(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: House on Haunted Hill unsettles with nightmare imagery and shocking dream logic in its surreal Saturation Chamber scene.)
The remake of the 1959 Vincent Price horror film House on Haunted Hill marked the producing debut by Dark Castle Entertainment. The production company, operating under their initial goal to reimagine William Castle’s horror films, gave a slick update to the original material that boasted an impressive production design and a stacked cast. Most of all, it offered a surrealistic, macabre approach to the ghostly inhabitants that made the movie a standout in 1999 horror.
A harrowing opening sequence establishes the impetus for the haunting and why the quest for revenge has endured. The methodical and unrelenting pursuit for revenge leads to fast-twitching entities, gruesome deaths, and a possessed building that’s taken on an evil life of its own, all of which offers up nightmare fuel. Still, none hold a candle to the Saturation Chamber scene’s unforgettable imagery, which catapults both a pivotal character and the viewer into a dizzying descent into madness.
Amusement park mogul Steven H. Price (Geoffrey Rush) stages an elaborate birthday party for his wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), at her venue of choice; the long-abandoned Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane. The seaside facility closed in 1931 after a patient revolt caused a fire in which all but five perished. Per the party’s theme, Price offers the party guests a prize of one million dollars to everyone that survives the night. Guests Jennifer Jenzen (Ali Larter), Eddie Baker (Taye Diggs), Melissa Marr (Bridgette Wilson), Donald Blackburn (Peter Gallagher), and Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan) find themselves not just pawns in a dangerous marital dispute, but a ghostly game of revenge led by the ghoulish Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs).
The Story So Far
Before Watson, the property owner, can collect his payment and vacate the building, the security system triggers and traps them all inside. Jennifer, Eddie, and Pritchett search the basement for the control panel, while Steven goes to the control room to commend his employee for the unexpected gimmick. Except the lockdown isn’t part of the planned tricks set to unfold over the evening to unsettle party goers. Jennifer, who confesses to actually being Sara, the fired assistant to Jennifer, nearly drowns in a vat of blood at the hands of an Eddie doppelganger. The real Eddie saves her just in time. Poor Melissa wanders off on her own to capture the place on camera but runs afoul of the ghosts and disappears, leaving behind her camera and a blood trail smeared across the ceiling.
With tensions at an all-time high, the group finds Evelyn strapped to an electroshock therapy table. She’s electrocuted before their eyes, prompting Steven to pull a gun on the guests. The volatile behavior and general mistrust Steven’s earned thus far pushes the group into isolating him in Vannacutt’s Saturation Chamber, a large zoetrope compartment used to treat schizophrenic patients, at Blackburn’s behest. Blackburn ignores Steven’s pleas to be let out and turns the chamber on to maximum level. The ruthless Dr. Vannacutt reasoned that “what would drive a sane man mad would drive a madman sane,” and that proves true as the Saturation Chamber activates and subjects Steven to terror-induced madness.
Inside the chamber, Steven grasps for footing and goggles dangling above as the walls start spinning to reveal an image of Dr. Vannacutt bouncing a red ball. It’s a dizzying effect rendered moreso by the flashing lights. The quicker the walls spin, the more animated Dr. Vannacutt becomes, and it plunges a disoriented Steven into a nightmarish memory from the past. Steven gets transported to 1931 through a series of haunting moments from the perspective of a patient. He observes and experiences various tortures inflicted upon others and himself until he’s dropped into the darkness of a water tank. The brief respite in terror ends with the shrieking appearance of a grotesque figure that brings him back to the Saturation Chamber, with Dr. Vannacutt now replaced by the image of Evelyn bouncing his severed head.
Director William Malone purposely introduces dream logic here to remove all semblance of reality for Steven to grab hold. The disjointed journey into the hospital’s dark past is washed in monochrome, save for the color blood red. Monstrous figures twitch at an inhuman speed as they strap Steven into bizarre headgear or cover his face in rubber and wire. It’s intercut with images of naked patients strung up in harnesses or huddled in the corner of cold rooms. As he breaks free from constraints in the locked water tank, the music calms to a more peaceful lullaby. Then the flashing strobes kick in. The encroaching pitch-black transforms a floating, serene woman into a faceless apparition – an unused ghost design from 1981’s Ghost Story used here with permission from legendary makeup effects artist Dick Smith. It’s a potent jump scare nestled within a lucid nightmare.
This scene serves two key purposes. It reveals Blackburn as a villain who uses the chamber to manipulate Steven further for his selfish gains. More importantly, it offers critical insights into what caused the 1931 tragedy from the hospital’s former patients’ perspective and why they’d harbor a grudge from beyond the grave decades later. The twitching creatures that bind Steven aren’t monsters but the doctors; this is how the patients perceive their torturers. Malone creates a dream-like sequence that intentionally discombobulates its intended victim and the viewer by proxy. It also serves as a visceral illustration of how inhumanely the staff treated those in their care.
The stark and shocking imagery itself induces horror, but by stringing them together in such a surreal way, Malone gives this scene a level of unpredictability that bolsters the terror. Anything could happen in Steven’s descent into madness, and few things trigger fear quite like the unknown. It marks Steven’s psychological transformation and made all the more harrowing in how it is thrust upon him without consent. The bookending images in the zoetrope work as a metric to Steven’s sanity; the sinister Evelyn replacing Dr. Vannacutt demonstrates a shift in his subconscious.
The Saturation Chamber demonstrates Dr. Vannacutt’s archaic and grisly forms of “treatment” for the psychiatric patients that once suffered at his hands, offering the film’s scariest scenes. For the viewer, it’s an effective means to engender empathy via horror. Malone creates psychological horror through sound and nightmare imagery and employs a jump scare to transport a character back to reality. For Steven, it’s the catalyst that fuels his final confrontation with his wife, Evelyn. The ghostly inhabitants claimed Steven as one of their own in this scene, latching on through his damaged psyche, but he just doesn’t know it yet.
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