Cinematic Showdown: The Signal vs. House on Haunted Hill

STROPHE

House on Haunted Hill title screen

Vincent Price is the star of House on Haunted Hill, but his is not the first voice you hear.  The first is the voice of Elisha Cook, Jr., which seems to set him up as the star.  But he’s not the star, he’s just this movie’s voice of unreason, letting you know that this movie involves ghosts, and that if you’re not careful, the ghosts will come for you.  After the movie’s over, of course.

The movie sets up a dichotomy between Cook and Price, presenting them both as possible main characters, but then undercuts them both with the typical Romantic Pairing of Beautiful People who end up being the hero and heroine.  Just as with the confusion of characters (their importance, not who they actually are), the movie sets up layer after layer and mixes the supernatural with the utterly (if murderously) banal without worrying whether you’ll figure it all out in the end.  In truth, you’ll figure out enough to be satisfied, and after the movie ends you’re only being churlish if you continue to complain.

But what is there to complain about?

Well, there’re the cheap special effects and the fact that it’s a William Castle film and the shoddy way all the threads of the movie are pulled together at the end, some of those threads clearly cut because they don’t make sense with the murder mystery ending.

But, if nothing else, listen to Vincent Price say, “It was my wife’s idea.  She’s really quite amusing.”  His tone is so droll, and his voice so full of character that it’s no wonder he was such a big star.  The truth is he’s quite amusing in whatever film you put him in. (Such as The Great Mouse Detective which Megan and I watched part of at her parents’ house, the movie’s magic only defeated by that ever-victor sleep.)

ANTISTROPHE

The Signal is film from that classic year 2007 (as opposed to House on Haunted Hill’s 1959) and it first came to my attention through Erin, who went to school with Anessa Ramsey, one of the movie’s stars.  You might be tempted to call her the star since the movie starts with her and she is the focus throughout the movie, but you’d be wrong.  The movie is purely an ensemble piece, partly because the cast is so small and partly because of the movie consisting of three distinct stories with shared characters and a share over-arching plot.  All of which means the star-love gets spread around.

Why is this movie being pit against House on Haunted Hill?  Perhaps because they are both entertaining.  In purely filmic terms, The Signal is worlds away better, though that clearly doesn’t sound itself as a recommendation for watching Price’s vehicle.

Okay, fine.  Let’s take The Signal at its face, unreflected.

The Signal

Unreflecting on the movie’s poster, we are scared.  I am scared.  And I don’t want to meet that man.

Unreflecting only gets us so far.

Reflecting, I’ll let you know that the poster above is one of three found easily online for the movie.  The one that’s on the DVD is a more traditional picture, showing the heroes (though this appellation is debatable) in the lower center of the image and two “villain” characters (again, debatable) to the sides.  They are in a cityscape that is flooded by human figures that are most easily described as zombies.  Which fits what this movie presents itself as: a zombie flick.

But the image above is perfectly in tune for what the movie is. See, The Signal has more in common with the Japanese movie Pulse than it does with traditional zombie movies.  What causes the end of civilization – at least in the city of Terminus – is never quite explained, and the movie mostly deals with an empty landscape rather than a land full of monsters.  The aesthetic is survivalist, and the monsters the characters face are each other or, more likely, themselves.  That scary face staring out at you might as well be your own.

This movie is quite good, filled with interesting characters, intriguing situations, and clever filmic conceits.  In some ways, I find it hard to recommend because of the out-and-out violence that is intrinsic to the plot – parts of the movie are nearly indistinguishable from torture-porn like The Hills Have Eyes remake – but the underlying horror and drive of the characters pulls you through.

At least it pulled Megan and me through.

EPODE

House on Haunted Hill

What we have here is a confluence of effect, not intent.  Both movies are tense – House on Haunted Hill surprisingly so – and inhabited by characters that are real, whether you like them or not.  Both movies have their dose of hokey.  Witness the jerky, plastic skeleton in House on Haunted Hill.  Witness the name of the city in The Signal being Terminus, an obvious symbol draining the sense of you-could-be-there reality from the movie when they could just have well placed the events in Atlanta.  Since, you know, that’s where it was filmed.

But the long and the long of it is this: regardless of flaws in production or limitations of budget, House on Haunted Hill and The Signal both work.

And, as usual, I’ve gone on too long.  I haven’t talked about the floating heads that begin House on Haunted Hill.  I haven’t mentioned the background scenes hinted at in The Signal, stories that the main characters never notice but which provide evidence of a fully imagined world. I haven’t mentioned the freakish, unexplained caretakers of the house on haunted hill.  I haven’t talked about the cop-out ending to The Signal that rips off Gilliam’s Brazil but fails on delivery.

And I won’t.

Final Verdict: A tie.  Though the movies are not equivalent part-for-part, they are – actually, scratch that.  House on Haunted Hill wins in a TKO because there’s never a moment when it’s not entertaining.

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