Non-format-specific portions of this review also appear in our Blu-ray review of 'Return to House on Haunted Hill.'
Non-format-specific portions of this review also appear in our Blu-ray review of 'Return to House on Haunted Hill.'
As a child, I was absolutely hooked on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series. These "interactive fiction" pocket novels, though typical of young adult fare of the time with their pulpy tall tales of sci-fi adventure and horror, added one very important and unique twist. As you read your way through the story, every few pages or so you'd be asked to make a choice for the story's protagonist on how to proceed next. Should you open the green door, or the red one? Should you walk through the entrance to that scary old cave, or run the other way? The choices were, of course, simplistic and the outcomes far-fetched. But for a generation of kids like me, the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books were the closest we could come to living in our own little movies, and boy, were they a ton of fun.
Apparently, someone at Horror shingle Dark Castle Entertainment read a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, too, because now we have 'Return to House on Haunted Hill,' a direct-to-video sequel to the 1999 horror remake and the most truly "interactive" movie ever produced. Sure, there have been attempts in the past to merge audience participation with narrative filmmaking, whether it be 1985's big-screen 'Clue' (which had one of three different endings depending on which theater you saw it in), or New Line's recent DVD release of 'Final Destination 3,' which used that format's limited interactive capabilities to allow you to "choose" the bloody fates of its characters. Still, none of those past efforts really got it right, at least in terms of presenting a truly seamless user experience that wasn't clunky or disjointed (or the in case of 'Clue,' pretty damn expensive).
But now, thanks to the wonders of next-gen technology, we've progressed to a level where it is finally possible for viewers to command a navigational architecture that can facilitate true interactive storytelling. Both high-def formats support functionality that goes far beyond the clunky "seamless branching" of standard-def DVD. So, if we are to believe the breathless press materials sent out by Warner and Dark Castle, with 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' the world now stands on the brink of a new paradigm in how we can consume traditional entertainment. Offering 96(!) different permutations of the film's storyline on a single disc, you could spend hours watching and re-watching 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' and still not discover all of its secrets and subplots.
First, a look at how it works. Though you can play the movie in its 81-minute linear form from the standard-def DVD release (yawn), the "Play the Movie Your Way" mode is what this one's all about. Just activate the feature from the HD DVD's start-up menu, and just like a "Choose Your Own Adventure book," throughout the duration of the movie you'll be faced with a series of decisions that will effect the story's progress, and the fates of its stupid-as-dirt characters. "Should Ariel Answer Her sister's Phone Call?" "Should Michelle Battle the Ghosts, or Run?" "Should They Grab the Map, or Not?" Eeek!
So, is the disc's interactivity truly seamless? The answer is an unqualified "pretty much." To be sure, the quality of the footage itself is absolutely consistent -- no matter which choices you make, it always feels like you're watching the same movie. The graphical sequeways to the "decision" pop-up interface are also immediate and transparent. However, once you pick one of the two possible options at each decision point, there is a lag of varying lengths while the disc cues itself up to the next segment and the narrative resumes. (I tried the HD DVD version out on two different Toshiba players, and the Blu-ray on the PlayStation 3 and a Samsung, and "jump" times were between 3-5 seconds, with the PS3 the quickest.) This very minor irritant aside, navigating your way through 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' is about as easy as can be -- just sit back, keep your remote handy, and watch the carnage ensue.
Unfortunately, nifty technology aside, the real question with 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' and the whole concept of "navigational cinema" is whether it renders the movie itself moot. Since the actual story of 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' seems to be beside the point (all you need to know is a bunch of expendable characters enter a haunted house and get killed off one by one), it's ultimately very hard to be emotionally engaged with anything that is going on. Granted, we don't expect the characters in a haunted house slasher flick to be particularly deep, but ironically it's nearly impossible to get lost in their predicament when we ourselves are actually controlling it.
It's also easy to see the demands of the interactivity ripping apart the seams of 'Return to House on Haunted Hill's storytelling. Time and time again, characters wander off on their own, if only to get themselves into jams we (the viewer) will have to help them out of. Their actions rarely make logical sense, and all this button pushing is never very "scary." Even more frustrating, regardless of our choices, the plot always circles back to the same basic third act. After playing with the disc for many hours (thanks to a handy "Do You Want to Change Your Mind?" option you can use if you don't like the outcome), I ultimately lost interest because nothing really affected the main thrust of the story. After a while, the only real fun to be had is in watching how the various characters die, and in what grisly fashion. But haven't we all seen that a million times before?
