Coming to DVD Tuesday, Oct. 16th
Amanda Righetti as Ariel Wolfe
Cerina Vincent as Michelle
Erik Palladino as Desmond
Andrew Lee-Potts as Kyle
Tom Riley as Paul
Steven Pacey as Richard
Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Richard Vannacutt
Directed by Victor Garcia
With its tongue planted firmly in a ghoulish, grinning cheek, 1999’s âHouse on Haunted Hillâ remake attempted to evoke the gleefully macabre spirit of the William Castle original while enriching the fictional abode itself with the legend of a twisted doctor and the fatal, fiery rebellion of his patients. The film’s blend of wicked humor and gruesome imagery proved a potent mix at the outset, but as the film wore on it caved beneath a weak plot and a dependence on even weaker CGI. Still, within the walls of the haunted Vannacutt Institute was the potential for a great pop horror flick, giving hope that Warner Premier and Dark Castle Entertainment might make up for the mistakes of the first film with this direct-to-video sequel. Instead, “Return to House on Haunted Hill” repeats the missteps of its predecessorâ¦ and throws in a few new ones for bad measure.
Our hero this round is Ariel Wolfe, editor of a glossy men’s mag and sister of Sara Wolfe, the young woman who survived the deadly party held in first “House” (no mention is made of Taye Diggs’ character Eddie, the first film’s other survivor). Following Sara’s sudden suicide, Ariel and her photographer/confidant/pseudo-boyfriend Paul pay an unexplained visit to the dead woman’s apartment, where they meet Dr. Richard Hammer, an archeologist obsessed with an ancient idol called the Baphomet, said to impose evil influence on those who possess it. Hammer had been working with Sara to find the cursed rock, which, according to Dr. Vannecutt’s diary, rests inside the haunted hillside asylum. But Hammer’s not the only one looking for the Baphomet; playing Belloch to Hammer’s Indy is Desmond, Hammer’s former student and now the leader of a high-tech, antiquity-hunting assault team that kidnaps Ariel and Paul and infiltrates the asylum. Before long this increasingly unlikely bunch is trapped inside the barricaded house along with Hammer’s A/V tech Kyle and undergraduate mistress Michelle (Cerina Vincent of “Cabin Fever,” who gets to keep her skin this time but loses something else).
If you’ve followed this ridiculous set-up so far, you’ve already paid “Return to House on Haunted Hill” more attention than it deserves. The plot contrivances and hokey exposition of the film’s opening quarter are somewhat forgivable, drawing this disparate group inside the house as quickly as possible, but things fail to improve even after the doors are locked and the real guts of this sequel start to spill. Desmond’s team splits up to search for the Baphomet and instead finds a splattery demise at every turn, each one offering a glimpse into one of the many tortured souls forever trapped inside the house. One inexplicably helpful resident calls on Ariel to find and destroy the Baphomet, apparently the only way to put the murderous ghosts at rest, but Desmond has other ideas â as does the sadistic spirit of Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs, reprising his all-too-brief role from the first film). Hammer spits some lame archeological sermons, Desmond’s quips die faster than his henchmen (and women), and Ariel gets her tank top wet every five minutes as this jittery collection of plot holes, poor acting, and unfulfilled promises unravels in a murky mess.
Little about this “Return” trip improves on the first film, or is even as effective. The attempt to humanize the ghosts of Vannacutt’s victims helps deepen the mythos behind the asylum a bit, but the introduction of the Baphomet as the ultimate source of all the nastiness undermines everything we’ve come to know about Vannacutt and the 1931 patient massacre that cursed the house in the first place. Righetti does her best to play Ariel as the perfect b-heroine, pouting and posturing with all the gusto a primetime soap star can manage, but her character might as well be tied to a string and yanked from scene to scene. Combs does appear as Vannacutt more often in this sequel, and even actively engages in the ghostly bloodletting, but his screen time totals less than a minute, a waste not only of a great character actor but also a great character. Elaborate set-pieces like the first film’s zoetrope nightmare are replaced here by a quick dunk in a corpse-filled water tank, the job of building a spooky vibe left to a group cell phone call more that’s as pedantic as it is predictable.
Even the death sequences for which Dark Castle films are noted fall short in this sequel. Though dripping with squishy gore, the kills here don’t match up to the inventiveness or sick spectacle of seeing a lawyer sliced in half in the “Thir13en Ghosts” remake, or the ballroom bisection at the heart of “Ghost Ship.” The best moment in “Return” is not its signature death scene, but what happens immediately after when the other characters in the house stumble upon the residue with comedic results.
Disappointment is likely greater for those who’ve seen director Victor Garcia’s acclaimed 2003 short “El Ciclo,” the atmospheric dread piece that snagged him the “Return” gig (and the “30 Days of Night: Blood Trails” web-prequel that debuted on FEARnet.com). Despite a budget that’s clearly larger than that of most straight-to-vid flicks, Garcia doesn’t have much to work with and does little with what he has.
One must also wonder if the director and the overall integrity of his film were constrained by the special circumstances of the “Return” shoot, which involved filming 96 alternate sequences for use in a special “navigational cinema” feature on the Blu-ray/HD-DVD versions of the film. With an approach that would make legendary showman William Castle proud, Warner Bros. has hinged their entire marketing campaign on this gimmick that allows viewers to choose how certain events in the film play out as they’re watching. It’s an ambitious play, but as those who own the advanced players capable of utilizing this gimmick comprise just a small niche of the overall horror crowd, this navigational angle is largely irrelevant to most who will see the film.
For those without the ability to choose the fate of the film’s insignificant characters, how much one enjoys “Return to House on Haunted Hill” will depend almost entirely on his or her ability to tolerate all of the plodding nonsense that must be endured to get to the good stuff; the only DVD feature that will help with that is the fast-forward button.