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House on Haunted Hill

''House on Haunted Hill'' is frightening.

It's frightening how unscary a film can be about five people who spend a night in a spooky abandoned psychiatric institute. Considering its R rating (unlike its similarly titled predecessor, ''The Haunting,'' which languished this summer with a PG-13), this film should have been scarier. A lot scarier. Unfortunately, its expanded license to chill and thrill falls flat on cartoonish performances and second-rate special effects, pulled together by a skeleton of a plot.

A remake of William Castle's 1958 film of the same name, ''House on Haunted Hill'' brings five strangers together at the old institute, where patients were once subject to horrifying medical experiments by a deranged doctor. The film opens with a flashback of menacing medical instruments and lots of cutting, which elicited the sole shriek from the preview audience.

The characters are guests at a birthday party: a former baseball player (Taye Diggs); an executive assistant (Ali Larter); a doctor (Peter Gallagher); a celebrity (Bridgette Wilson) and a paranoid character who knows the secrets to the house (a refreshing Chris Kattan). They were seemingly invited to the house by amusement-park mogul Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) for a party for his money-hungry wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen). He kicks off the party with a promise: Each guest will win $1 million (in the original, it was $10,000) if they can survive one night in the house. (He's placed a couple of booby traps to make the house seem haunted.)

Trouble is, the warring husband and wife think the other is conspiring murder and has invited the five to assist. But everyone's a stranger, so who invited them? What do the guests have in common? And who's making doors shut mysteriously in the house? Is it Steven? His wife? Or, as Kattan insists, ''the darkness''?

Trapped within the confines of the walls by the asylum's lockdown mechanism, the guests have to find a way out, which commences an exploration into the house's dank walls and the secrets it holds. Of course, the guests inevitably separate and begin disappearing one by one, but there's such little suspense leading up to their demise that all one thinks is, ''Don't open the door. Why are you opening the door? See? Shouldn't have opened the door.''

As for special effects, the claustrophobic atmosphere of an institution doesn't offer much room for a house to have ''personality.'' Walls seem to move and faint images of the deranged doctor and other ghosts appear, but when the demonic force is revealed, it's such a non-frightening vision that leaving it to the imagination may have injected a little more fear into the audience.

Verbal sparring between Rush and Janssen borders on camp fun, but Rush, flitting between crafty and frantic, is essentially wasted; Diggs and Larter are pinned as the heroes early on, leading the pack in brilliant ideas such as ''let's see what's down there.'' There's an attempt at romantic tension, but the characters are so one-dimensional it just seems tired. Kattan is the only saving grace; the bulging eyes and speedy chatting he's famous for on ''Saturday Night Live'' offer comic relief, forcing the audience to root for his survival because if he goes, he'll take the entire personality of the film with him.

* MPAA rating: R, for horror violence, gore, sexual images and language.

'House on Haunted Hill'

Geoffrey Rush: Steven Price

Famke Janssen: Evelyn Price

Taye Diggs: Eddie

Ali Larter: Sara Wolfe

Bridget Wilson: Melissa Marr

Peter Gallagher: Dr. Blackburn

Chris Kattan: Watson Pritchett

A Warner Bros. presentation. Director William Malone. Producers Gilbert Adler, Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis. Executive producers Dan Cracchiolo, Steve Richards. Screenplay Dick Beebe. Based on screenplay by Robb White. Cinematographer Rick Bota. Editor Anthony Adler. Music Don Davis. Special effects Rick Bongiovanni, Robet Skotak, Paul Taglianetti. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.