Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007) [HD DVD]
R0 - America - Warner Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (10th November 2007).
The Film

Let’s recap first; originally there was William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill (1959)” with actor Vincent Price. Then William Malone’s remake “House on Haunted Hill (1999)” with Geoffrey Rush. Now welcome sequel of the remake - “Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007)”, from director Víctor García. This time there’s no millionaire, but we have actress Amanda Righetti instead. Stripping down the known actors and the budget, “Return to House on Haunted Hill” arrived straight to DVD/HD. This is not a very good sign to begin with. The film is produced by “Dark Castle Entertainment”.

Both HD DVD and Blu-ray-releases still include one exclusive gimmick, which could interest people; you can choose the “Play Movie Your Way”-option, which allows the viewers to interact the storyline in certain points during the film. This means that you get to choose from the two options and alter the story in some ways. 96 possible storylines are promised, but is this option really that “cool”? Read on.

For those who don’t know the back story, some clues can be found from the opening credits sequence; Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs - e.g. “Re-Animator (1985)” and “From Beyond (1986)”) was the head of the “Hill House” insane asylum in the 1920’s. Instead of helping the patients, he performed grizzly experiment with them in the dungeons. Many died in the process. On one day in 1931, the patient uprising ended the life of Dr. Vannacutt and the fire destroyed the hospital. What was left behind was the myth that the house is haunted and the tormented souls of the patients are still wondering. In “House on Haunted Hill (1999)”, several deaths occurred in the house and although the official blame was put on the millionaire Stephen H. Price, there was rumors about ghosts and the curse of the house. The story now continues.

Ariel Wolfe (Righetti) is the editor of the trendy magazine. Her daily worries are mainly whether Pearl Jam will cancel the scheduled interview or whether the photo models are right for the shoot. Now she gets the sad call; her troubled sister Sara has committed suicide. Sara was one of the few survivors from the 1999 incident at the “Hill House” and in the recent years the relationship of the siblings has been rather cold. Since Sara has been trying to reach Ariel before her death, Ariel and the magazine photographer Paul (Tom Riley) go to Sara’s apartment to find some clues when Dr. Richard Hammer (Steven Pacey) arrives on the scene. He also had connection with the late Sara. Dr. Hammer has been hunting for the certain ‘Baphomet idol’ statue for years now and it seems that it’s located somewhere inside the old “Hill House” in Los Angeles.

When arriving home that night, Ariel receives a package on her doorstep. It’s the old Dr. Vannacutt’s journal - sent by Sara, valuable for anyone trying to locate the ‘Baphomet idol’. This puts Ariel in a compromising position because along with Dr. Hammer; there are others looking for that journal, a group of mean looking characters storm into the Ariel’s house, led by Desmond (Erik Palladino - e.g. “ER" TV-series in 1999-2001), seeking for the journal and taking both Ariel and Paul with them. The group head to the dark and infamous “Hill House”. Dr. Hammer is already there, along with his student “girlfriend” Michelle (Cerina Vincent - e.g. “Cabin Fever (2002)”) and assistant Kyle (Andrew Lee Potts - e.g. “The Bunker (2001)”). And It’s time to find out whether the myths of the house are true…

Most of the recent “haunted house”-films have been more or less disappointing. “The Haunting (1999)” was a big budget CGI-mess and although “Thir13en Ghosts (2001)” was fun, a lot of potential was missed. There was also Disney's “The Haunted Mansion (2003)” with, er…Eddie Murphy. The more traditional ghost stories like “The Sixth Sense (1999)” or “The Others (2001)” have faired better and the reason for this is actually quite simple; the horror is subtle - yet effective, story is intriguing, tension is built in time and plenty is left to the imagination. The “twist” is also revealed near the end. “Return to House on Haunted Hill” basically bypasses all this and it relies on “blood & guts”. Real tension? Forget it. Spooks? Nah. Interesting characters? Not a chance. The film is sadly living up to its “straight-to-DVD”-moniker, since it is a mediocre ride from the start to finish. Everything is predictable and even the gore tends to be a bit boring. Granted, there are a few bloody scenes and minor nastiness, but the “kills” are not very interesting, nor even original (at least not after films like “Saw” and such). The occasional CGI-effects don’t really help either, making some scenes appear “artificial” and cheap rather than horrifying. Director Víctor García has forgotten the cardinal rule of the “low budget horror”; At least make the horror-scenes memorable and don’t use cheap CGI. And Tension is replaced with blatant nudity, so you have lesbian vampires or just a few “boobies” to stir up the story.

