of the plot holes. Also, one of the things that bothered me in the original picture was, when I was a kid, I was disappointed that there were no real ghosts. The original plays like an Agatha Christie film, because there are no ghosts in the film; even though they keep talking about them, we never see any evidence. It's just a ruse to make people think that these murders are being done by ghosts. In the new version, we've addressed those issues. There are definitely supernatural things at play. Actually, a friend of mine saw the picture and thought it was very Lovecraftianwhich I take as a high compliment.'
A negative pick up for a major studio (Warner Brothers), The House on Haunted Hill is much bigger than Malone's previous feature films, yet the budget was still limited when compared to the competition, such as DreamWorks' CGI-laden The Haunting. The restrictions limited what could be realized on set, compared to what had been imagined in pre-production. 'Everyday there's something different that you have to deal with, just trying to make these great ideas work,' explained Malone. 'A lot of times you have great ideas in prep, but when it comes time to do it, it's a different ball game. You want the picture to be scary, and a lot of time you design stuff and when you get to the set, you say, 'Man, we don't have time to do this. That's for the $100-million version of the movie.''
Nevertheless, there were moments that clicked. 'There's one particular scene, and unfortunately I was sick the entire time,' he recalled. 'We did one scene where Famke's character gets electrocuted. We wound up spending three days on it, which seemed rather lavish at the time. It was just great, because we were able to extract the moments out of it and make every moment play. I felt really good about it, even though physically I wasn't feeling that well. Actually, that was the time I had to have Geoffrey [Rush] call action. I'd wave at him, and he'd yell 'action!' I think he got into liking that too much!'
Malone found working with his high-powered Hollywood producers no problem. 'Bob is an interesting guy. He's a really easy guy to get along with. He addresses things in a nuts and bolts kind of way, which is refreshing. Joel is a very powerful producer, and he works very hard at putting the right elements together. It was Joel who, bless his heart, got us Geoffrey Rush. Geoffrey was on my list, but I never in a million years thought we would get him to play this part.'
Malone is equally enthusiastic about the film's other producer. 'We had Terry Castle on board, which was great. She was on as one of the producers, and she was there on set, not just in name only, nearly everyday. In fact, she gave me William Castle's book that he used to carry, to put the script in. It had his name on it, which was a great thrill for me. She was a real delight.'
Malone says that working with Rush was one of the great pleasures of making the film. 'It was great. He's just a delight. He had to keep leaving to do Academy Award stuff while we were doing the film. He was a real gentleman, and I got the impression he was extremely excited to be doing the movie. I never for a minute felt like he was downplaying his role in this at all.' As far as directing the Oscar-winning actor, Malone took a mostly hands-off approach. 'I think, whatever an actor brings, you have to go with their instincts, because that's why you hired them in the first place. Geoffrey's got great instincts.'
The casting of Rush gave the film a stamp-of-approval that attracted other talent. 'He's such a fine actor,' said Malone. 'Once we had Geoffrey, it helped us get a really fine cast. The performances are all solid. That starts with having somebody like Geoffrey on board.'
One of those solid performances, which helpd Rush to recreate the bitter marital relationship from the original film, was supplied by the alluring femme fatale Famke Janssen (who made such a wonderful impression in GOLDENEYE). 'She was great in the picture,' Malone enthuses. 'She comes off really well and very smart. They have an interesting tête-à-tête on screen.'
There was another Jeffrey in the film (although the name is, obviously, spelled differently). Jeffrey Combs is known to science fiction fans for his appearances on Deep Space 9 and to horror fans for his starring role in the cult classic Reanimator. Malone was thrilled to have the talented character actor appearing as one of the film's ghosts, a doctor who perpetrated hideous experiments on mental patients in the asylum where the characters are spending the night. 'He's great,' said the director. 'He'd come on the set, and I'd make him do dialogue from Reanimator. He'd go, 'You've stole the secrets of Life and Death, and here I find you trysting with a bubble headed co-ed. You're not even a half rate scientist. Get a job in a sideshow.' He's not in a lot of the film, but his part is pretty memorable; it's pretty cool.'
Along the casting route, a couple of faces were left by the roadside. Despite being listed in the credits posted on some online sites, Elizabeth Hurley (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) wasn't in the film, although she was in negotiations at one point to play the part that eventually went to Janssen. 'What happened,' explained Malone, 'was we were in negotiation very early on with her, and for one reason or another, the negotiations fell apart, or she had other work. I missed not working with her; I think she's great.' Another missing-in-action actress is Debi Mazar (Batman Forever), whose part was filmed but then deleted. 'We threw out some stuff that was very hard to throw out,' said Malone. 'Debi Mazar was in the movie, and we cut her stuff out. It wasn't because she wasn't brilliantshe was greatbut it slowed the picture down, where those scenes fell, and we had to cut 'em out.'
This editing was just part of the usual post-production process, when the raw footage is refined into the finished work. 'There's always the things you thought would work that don't and the things you didn't think would work that do,' said Malone of the cutting. 'There were a few of those. I actually enjoy the post-production process, because it's a real time to shape things.'
