The second viewer choice to be made during this experiment in story delivery comes when an Asian woman is trapped in a room with two nude female ghosts who stroke and surround her as if the decaying operating room they are in were nothing more than the VIP room of a strip club. The verdict you are asked to decide? "Should Harue resist the women?"
Decisions like this are what make Return to House on Haunted Hill the most important horror film of 2007. When genre sites and general film blogs begin their list making and year in review summations, I assure almost no one is going to mention said importance, though. The January morning quarterbacking will be all about the theatrical failure of Grindhouse, the labeling and subsequent death of ‘torture porn’ and the commercial success of Disturbia and 1408. No attention is going to be paid to Dark Castle and their sacrificial lamb.
Return to… is not a good film by any stretch, but it plants its flag where none have gone before. It is the first Straight to DVD film to ever premiere simultaneously on the rival hi-def formats, HD DVD and Blu-ray. This alone is a crucial testing ground where sales will either prove or disprove the want for non-theatrical, non-prime time wares in the format war. But the history making doesn’t end there. Return to House on Haunted Hill is also the first film designed specifically to make use of the advancements in consumer set-top players; the long coveted ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style of filmmaking. Viewers are prompted to make real time choices that have an instantaneous effect on the plot of the film with minimal distraction from the film itself. A choice to enter a room or not has now been given the grand potential for not only character life or death, but also whether or not the viewer is even going to make it to the end of the film.
Yes, it is a gimmick. This allowance of hi-def players mounts to little more than the 21st Century equivalent of 3D. What makes Return to… so important, however, is that it dipped its newly baited hook into the complacent waters of Straight to DVD. The STD arena is a critically ignored, but fiscally crucial market responsible for, by my count, at least 9 horror films for every 1 wide theatrical release. Despite the trendy nature of theatrical horror, nothing imitates success like studios in the STD game. Yet, for the most part STD has nothing to offer the theatrical crowd. Statistically speaking, they are worse, a simple fact any renter is aware of. But, if one could synthesize a new bait, a bait people cannot get anywhere else, more bites are guaranteed. If those bites net a unique catch, bet the farm that in due time STD films are going to look towards each other for theft instead of whatever pushed tickets at theaters that week, because, after all, they would be offering a service currently impossible to pull off in theaters around the world.
Of all the horror of 2007, Return to House on Haunted Hill takes the potentially most influential spot. Were it not for the failure and uniformly mediocre execution of this new technology, Victor Garcia’s film would actually be the most influential horror film of 2007. Instead its reach out distances what it is reaching for. Capable of full extension, Return to… merely meets its promises half way, never trying to touch farther. If it had been more elaborate, more realized, the ripple effect of its plop into that stagnant retail pond would be obvious far sooner. Instead consumers will have to settle for a postponed day when ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ really takes off.
The problem rests both with the film itself and the underwhelming exploitation of its own gimmick. Director Garcia did manage to wrangle together a convincing set design, art department and cast – three ingredients typically mutually exclusive for movies destined to come out for the first time ever on a Tuesday. The production looks more professional than someone renting a sequel to the waffley remake of a classic may expect. However, screenwriter William Massa does nothing to maintain a higher level of quality.
Evil Dr. Vannacutt, once again played by Jeffrey Combs, was, evidently, a devout worshiper of the demon Baphomet. The idol of Baphomet is also evidently a rare treasure sought after by college professors and mercenaries alike. Believed to be hidden in the bowls of Vannacutt’s insane asylum, it is this idol that lures back a new gang to haunt, only this time they are vastly more uninteresting than the first outing.
No one opting for one of the HD discs of Return to… is going to give a damn about plot, though. The bar is already set low, all that wants to be explored is this new, special bar glinting in the sunlight of nerds like shinny metal. The first choice viewers are going to come across is a simple one. Ariel, our heroine, is faced with answering or ignoring her sister’s phone call. Answer it and she’ll hear a ghostly voice beckoning her. Ignore it and she’ll next discover her sister is dead. The first time around we opted to ignore the call, resulting in actress Amanda Righetti showing visible guilt at the knowledge that she denied her suicidal sister an audience during her last moments. I’ll not downplay it, there were genuine pangs of viewer guilt in our group watching, wondering aloud if it was the right choice.
Unfortunately, it is that choice and that choice alone that rustles up any conscious of cause and effect. It worked for a brief moment, but after that Garcia and Massa have no clue how to use these plot elections for their benefit. All too often the difference in how things play out is entirely minimal. Never negligible, but save for one hilarious alternate path, rarely impacting in the long term.
Mayhaps it is my fond memories of CYA Goosebump books that taints my expectations. They’re really no different than Return to. Goosebumps were the literary world equivalent of STD horror. Cheesy, sub-standard writing and interchangeable plots and characters. But at least those CYA books had crazy choices and crazy effects. I remember all too often being told to turn to page 78, only to discover I’d just been eaten by a monster. Such finality occurs only once in Return to House on Haunted Hill. When it happens, it is a real crowd pleaser, but it is lonely one.
After the movie is over a nice option pops up to view all the choices made and to go back and see how the opposite would have affected things. This is a great feature, but it also had the unintended effect of reminding everyone in the room we only made 7 choices through the whole thing. There are 15-20 minute stretches early on where nothing needs deciding. It gets to the point where you stop thinking about the movie and starting thinking about the marketing of the movie, which is the exact kind of distance anyone crafting a multi-threaded adventure should desperately try to avoid.
The movie becomes so generic that the thought of watching the entire thing through with different choices becomes repellent, but there is still enough residual curiosity to see how things could have gone. The obvious thing to do is just skip ahead again and again, seeing how things changed, if at all. It doesn’t take very long before all the options have been exhausted, which essentially kills the replay value of the disc instantly. We had a bit of a debate once it was all said and done as to whether or not this was cheating, but I’m in the camp that if the movie isn’t strong enough to make you want to watch it again in full, then it is its own fault if people give up on it.
The Joel Silver produced HD DVD boasts on its cover as having some 96 Different branching paths. Though not an outright lie, the math is a bit misleading. Numerically there are 96 different ways the whole picture could play out, but absolutely no one on earth is going to watch all 96. Especially when the choices aren’t even the ones you’d hope for from a horror DVD. The killings all suck. There isn’t a single death memorable for a reason other than unintentional laughter. I prefer my ghosts to haunt someone until it drives them to fatal madness, I do not want my ghosts ripping people apart. Ghosts should not exert direct physical force on the living. Then they’re just a zombie that walks through walls. There is nudity, but never by any of the right people. The dialog elicits no wit, no intelligence. The presentation of the disc and this new "branching technology" is deeply promising, but not when Return to House on Haunted Hill just sleep walks through the whole thing. Even the title credits are an exact rip off of the style of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead opening credits.
I still stand by calling the film the most important of ’07. It had the potential to be a smash hit. The kind of movie experience people get together in groups for. It could have inspired an entirely new wave of STD films AND drinking games, which by sheer volume would be staggering. Instead it arrives and leaves with a whimper. It neither justifies nor vilifies the ‘Play the Movie My Way’ angle, but it did (re)introduce the concept at a very crucial time, which I have a profound respect for. I’ve no doubt that soon we’ll be seeing more and more of these things. And just as with 3D, once the practice of implementing the techniques is perfected, these films are going to be great nights with friends.
Until then, Harue is just going to have to keep surrendering to those women.