All characters are stereotypical (especially the “bad guys”) and most are clearly there just to get killed. Actors do what they can and are not fully to blame, but the screenplay doesn’t give much room for originality. E.g. Erik Palladino plays a decent villain, but how many times have you seen a character just like that in different films? Too many times. Dr. Hammer is introduced as being a teacher “getting it on” with his students after his lectures, but then we should believe that Michelle is his real “girlfriend” and that he “loves her”. It just doesn’t happen. The character of Michelle is perhaps the most useless character in the movie anyway. Cult-favorite Jeffrey Combs does not appear too much on the screen, but at least fans can cheer when the “original Herbert West” appears in the film. West can give a few good lines here and there (mostly Andrew Lee Potts) but they can’t save the film from sinking into the “forgettable low budget horror”-pile. And if you’re after some added nudity, you might find something after the end credits.

High Definition Exclusive Bonus feature: What makes this release still intriguing is the fact that you can watch the film in a two different ways. You can choose “Play Movie”, which is just plain 81:08 minute “Unrated”-version of the film - or you can choose the “Play Movie Your Way”-option, where you can alter the storyline along the way (as already said, 96 possible storylines are promised). Warner's "Navigational Cinema" technology is executed in a quite a simple way; at some points during the film, you’ll get the menu-screen with the question and two options. I got 7 questions during the film like e.g. “Should Ariel answer the phone?”, “Should Paul run away?” or “Should Desmond go into the room?” From the two options available, different outcome arrives (if you wait too long, the film makes the choice for you). Here’s one, quick example; The first question “Should Ariel return her sister’s phone call?” is introduced after Ariel returns to her office at the beginning of the film. If you choose “Yes”, the strange voice from the phone whispers “Ariel” and puzzled Ariel then asks “Sara?” If you choose “No”, the scene will play like it does in the “normal” version of the film; Ariel’s assistant teases about the photographer Paul, who has asked Ariel to visit the photo-shoot in progress. In either choice, the film continues from the photo-shoot scene.

While this was a refreshing way to watch the film and the option was seamless enough (apart from the menu that interrupts the film), in the end it was only that; refreshing. I doubt that I’ll see the film again anytime soon and I’m reluctant to believe that people want to spend much time trying different options and possible “storylines”. There was also a long gap from the first “question” to the rest of them, so I kind of forgot the whole option for a while. So don’t expect that you’ll receive questions in a rapid pace. It also felt that you can’t really affect the “main storyline”, but there is some talk that the different endings are available (so the most curious ones might want to explore more). I still feel that it’s always fun to try new things and HD-formats now give a platform for these different “interactive” features (in this case, not included in the SD DVD-releases). In the end, I still like the “traditional” structure when it comes to films.

Video

The film is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen (1080p 24fps) and is using VC-1 compression. Surprisingly framed at 2.40:1 (and not 1.78.1/1.85:1, like most of the “direct-to-DVD”-films), the image is clean, relatively sharp and stable, but it’s lacking that “eye poppiness” that you could’ve expect from the new production like this one. The colors tend to be a bit “pale”, black levels could’ve been stronger and overall look is dull. Since the majority of the film happens in the dark, the grain (I assume that this is still shot in film, instead of HD-video) dominates some of the shots. I also noticed a few compression issues during those darker moments. I still have to admit that the transfer probably mainly just follows the original look of the film, where the added “green/blue-ish” shades bring the certain unnatural-wipes to many scenes. The film doesn’t look very pretty, but it’s still a good HD-experience. “HD-30”-disc is used and there are 22 chapters (“Play Movie”-version). The disc is “R0”, like all the HD DVD-releases worldwide.