While completing post-production, Malone was unable to contribute to the film's gimmicky promotional campaign contest (an echo of William Castle), but he is aware that his film will be riding on the crest of the current horror revival wave. 'I haven't given it that much thought because that can change as quickly as anything,' he said, 'but I am really glad to see that happening, because I really think horror films are long overdue for their due, if you will. I think it's a really fine art form, mostly neglected. Unfortunately, films like HALLOWEEN, which I love, were in some ways a disservice because studios started thinking of those films as the only kind of horror picture. I think that's changing now with BLAIR WITCH and the success of some of these other films. I'm glad to see the winds have changed, that it can now encompass a larger subject matter.' Of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, he added, 'I liked it a lot. I just thought it was an extremely clever movie. It was a good romp, and for $30,000, how can you go wrong? Hell,' he laughed, 'I would have given 'em forty thousand.'
Of course there are dangers involved in riding a wave. In this case, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is the second color remake of a black-and-white haunted house film to be release this year, following DreamWorks misguided mess-up, THE HAUNTING. Malone is reluctant to discuss the competition ('Oh, you know, I really don't want to comment on that'), but he does admit to being worried about taking second place in the race to theatres. 'Yeah, that concerns me. We actually started long before THE HAUNTING, and it was only because we had problems getting the picture up and running that we came out later. We should have been first. I'm concerned about it only because of how the audiences feel: will they look at us as a Johnny-come-lately, when we actually started this a long time ago. But you never know; it's hard to predict this kind of thing.'
Malone has at least one advantage over the competition: the brilliance of Robert Wise's version of The Haunting lay in its black-and-white, expressionistic stylings, elements de-emphasized in the remake in favor of '90s era computer-generated special effects. The House on Haunted Hill, on the other hand, is hardly as renowned for its visual game plan, allowing more elbowroom for Malone to leave his own imprint on the material. 'I was heavily influenced by THE BLACK CAT , which is one of my favorite films. I love that movie. That's really what we tried to capture, so our films has kind of a German expressionistic feel to it. That's what we tried for in the art direction and all along. When I first met Geoffrey [Rush], he'd just gone to see THE BLACK CAT, and he talked about how much he loved it. It's got this perversitythis weird, dark undertone. What's great about it is that you can't put your finger on it, except if you actually look at the plot of that movie, you could never do that today. It's too twisted: the fact that Karloff kills Lugosi's wife and then keeps her body preserved in the basement, and then marries her daughter! I'm a big fan of [director Edgar G.] Ulmer's work.'
Of course, a classic like THE BLACK CAT, from Universal Studios' Golden Age of Horror, is not what most of today's viewers have in mind when they think of horror. Nevertheless, Malone believes there are useful lessons from these bygone eras. 'Oh yes, I think there's lots to learn there,' he said. 'And a lot of what you learn is what not to do, too.' Other influential films include ALIEN('which is just a brilliant movie'), THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON ('there's something evocative about it that really works'), THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI ('I love things like that'), FRANKENSTEIN ('the original still really holds up'), MAD LOVE with Peter Lorre ('a really cool movie'), and Italian auteur Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES ('a wonderful film').
Nevertheless, audiences are different. Does what worked yesterday necessarily work today, or does it take something different to scare contemporary audiences? 'I don't know that it's that much different, except that things have to be a little more intense,' said Malone. 'Certainly audiences are more sophisticated: they've seen more stuff, and it's getting harder and harder to show them anything they haven't seen. So the best thing you can do, in a way, is revert to that stuff that's just around the corner or in the corners of your mindstuff that's scary because it's the unknown. I think that's where Blair Witch was so smart: they don't really show you anything, and that's always the scariest.'
Despite jaded audiences who've seen every horror imaginable on screen, Malone still feels there is new territory to be explored in the genre. 'It seems there is always something new to do. It's hard to put your finger on what that is; it's hard for me to quantify what it has to be. You know, I still sense there are other kinds of movies to be made here that break new ground. I think it's going to become more psychological as time goes on, rather than scary monsters. I think there's more in the imagination to be culled.'
For himself, Malone plans to move beyond the horror genre with his next project. After helming an episode of a television show for Steven Spielberg called The Others, the director has some ideas for his next feature. 'I really want to do some kind of science fiction picture. Exactly what that is yet I don't know. I'd also like to do a thriller, something without special effects, just bad people doing bad things to each other. I really like those kind of movies. There is a pet project I'm writing, which I'm hoping I'll be able to finish and get sold. Basically, it's a kind of a thriller. It's aboutwhen you were thirteen and you drove by a bar in a seedy area with your parentwhat you thought the people in that bar were doing.'
In the meantime, Malone awaits the reaction to House on Haunted Hill, which is a considerable step up the Hollywood ladder for him. 'The last picture I did, CREATURE, was made for about $1.3-million, and just had a limited release,' he said. 'This is a major studio picture, going out on 2500 screens, and it has over ten times the budget of my last movie!'
Of course, with the bigger budget come higher stakes. The pressure to succeed is greater, as is the risk of failure. 'Lots!' laughed Malone, joking, 'So you may see me parking cars or working at Circuit City.'