At the Movies: 'Haunted Castle'

Tuesday, February 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

``Haunted Castle'' is not so much a movie as an extended amusement-park ride.

Ghostly stone sculptures and other demonic beasties rendered in three-dimensional computer animation seem to float from the screen while the audience appears to take a rolling tour of a dilapidated, seaside mansion.

A flimsy plot exists only as an excuse to feature the special effects in this movie, which at 40 minutes is about one-third the length of most features. Belgium-based nWave Pictures produced ``Haunted Castle'' to be shown on giant Imax screens, where its optical illusions can be fully appreciated.

As the film begins, spirits appear before young Johnny, an aspiring rock musician who has inherited the castle from his late mother, a once-famous musician who ignored him for most of his life.

Johnny, played by Jasper Steverlinck, is one of the few things in ``Haunted Castle'' that isn't computer-generated. Most of the film is shot from his point of view, however, so he is glimpsed only briefly.

A ghoul named Mephisto (voiced by Harry Shearer of ``The Simpsons'') explains to him that the devil uses the castle to imprison musicians who try to renege on promises to sell their souls for wealth and fame. It turns out Johnny's mother once made such a deal, and now the devil — who calls himself ``Mr. D'' — is extending the same offer to her son.

That's when the mother's apparition, played by Kyoko Baertsoen, surfaces to sing an ethereal song and warn her son not to accept the deal.

This sequence is typical of the movie's amusing shamelessness in the name of special effects — Baertsoen sings while misty rays flash and flicker and orbs of light appear to circle the audience. The light spectacle is neat, but slows the story down for what is essentially a music video.

On the other hand, there isn't much story to begin with. Visuals are all this movie cares about.

That bears repeating: Visuals are all this movie cares about. Abandon all hope, ye who seek stories or characters here.

The gothic castle and its torture chambers are beautifully crafted in some of the most high-tech animation yet to hit the screen. The formidable stone walls and massive wooden doors seem otherworldly but still tangible.

The 3-D filmwork is also top-rate. Far from the cheap-o likes of ``Jaws III'' and ``Amityville 3-D,'' the gimmick is exploited to full effect in ``Haunted Castle.''

Forget about flimsy red-and-blue lens paper glasses. The Universal Citywalk theater supplied each audience member with a massive set of goggles attached to a head-mounted device that prevents the bothersome blurring prevalent in most early 3-D movies.

In one later sequence, tiny skeletons emerge from cages to blow long, groaning horns. Screen and sound effects make it seem like the bells of these instruments extend over the heads of the front row to blast in your face.

It's a treat to lift the glasses and compare this trick with the tangled mess of images seen by the naked eye.

With such impressive effects in hand, why didn't writer-director Ben Stassen try for a story that takes its horror seriously? Maybe because the intent of this film was never to scare — only impress.

In any case, ``Haunted Castle'' succeeds purely as spectacle, which is all it seems to aspire to.

The film is rated PG for creepy images. Running time: 40 minutes.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.