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HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL – Don Davis

October 29, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

houseonhauntedhillOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the annals of horror movie history, House on Haunted Hill will surely go down as one of the worst efforts the 1990s had to offer. The genre having been revitalized by the Scream phenomenon, House on Haunted Hill is the epitome of everything the savvy protagonists of Wes Craven’s movie decried. It is a film populated by stupid people who say and do stupid things at the wrong time. It has a director who mistakes gratuitous gore and “shock” sound effects for fright, and a screenwriter with no sense of reality or common sense. Ultimately, the film is a disaster from start to finish, with only the special effects crew – and Don Davis – emerging with anything resembling an intact reputation.

For those still inquisitive enough to want to know, House on Haunted Hill is a remake of the 1958 Vincent Price original, written by Dick Beebe and directed by William Malone. Geoffrey Rush stars as twisted multi-millionaire rollercoaster designer Stephen Price, who rents out the long-derelict Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane for his equally bizarre wife Evelyn (Famke Janssen)’s birthday party. A mix-up with the guest list results in four total strangers (Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson and Peter Gallagher) being invited to the party – but such is the distrust between husband and wife that each think the other has staged the “mistake”. Playing along with ghoulish humor, Price offers the four $1,000,000 each if they spend the night in the hospital – and are still alive by morning. However, unbeknown to the uninvited guests, the house harbors a terrible secret past, and the spirits that dwell within its labyrinthine bowels aim to ensure that no-one sees the dawn.

In description, House on Haunted Hill actually sounds quite promising, but the execution (pardon the pun) is disastrous, and it is perhaps a relief to Don Davis that his music is virtually inaudible in the final print. Don Davis, who approached the project as Hollywood’s newest film music hot property after The Matrix, contributed an original score which, in the film, is never allowed to come fully to the fore. The score mix is buried deep beneath the blood-curdling screams of tortured souls, limited mainly to adding a deep bass rhythm to the chase sequences, and contributing quasi-Gothic organ chords to the opening and closing titles. Thank goodness, then, for Varèse Sarabande, whose 50-minute release of Davis’s work allows the listener to marvel at the musical creativity without being put off by the terrible movie it accompanies.

Large parts of House on Haunted Hill is horror music from the old school, with Hammer-style pipe organs, forlorn string writing and forbidding brass crescendos intoning a dismal dirge of the dead. ‘Main Title’, ‘House Humongous’, ‘Funky Old House’ freely adopt this style, creating a sense of Gothic grandeur and recapitulating the ominous three-note motif for the house itself, while in ‘Hans Verbosemann’ and ‘Sorry Tulip’ there are some darkly romantic waltzes, encapsulating the perverted nature of the relationship between Price and Evelyn. The choral work in ‘The Price Petard’ is quite beautiful, and then ‘Misty Misogamy’, unexpectedly features some light jazz, complete with muted trumpets and brushed percussion. Talk about a mixed bag!

At completely the other end of the scale, Davis engages in some highly dissonant, highly inventive, but extremely savage choral work, in which the voices not so much sing or chant, but wail and shriek. In cues such as ‘Pencil Neck’, ‘Melissa In Wonderland’, ‘Blackburn’s Surprise’ and the peculiar ‘Soirée À Saturation’, you can tell what they are saying some of the time – the Latin “dies irae” is a phrase occasionally audible through the hubbub – but the overall effect is utterly bone-chilling. Not at all nice to listen to, but effective nonetheless. ‘No Exit’ has a cool brass progression of the spine-tingling variety, ‘Surprise’ is a mass of orchestral terror, ‘Price Pestiferous’ has a surprisingly Arabic inflection, with unusually-bowed strings and rattles, while in ‘Struggling to Escape’ Davis suddenly enters rock territory – to great effect. And then there are the action cues – ‘Coagulatory Calamity’, ‘Encountering Mr. Blackburn’ and the entire finale from ‘Epiphanic Evelyn’ onwards – many of which sound like variations on Chris Young’s work on the Hellraiser series.

It’s just a shame that such a great score couldn’t have been written for a better movie, and I sincerely hope that Don Davis isn’t tarred with the same brush as his cohorts on the movie. It would be a great shame if his efforts were dismissed by association. This is a problem which Davis will have to work at if he is to ascend to the heights that many are predicting for him. With the exception of Bound and The Matrix, the majority of Davis’s scores to date have been written for largely unsuccessful films, both critically and commercially, and he’s far too talented to be wasting his time on the likes of Warriors of Virtue, House of Frankenstein and Universal Soldier: The Return. Of course, no-one intentionally chooses to score a flop movie, but if he’s not careful he’s going to end up joining the list of great composers who are never given a proper chance due to their lackluster filmography. And as a footnote: check out the clever cue titles!

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:29)
  • Pencil Neck (1:05)
  • Hans Verbosemann (1:47)
  • House Humongous (1:20)
  • Piano Quarter in G Minor, Op.25 (written by Johannes Brahms, arranged by Don Davis) (2:32)
  • Funky Old House (1:52)
  • No Exit (1:08)
  • Gun Control (1:25)
  • Surprise (1:20)
  • Price Pestiferous (1:35)
  • Misty Misogamy (1:53)
  • Coagulatory Calamity (3:59)
  • Melissa In Wonderland (3:45)
  • Sorry Tulip (1:25)
  • Struggling to Escape (1:47)
  • Soirée À Saturation (3:18)
  • One The House (1:34)
  • Dead But Nice (2:05)
  • Blackburn’s Surprise (0:48)
  • Encountering Mr. Blackburn (2:03)
  • The Price Petard (1:58)
  • Epiphanic Evelyn (3:48)
  • The Corpus Delecti Committee Meeting (2:26)
  • Price in Perpetuity (2:55)
  • The Beast With The Least (3:06)

Running Time: 54 minutes 18 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6088 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Don Davis. Orchestrations by Erik Lundborg, Ira Hearshen and Don Davis. Featured musical soloists Jason Miller, Mark Zimoski and Don Davis. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Joe E. Rand. Mastered by Larry Mah. Album produced by Don Davis.

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