Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Horror Violence, Language and brief Sexuality/Nudity
Directed by: Victor Garcia
Written by: William Massa
Starring: Amanda Righetti, Cerina Vincent, Erik Palladino, Tom Riley, Andrew Lee Potts, Jeffrey Combs & Steven Pacey
1999’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is a guilty pleasure of mine. I have nostalgia for that remake because it scared the hell out of 12-year-old me and its style is over-the-top spooky fun. Eight years after the HOUSE remake banked at the box office, a direct-to-DVD sequel was released in a half-hearted attempt to cash in from Warner Premiere (all while TRICK ‘R TREAT languished away on a shelf because life isn’t fair). RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL had a neat gimmick for its HD DVD release (remember when that was a thing?) that involved the viewer choosing their own adventure with the film. Fortunately, I don’t have an HD DVD player, so I’m just reviewing the standard DVD release. I don’t think that selecting these characters’ fates would help matters much, because this sequel is garbage.
Ariel Wolfe’s (Amanda Righetti) life seems to be going just swell, until she hears the news of her sister Sara’s suicide. Sara Wolfe was one of the two survivors of the first HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, so she had a lot of spirit-related PTSD and Ariel was sick of hearing about the supernatural shenanigans. As if her sibling’s recent suicide wasn’t bad enough, art-stealing criminals kidnap Ariel and reveal that they’re on a quest to retrieve a mysterious idol that’s hidden in Hill House. Soon enough, Ariel, her best friend Paul (Tom Riley), the gangsters, and a hapless archeology professor (Steven Pacey) are running for their lives from the evil Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs) and his ghostly nutjobs.
From reading that summary of the plot, you might have realized the biggest problem that RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL encounters right from the get-go. RETURN’s plot is stupid, like really stupid. The sequel’s script is so stupid that it knocks the original film down a peg by providing a deeper origin behind Dr. Vannacutt’s madness. Wasn’t it so much creepier when there was a sadistic doctor running a huge insane asylum that was full of crazy ghosts? Instead, we now get a lackluster explanation (cursed idol) behind Hill House’s central antagonist and its undead residents…making them instantly less scary as a result.
Jeffrey Combs is back in the role of Dr. Vannacutt, though his brief on-screen appearances indicate that he was probably only on set for a couple of days. At the very least, Combs’s villain is fun to watch, though his character is even more cartoony and exaggerated in this second outing. You could add LOONEY TUNES sound effects into his kill scenes and they would fit right into the gory absurdity. Speaking of kills, RETURN packs in a couple of fun deaths. These two scenes involve Combs’s Vannacutt hamming it up and I recommend that you just watch those kills on YouTube, because there isn’t much else of value to this film. The other kills are laughably inept, ala bed sheets ripping a guy apart and unbelievably cheesy CGI flames turning another guy into a PlayStation 1 video game character.
I’m not naïve enough to honestly ask if RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was made to further this franchise along or if it was purely made to cash in on horror fan nostalgia. It’s worth mentioning that there was a third HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL flick planned before this second installment received terrible reception and lackluster sales. It feels as if director Vincent Garcia (who’s also responsible for other direct-to-video horror dreck like MIRRORS 2 and HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS) was trying to replicate the atmosphere, setting, and tone of the first film, but on a shoestring budget that didn’t allow him much freedom to do that. Most of the Hill House scenes consist of confrontations in the lobby, confrontations in a hallway that’s been redressed three different ways, and three other rooms…in this supposedly massive crazy house.
It certainly doesn’t help that none of the cast members, besides the mostly mute Combs (who receives two lines of dialogue in the entire film), put in noteworthy performances. Everyone’s acting reaches varying degrees of badness. The worst actor of the bunch is Erik Palladino as a scumbag art dealer villain, who mostly smirks and slicks his hair back. The most annoying performance belongs to Steven Pacey as the over-the-top teacher Dr. Richard Hammer. Meanwhile, Amanda Righetti seems a bit too apathetic towards certain terrible situations and Tom Riley looks like he just walked out of a CW prime time drama (that’s not a compliment). Overall, this was a bad cast who put in bad performances, but I can’t fully blame them because they were working from a bad script.
Honestly, I really like 1999’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, so there was a bit of mild excitement as I approached this direct-to-video follow-up. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was expecting to hopefully have a bit of campy fun. Even that marginal bar for success was too high for RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL’s reach. This direct-to-video sequel is terrible. The film’s only redeeming qualities come in an occasionally glimpsed Jeffrey Combs and a couple of admittedly neat kills. It’s a pity that everything else about RETURN is utter garbage. Don’t waste your valuable time on this one.