Friday, April 16, 2021

‘Curse of the House on Haunted Hill’: Writer William Massa Recalls the Dark Castle Sequel That Never Was [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

With this installment, we’ll be looking at The Curse of the House on Haunted Hill, the potential third film in the Dark Castle franchise based upon William Castle’s classic 1959 Vincent Price spookfest. Joining us for this article is novelist William Massa (The Paranormalist), who penned the screenplay for Return to House on Haunted Hill, Victor Garcia’s 2007 straight-to-video follow-up to William Malone’s 1999 remake of the original Castle film.

While Mr. Massa did caution that there is little in the way of information on what the third film’s story might have entailed given that it never made it beyond the pitching stage, he nevertheless provides some tantalizing glimpses at this sequel that might have been and where he envisioned the franchise going, all while shining a light on Dark Castle’s plans for a long-running series of sequels to not only Haunted Hill, but other horror properties as well.

“I’d worked on a couple of projects for Joel Silver,” Mr. Massa notes, describing how he first came to be involved with the Haunted Hill series. “One was a spec script that I sold called Droid, no relation to Star Wars, that was kind of like a futuristic serial killer movie involving androids. The pitch was ‘Blade Runner meets Seven’. We worked on that for a number of years. They were very happy with it, even though the movie didn’t work out different reasons.

“But that led to working on a TV movie for them, a kind of ‘page one’ dialogue rewrite. I just pitched them different things, and became a little bit of a go-to person, especially with [eventual Return producer] Erik Olsen. When it came time for this movie, they were reaching out to writers and I came in to pitch my story. They liked the idea of the treasure hunt within a haunted house. It kind of goes back to my adventure/horror roots. I’m really more of an action-adventure-with-horror-elements type of person more than a slow burn horror guy, even though I do enjoy those a lot. So that’s how that happened. I just won the pitch and we went from there.”

Ali Larter as Sara Wolfe in ‘House on Haunted Hill’ (1999)

Released on October 16th, 2007 via Warner Home Video’s straight-to-video label Warner Premiere, Return to House on Haunted Hill picks up several years after the events of the previous film, which concluded with Sara Wolfe (Ali Larter) and Eddie Baker (Taye Diggs) surviving a night of horrors at the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane, a haunted asylum home to murderous spirits and a corrosive living darkness which acts as the driving evil permeating the walls of the Institute. The sequel focuses on Ariel Wolfe (Friday the 13th ’09’s Amanda Righetti), who begins the film learning that older sister Sara has recently committed suicide, leaving behind the journal of the late Dr. Richard Vannacutt (Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs, returning from the previous film). Vannacutt’s journal details the wicked history of the Institute, and may very well reveal the location of a cursed idol depicting the pagan deity Baphomet that could be the source of the titular house’s evil. In short order, a group of armed mercenaries seeking out the valuable idol kidnap Ariel and force her to join them inside of the Vannacutt Institute for a treasure hunt of sorts, running into a team of researchers who are searching for the idol along the way. Before long, the asylum goes into lockdown, trapping our groups within for a terrifying night at the hands of the sadistic Dr. Vannacutt and the vicious ghosts of his long-deceased patients.

“Unfortunately, I think it was just weird timing that hurt the film,” Mr. Massa reveals. “I mean, if you go to Wikipedia, it’ll say maybe the sales weren’t that great. But it actually did really, really well. There definitely was word that this whole Warner Premiere division was going to expand. The mission statement was that they wanted a large slate, like five or seven movies like this every year. They really wanted Warner Premiere to be a big thing, as they did with the DC Animated movies, that kept going. But they wanted Dark Castle to play a big role in that world. So they would’ve made sequels based on how various movies would have performed and in terms of what the story mileage might’ve been. But they also had plans for originals. It would have been like its own mini-division, with a consistent slate, just like Blumhouse has their TV production arm now with the movies that show up on Hulu. It would have been something along those lines, in a Warner Premiere type of way. That was the plan.