Review equipment: Sony Bravia KDL-40W2000 LCD (1080p) + Toshiba HD-XE1 (1080p), via HDMI cable.

Audio

English Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 (I couldn’t confirm the bitrates, but other sources says “640 Kbps”) is the only audio choice and there are English HoH, French and Spanish subtitles (note, that you have to choose the subtitles from the menu - it doesn’t let you choose them during the film). Like the film and the transfer, the audio doesn’t offer anything that special. The track is clean and crisp, mainly coming alive in a action/horror scenes. Screams, shrieks and horror effects travel in the surround-speakers effectively, but the sound design is still not winning any awards. This is the solid 5.1 audio track, but nothing more.

Extras

HD DVD includes all the extras from the SD DVD-release (while adding the “Play Movie Your Way”-option). Extras are not subtitled.

-“Behind The Story” confessionals -featurettes are very short bits, where the characters are telling why they’re in the house and reveal something about themselves (or the other characters). Actors are these “in character”. While most of these doesn’t feel very interesting, Warren & Kyle segments were mildly funny (at least when Warren is planning to “pop a cap in the ass with any of these muthaf**king ghost-asses”). Here are the list featurettes, which run 16:02 minutes with “Play all”:
*Ariel (0:41 sec)
*Ariel - Sister Sara (0:58 sec)
*Ariel - Paul 2 (1:00 min)
*Desmond (0:34 sec)
*Desmond - Baphomet idol (0:42 sec)
*Paul (0:49 sec)
*Michelle (0:46 sec)
*Norris (0:42 sec)
*Norris - On the bus (0:41 sec)
*Harue (0:49 sec)
*Harue - Team player (0:49 sec)
*Samuel (0:42 sec)
*Samuel - In the maze (0:49 sec)
*Warren & Kyle (1:09 min)
* Warren & Kyle - $5 million (0:44 sec)
* Warren & Kyle - Michelle (0:58 sec)
* Warren & Kyle - “Let me go!” (1:01 min)
* Warren & Kyle - “Shoot me!” (1:08 min)
*Richard (0:49 sec)

-“The Search For An Idol: Dr. Richard Hammer’s Quest” -featurette (2:51 min) is a longer “character confessional”, where Dr. Hammer tells the background of the statue and about his lifelong quest searching it.

-4 additional scenes runs 7:53 minutes with “Play all”:
*”Split Up - Extend” (2:34 min)
Desmond suggests that the team should split up to look for the ‘Baphomet idol’ and eventually chooses Ariel as his partner.
*”Interior Designer” (00:35 sec)
Kyle and Norris enter the basement.
*”Couch - Extended” (2:07 min)
Kyle and Norris - and the haunted couch.
*”Attic” (2:35 min)
Ariel and Paul find the path to the attic blocked.

-“Mushroomhead: Simple Survival” -music video runs 3:17 minutes and includes segments from the film.

While not considered as “extras”, the disc has minor additional options for you to play with;
-Menu audio on/off
-Video zoom/pan: If you press the “A”-button from your remote during the film, you can zoom the picture (2X, 4X, 8X).
-Bookmarks (which could come I handy, since HD DVD-side is lacking the “resume” function - a software problem, I believe).

The disc is packaged in a standard HD DVD case.

Overall

It’s hard to fully recommend “Return to House on Haunted Hill” as a film, since you have to be a quite open-minded horror-buff to see the “good sides” of this film. At least it has a few scenes of gore and blood. “Navigational Cinema” technology is probably the real excuse to watch the film. While it’s not a revelation, it’s a “new way” to see the film and offers some quick fun. The A/V side of the disc is not “reference” and the extras are lacking a proper “Making of”-material, so call me a bit disappointed.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Warner Brothers Hi-Def.

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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