Wednesday 13 June 2018

Haunted Castle (Ben Stassen, 2001)

As a longtime fan of the IMAX format, I was very keen to see Haunted Castle on its initial 3D release.  For one reason or another, that never quite happened, but a full seventeen years later I can now say I've scratched that particular itch - albeit via home viewing.  Haunted Castle is very much a throwback to the times when we went to the IMAX to see briefer films which were either of the novelty or educational variety, with Ben Stassen's 38-minute film falling firmly into the former category.  Nowadays, such fare isn't really to be seen at your nearest IMAX cinema, which at this very moment will likely be hosting a screening of a tentpole release such as Solo or Jurassic World 2.

If you're a fan of Belgian pop music, you may well get an added buzz from the film featuring tracks by both Arid and Lunascape; Arid's frontman, Jasper Steverlinck, actually takes the lead role, while there's a scene in which Lunascape's Kyoko Baertsoen performs the band's "Lane Navachi".  Steverlinck's Johnny is a jobbing musician (surprise!) who has inherited the entire estate of his estranged rock star mother, played by Baertsoen (double surprise!).  While all these riches are headed Johnny's way, there's the caveat that, in order to seal the deal, he has to travel from America to Europe to visit his mother's spooky castle.  OK, it's not merely spooky, but I think the film's title provides a major spoiler that no reviewer can really match.

As Johnny makes his way around the huge mansion, we soon witness some supernatural goings-on, such as suits of armour that come to life and instruments that start playing themselves.  Johnny's mother appears as some sort of ghostly apparition, and we learn that her great fame and fortune were down to her selling her soul to a certain Mr. D (any ideas?), voiced by Simpsons legend Harry Shearer, who now proposes the same deal to Johnny.  Johnny passes up on the offer, and Mr. D's assistant Mephisto takes the musician on a tour around some pretty dark corners of the castle, including the film's most child-unfriendly area, in which we see a series of musicians who have sold their souls being tortured in Hell (surely not much of a selling point for what's on the table?)  Johnny's mother appears intermittently, imploring her son not to make the same mistake that she did; at times he does appear to be in two minds as to whether he should accept Mr. D's offer, but I'll let you discover what his final choice is.  Concert footage of Arid closes the film, but are they performing with or without the help of the dastardly Mr. D?

The film puts forward the interesting notion that it took until the advent of rock 'n' roll for music to become an attractive bait for Mephisto et al to lure souls with, and there is a little creepiness among the clunkiness - the aforementioned sequence in Hell seems slightly too much for what is supposed to be (and indeed played as) family entertainment.  The project does feel very off-kilter, as the music is completely the wrong fit - the opening theme, by Arid, is extremely underpowered, with their closing track not much better suited; the Lunascape number is also an odd choice for the sequence it features in.  Presumably both artists were chosen chiefly for the marketability they would lend to the project, regardless of the appropriateness of their music.

While it is perhaps slightly unfair to assess a film intended for the biggest of screens on a television (although admittedly a 43-inch TV, on which the end credits were still far too small to read), its problems are still obvious; CGI has come on in leaps and bounds since Haunted Castle first bowed in IMAX cinemas, and the years have not been especially kind to the film - although it must be said that the 3D does work surprisingly well (although maybe that's actually not too surprising when you consider how effective the 3D is in Stassen's recent feature films).  It does, at least, try to marry a story to the visuals (something the novelty IMAX film had not really been doing to that point), and it remains of interest to those who've tracked Ben Stassen's career all the way up to his present position as a successful (and fairly prolific) director of animated features.  The DVD release includes both the 2D and 3D versions.

Darren Arnold

Images: nWave