We seem to be in an age where genre movies either shame-fully play out the same old cliches with paper-thin plots and characters (ala Hollow Man), or take the smarter route and parody the boring cliques of yester-year while still maintaining a certain amount of suspense (ala Scream). While the self-paroding style is starting to become old par itself, there is - believe it or not - a happy medium, which House on Haunted Hill proves. While the movie's plot contains many of the typical conventions of your usual 'haunted house' tale, there are more than enough fresh set-pieces and ideas to take this plot one step further, and make House on Haunted Hill something a little special.
Ripe from her success opposite Devon Sawa in Final Destination, Ali Larter shines as the sweet-but-smart Sara Jenez. Her appearances in other projects (up until now) has been rather limited, which works to her advantage as she is both refreshing and new in this as a new face - and one not yet bogged down with media attention. In fact, the entire cast - including Famke Janssen, Bridgette Wilson, Geoffrey Rush, Taye Diggs etc - are a delight and put in some fine performances. There are even cameos from Cult favorites Jeffrey Combs and James 'Spike' Marsters, which make House on Haunted Hill all the more enjoyable.
It is something of a let-down, however, that the full history of the house is never properly explored, and the reason behind the new guest list is revealed far too quickly to allow a proper and more involving mystery to unfold. Such a rich history - as is contained in an age-old insane asylum, no doubt - is a shame to waste, and there could have been something genuinely disturbing created if the writer's had taken time to explore it instead of rushing hastily through a so-so script.
Despite this quibble, House on Haunted Hill has some nice elements which mark it an above-the-rest shocker. It also has the ability to be disarmingly smart and inventive (something of a wannabe documentarian finds that as she films an empty room, the camera picks up scenes from the past - this scene in particlar was very effective). And it's nice to finally find that a late-'s director still realizes that what you don't see can be far scarier than what you do - so instead of bucket-loads of gore being thrown at us (don't get me wrong, there's still enough gore at times!), it's up to the viewer to imagine what has happened instead.
And yes, at last, a climax that isn't ridiculously over-the-top and doesn't dress itself up to be something that it's not (again, ala the dreadful Hollow Man!). It's nice to know that there are still some film-makers out there who know when enough is enough.
While it's a shame that certain aspects of the house's past are never examined, and the idea of Price being a credible suspect is never dealt with with enough flare and explicit-ness, House on Haunted Hill is a great minutes entertainment with adequate effects and original direction. Even if the ending is left unshamedly open for a sequel...