Perhaps what's missing in 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' is the sense that we are armed with any knowledge to make truly informed decisions for the characters. Most of the choices we are asked to make are of the banal yes/no variety ("Do you answer the phone?", etc.), so it's like reading a mystery novel where you're never given any clues. That takes the thrill out of the interaction, which is the whole point of 'Return to Haunted Hill' in the first place.
Still, I would never dissuade anyone from checking out 'Return to House on Haunted Hill.' In fact, it may be required viewing for early adopters, not only to experience what the next-gen formats are capable of, but also as a cautionary reminder that simply being given random narrative choices isn't compelling in and of itself. Indeed, the ultimate lesson of 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' may be that although technology has matured to a point where interactivity allows for an entirely a new form of cinematic storytelling, it may just end up being a form that isn't worth all the effort.
For a direct-to-disc premiere, 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' has production values far superior to most of the dreck that falls in this category. I've sat through countless horror flicks like this, and the vast majority look like student films at best. 'Return,' however, is much slicker, with stylistic lighting and effective set design on par with a theatrical genre release.
Quite rare for a home video premiere, 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' is presented in a wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and encoded at 1080p/VC-1 (identical on both the HD DVD and Blu-ray). The print is completely clean, with not a speck of imperfection, and the transfer features rich, deep blacks. Colors are heavily tweaked, with a rather ugly blue-green filter over everything (so don't expect realistic fleshtones), but hues are consistently vivid and stable, and refreshingly generally free from oversaturation.
Considering that the total runtime of the footage encoded on the disc is well over the film's official runtime of 81 minutes, I was happy to see that space constraints didn't hinder visible detail. Even in the shadows, texture and depth are strong. Unfortunately, contrast is a bit flatter than I hoped for, and I have certainly seen transfers with plenty more "pop." There is also a fair amount of noise present throughout, with some of the darker scenes suffering the most.
Still, even if there are a few cracks in its grand guignol veneer, overall 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' far exceeded my meager expectations. If only all direct-to-video flicks looked this good!
For whatever reason, Warner has eschewed high-res audio on both next-gen releases of 'Return to House on Haunted Hill,' so we're left with a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround track (640kbps) on the HD DVD (which is identical to the Dolby Digital track on the Blu-ray). Although movie's sound design feels a bit more obviously direct-to-video than the video transfer, it isn't all bad.
The mix is surprisingly front heavy for a haunted house flick, with surprisingly few creaking doors or other atmospheric effects deployed to the rears. There is also zero score bleed. Instead, surrounds are reserved solely for discrete effects, but they sound a bit too obvious and inorganic to the rest of the track to my ears, and the soundfield just never feels cohesive in terms of sustained envelopment.
On the bright side, tech specs are strong considering the nature of the material. Heft of bass is pretty good, and dynamic range pretty spacious. I also had no trouble hearing dialogue, which is well placed in the center channel and perfectly balanced in the mix.
Warner has included several extras, identical to all versions of 'Return to House on Haunted Hill' (HD DVD, Blu-ray and standard DVD). Unfortunately, they're a bit of a disappointment. Despite the pioneering nature of the disc, there's no behind-the-scenes material provided at all -- no director commentary, no documentary, nothing. Instead, most of the supplements focus on the "mythology" of the film and its characters.
First up is a gallery of 18 "Character Confessionals," running a combined 17 minutes. All of the film's actors, in character, give us background on why he or she chose to entering the fictional Hill House. Expanding slightly on the manor's backstory (and at only 3 minutes, I do mean slightly), the "The Search for an Idol: Dr. Richard Hammer's Quest" featurette has the devious doctor giving us a quick history lesson on the fabled Bashomot Idol.
Next, we have a short collection of 4 Deleted Scenes. These run about 9 minutes total, but are mostly just scene extensions, and offer nothing at all of interest beyond all the permutations in the interactive version of the film.
Rounding out this weak set is a music video for Mushroomhead's "Simple Survival." This is one very bizarre clip, with the band looking like some sort of demented death metal version of Blue Man Group.
(Note that all of the extras listed above are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, with the exception of the music video, which is 1080i/MPEG-2.)
'Return to House on Haunted Hill' is one part direct-to-video sequel, one part hoot movie, and one part high-def gimmick. There's no doubt that this disc's cutting-edge HD-exclusive "Play the Movie Your Way" feature will give it an immediate curiosity factor that will be hard to resist for many early adopters. The good news is the interactivity is completely user-friendly, and the video, audio and extras are quite spiffy, too. The film itself won't really hold up to repeated viewings once the novelty wears off, but if all you want is a one-of-a-kind party disc, gather a few friends around the HDTV, crack open some beers, and give this one a rent.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.