Amanda Righetti as Ariel Wolfe in ‘Return to House on Haunted Hill’ (2007)

“I think in some ways Warners was kind of doubling down on HD DVD, because this was supposed to be a straight-to-DVD franchise moving forward. And because we were doubling down on HD DVD instead of Blu-ray, a lot of plans for these direct-to-video video sequels got shelved. They were going to do a lot of different sequels to Haunted Hill, House of Wax, and a bunch of other Dark Castle films. They really wanted to push more sequels, and also do a lot of originals for that format. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, because I definitely would’ve had a shot to pitch projects and sequels, and definitely sequels for [Haunted Hill].”

Indeed, according to the October, 2010 article “Fright Plan for All Seasons” from Variety, “Joel Silver’s Dark Castle Entertainment pulled the plug on plans to produce a series of direct-to-DVD projects, including a third installment of House on Haunted Hill. The producer began to pursue other projects when ‘that business fell off a cliff.’”

So, while a third Haunted Hill installment was certainly planned, it obviously never materialized. But how far along did the filmmakers get with developing this second sequel? “So, I was throwing up various titles to the producer in this super casual, non-official way. Because again, the reality of it is, if they had done the third one it would have gone through a process where they would have picked an idea, or they would’ve given me a chance to pitch my ideas. They were really happy with the way this one turned out, so I would have been part of it in some capacity.

Now, specifically speaking, the title that I was throwing out was Curse of the House on Haunted Hill because the second movie sets up the idea that this Baphomet idol escapes the house, so the third film would just sort of take it out of its [previous] environment. Again, this was complete brainstorming and spitballing, ‘Let’s have some fun’, between me and the producers throwing things out. We thought, if we can get Vannacutt to come back, and get Jeffrey Combs to commit to keep doing these movies, he could be the sort of iconic character to carry it forward. You wouldn’t have to actually be inside that particular house. In terms of detail, there wasn’t too much beyond the idea that it would move out of the house, move into the world, move into a world where Vannacutt would be our Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, as opposed to the location. Just to open it up visually and add more variety. Probably also for budget reasons.

“The closest in terms of where I was with that idea was Curse of the House of Haunted Hill. You would have Vannacutt and these patients manifesting in a modern day hospital setting. Beyond that, maybe even the idea that one of the characters from the second movie would be in the hospital recovering, the Halloween II thing.”

Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Vannacutt in ‘House on Haunted Hill’ (1999)

Given that the first two entries featured a Wolfe sister in the lead, would Ariel have been the lead? Or perhaps yet another sister? “Well, I think it would have been a possibility. I mean, we had survivors and we had the possibility of one of those characters being in the hospital when this happens. But, you kind of run into the problem of the Die Hard scenario where … how often can this happen to the same person?

Originally, just backtracking, the first draft of Return to House on Haunted Hill was about Ali Larter’s character coming back. At the time, we all thought she was coming back. So it really became kind of like Aliens, the idea of Sigourney Weaver having to go back to the colony world. So you have [Sara] going back to the house and facing her demons. That didn’t happen. Ali didn’t want to do it or whatever, I forget the exact details. So we had to kind of re-engineer the script and that’s where the whole suicide and bringing the sister in came from. Again, not my first pitch, not my first preference, but you adapt to the situation.

Mr. Massa also notes that, in addition to Curse, he’d already considered a few potential titles for further follow-ups. “Then, in a very tongue in cheek sort of way, like the Planet of the Apes titles, we could have done The New House on Haunted Hill, where you would bring it back to a different house. And then, trying to honor Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher with The Fall of the House on Haunted Hill. But again, this was just sort of me having visions of the Planet of the Apes franchise and playing with titles. In terms of specific ideas, Curse was probably the closest.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Massa stresses that the plans went no further than the idea stage. “This was just during production, just me sort of going, ‘Hey, this is what I would do. What do you think?’ And them going, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting. Let’s see what happens.’ Really just chatting over a beer while we were making the movie. That’s kind of the extent. I mean, it’s just like any time they make these movies, they want to make a lot of them. They really wanted to push for this Warner Premiere idea. They were really into that concept. I think there were certain things that probably derailed that financially, but also the HD DVD format probably had an impact. I think maybe the idea of Premiere was sort of connected to the idea of pushing that format, their own format, that they’d kind of controlled. So when that fell apart, it became maybe less appealing.”

