I kinda get the beef with William Malone’s House On Haunted Hill, I mean it’s essentially a lazy, paper thin story gussied up by a whole bunch of spooky visual effects and fancy, baroque production design, but I loved it anyhow. Malone is the same guy who made the infamous FearDotCom and such was also the case there: nonsensical narrative made entirely watchable by pure visual artistry alone. Maybe the guy has a yet to be discovered career in music videos ahead of him. Anyways, the plot revolves around a weird looking building sat on a cliff overlooking the sea, a place which was once a freaky asylum run by a mad surgeon (Jeffry Combs with nary a word of dialogue) who murdered his patients. Half a century later it’s owned by snarky amusement park guru Geoffrey Rush and his potty mouthed femme fatale wife (Famke Jannssen). They invite several bored LA types over for the night including a faded baseball star (Taye Diggs), a movie studio VP (Ali Larter), a smarmy hotshot Doctor (Peter Gallagher) and a tabloid journalist (Bridgette Wilson Sampras). The deal is, if you make it one night alive in this place Rush will pay you a cool million bucks. You can guess what happens next. This film is very short on story and a lot of it is just characters wandering through grimly lit corridors and getting haunted by unseen terrors. The characters are hilarious though and the cast is really having fun. Rush is a gnarled hoot as the misanthropic tycoon, with a pencil moustache as precariously thin as his threshold for having tantrums. The lovely Janssen is saddled with a trashy role that’s beneath her classy talents but she’s game and makes this chick one seriously bratty, scene stealing bitch. Chris Kattan also shows up as like… the butler or caretaker of this place I guess? I had an acting teacher once tell us that every performance you give should be modelled after the physicality and essence of one member of the animal kingdom. Chris heard that and apparently decided to base every role for the rest of his career on a squirrel with a serious meth habit, because that’s what I felt like I was watching when he was onscreen. I can understand why this film doesn’t get a lot of love, it’s a remake of a no doubt cherished 60’s horror film and that coupled with its lack of a real story… I get it. However, I really enjoyed it for the set design and very freaky visual horror creations. I think that director Malone missed his calling as a full blown, thoroughbred surrealist like Lynch or Merhige because he has a real gift with abstract, otherworldly makeup, editing and FX. Some of the berserk visual stuff later is right out of a post modern video collage installation and reminded me of like Jacob’s Ladder or Eraserhead. If Malone put that talent to work in a project that would allow him to fully be taken seriously as a filmmaker he’d be the stuff of Lynchian legends. But hey, this film is super fun too, if kinda slight. Rush and his merry band of fellow cast-mates are great, and like I said it gets genuinely fucking weird right near the end, and weird is always good. Oh also, bonus points for using Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams as a kind of theme song. Oh and also: this is like one in an unofficial trilogy with 13 Ghosts and Ghost Ship as early 2000’s ensemble piece gonzo horror with metal infused soundtracks, produced by the Dark Castle label, excessively opulent special effects and bad reputations, and I love all three to bits no matter what anyone says.
I’ve written about this film before a few years ago and absolutely trashed it, but after a revisit is realize that I was either too harsh or my tastes shifted, because FearDotCom, although a narrative catastrophe, is a stylistic and artistic wellspring of morbidly beautiful visual excess. It almost doesn’t even belong in a movie theatre or home screen but in some avant garde museum as an experimental piece of video. The plot, as far as I could swing it: Two detectives (Stephen Dorff and Natascha McElhone) in one of those constantly rainy, impossibly bleak inner cities investigate a string of murders tied to a strange website and carried out by a sadistic, monotone lunatic (Stephen Rea). Both the website and the murders are apparently linked to the ghost of a creepy little hemophiliac girl with a bouncy ball, but how or why remains a mystery because the film doesn’t feel the need to coherently explain any of its plot points. The cops, the killer, other various oddballs, the website, none of it is strung together with any kind of proper storytelling adhesive or logic and there’s simply no piecing it together in a way that makes sense. That leaves you to give up and let the film wash over you as a sort of sensory experience, an expressionist’s dream of eerie sound, striking viscera, abstract visuals and potent atmosphere. The film works on that level, if you can compromise story for ambience. This is one of those cities like in The Crow, Dark City or Seven where it’s always raining, always nighttime, all the light fixtures swing and strobe uneasily, every subway station is abandoned, smokestacks and power plant silos stand sentiment across the horizon and the residential buildings look like they’re limping along after a severe earthquake. It was filmed in Luxembourg and Montreal but is obstinately set in NYC which leads to hilarious contradictions in architectural landmarks. The ghostly images and horror elements look like they’re inspired by everything from Murnau to Merhige and are at times truly inspired. The cast, although hailing from various genre paths, all somehow seem suited to something this weird. Dorff comes from horror roots and has perfected this angry, brooding aura to a science, McElhone seems to handpick the strangest projects and is always an ethereal presence in whatever she shows up in, Irish character player Rea mostly stars in Neil Jordan stuff and is no stranger to the bizarre while genre legend Udo Kier shows up in the most random, wordless cameo of his career. The visual aspect is almost indescribable until you’re neck deep in it, picture the stark stylistic choices from The Matrix with some serious Silent Hill vibes and a very ‘Euro’ flavour to the whole thing. It’s interesting that an American studio horror flick about stuff like cops hunting a serial killer and some murder website ended up looking, feeling and sounding like something from a literal other dimension, and that kind of outcome can’t be written off as simply a bad film in every way but viewed as a messy yet provocative experimental curio. It’s just a shame the story got fatally shredded somewhere between conception and execution, or this could have been something really great. Oh and fun fact: the producers couldn’t secure the web domain name ‘fear.com’ because whoever owned it wouldn’t sell *for any price*, so in the film when we see the actual site it’s ‘feardotcom.com’ which is so hilarious to me and just adds to the overall weirdness even more.
I first became aware of the work of William Malone when I saw his movie CREATURE. For most, all they see is just some cheap imitation of Scott’sALIEN – but there is much on offer if you give the flick more than a sideways glance. There exists the same thrilling, eerisome mood generated that marks all of his movies and which culminated in his remake of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.
Growing up in Lansing, Michigan and going to the same high school as NBA legend Magic Johnson, it would be music and not sport that would eventually see the young Malone make his way west to Los Angeles. But the music soon died and William found himself looking for work. He took a job at Don Post Studios doing make-up and costume duties before attending film school at UCLA.
His first film would soon follow, the cult classic SCARED TO DEATH. This was the beginning of a storied career of other great features like FEARDOTCOM and PARASOMNIA as well as work on the small screen in series like TALES FROM THE CRYPT, MASTERS OF HORROR and FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES.
It was great talking with William about everything from directing Klaus Kinski, his non-existent role of TV’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, having one of his scripts become a sequel toUNIVERSAL SOLDIER and the (I find it intriguing) story behind the making of the troubled SUPERNOVA, of which Francis Coppola mentioned to him that they should have stuck with Malone’s original script Dead Star.
Aside from being the world’s foremost collector of FORBIDDEN PLANET props and paraphernalia, William Malone is a fascinating movie-maker and a delight to chat with. I trust you’ll feel the same . . .