Given that both House ’99 and Return paid homage to cinematic huckster par excellence William Castle with their own gimmicks (respectively, a scratch card promising the chance at winning a cash prize and a “Choose Your Own Adventure” option via seamless branching allowing viewers to decide the nature of certain characters’ gruesome fates), one wonders if a third film might have continued on with a clever stunt of its own? Perhaps even a revisit to Return’s interactive storytelling? “That particular gimmick came after the fact for the second one,” Mr. Massa says. “That was never part of the plan, or even part of my contract when we did it. This was actually an idea that producer Erik Olsen had because he became aware of the technological possibilities while they were cutting the movie, I think.

“Further along this idea popped up and then it all came down to following the legacy of William Castle with this kind of gimmick added to the Blu-ray to make it even more exciting. I mean, it was really trying to follow the Castle legacy to make the movie more fun, and also making it exciting to people that had Blu-rays. Because I think Blu-rays were just sort of starting at that point. We had to go to Warners to see if we could get extra money to do this. We did, and that was great for me, because it was extra money for me to write those additional scenes. And it was also a lot of fun.

“In terms of the [sequels], I think that’s definitely something they might’ve wanted to explore more. But, it didn’t get to that point. The pitch for the third one came way before we even got into the branching. That stuff is dependent on so many other variables. You can’t even commit to that ahead of time. But I think Erik Olsen was very into the branching idea, so I know he would have definitely wanted more of it.”

Given the rising interest in all things Dark Castle these days, what with the recent Collector’s Edition Blu-rays from Scream Factory, the upcoming Orphan prequel and the announcement of a brand new upcoming release (Simon Barrett’s Seance), one wonders if a full-on Dark Castle revival might be a possibility, and whether or not it could resurrect some of the older titles. If so, might Mr. Massa be interested in returning to Haunted Hill? “I’m always interested in revisiting. I still work in that genre, in fiction at the moment, and I still write scripts. I’m totally open to it. Whether it could happen or not … I don’t know what the legality is. Joel Silver was with Warners, and then he had to leave. So I don’t even know where Dark Castle is. I mean, I definitely think at some point they’ll revisit that franchise. Most likely it would probably be a reboot, I would imagine, but you never know what they might do.

“Horror trends come and go. Found footage is hot for one day, and the next it’s haunted houses. These movies have a sort of Gothic quality to them, so maybe the time is ripe for a revisit of that. I mean, it all depends on one movie and that style doing well. I’ve always had a soft spot for that whole Hammer, William Castle stuff. I’m not an expert by any means, cause it’s a little after my time, but I love the style and the ones I’ve seen. It’d be great if that could come back in a stronger way. You never know.”

In closing out our chat, Mr. Massa offers his final thoughts on the series and his work within it. “I mean, personally I’m very happy with it. It wasn’t a movie where I was heavily rewritten or ten different writers came on board. Maybe some people might say there should’ve been some more writers who should’ve come on board [laughs], but it was my movie. I really had a great collaboration with Erik Olsen creatively on that. I’m very happy that I have that on my resume. I’m very proud of it. If you could see my office, you’d see a little framed poster of it.

“I love the franchise. I think, in some form or fashion there will be [another film]. The title is just too strong. I’m sort of surprised they haven’t moved on it yet, but I think it’ll definitely come back in some way at some point.”

Very special thanks to William Massa for his time and insights.

Works Cited:

Graser, Marc and Andrew Stewart. (2010, October). Fright Plan for All Seasons. Retrieved April 15, 2021 from Variety website:


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