The Legend Of Hell House Review
Robert Wise's The Haunting, made in 1963 and still damned terrifying 40 years later, is just about a perfect ghost story; elegant, subtle and beautifully structured, based on a similarly excellent Shirley Jackson novel. It’s certainly the last word on the straight supernatural haunted house theme and it takes a brave man to meddle with perfection, but bravery is not something that Richard Matheson is short of - the author of "I Am Legend", The Incredible Shrinking Man and the marvellous Hammer adaptation of The Devil Rides Out could never be accused of shirking a challenge. It's rather sad then that The Legend of Hell House is so, well, average. Matheson's novel "Hell House" was rather disappointing in itself, a fantasia on themes from Wise's film of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting Of Hill House" rather than a satisfactory entity in itself, with the scentific paraphenalia more a distraction than an innovation. The film has similar problems, all of them compounded by some ropey acting and mediocre direction.
Dr Barrett (Revill), a physicist, is approached by the elderly Mr Deutsch (Culver) and offered a proposition; £100,000 if he can establish the facts about survival after death. The only suitable location for such a quest is The Belasco House, otherwise known by the soubriquet 'Hell House', a property which has seen off two previous investigations, leaving only one survivor. Barrett is required to spend a week in the house, along with two other experts; Florence Tanner (Franklin), a mental medium, and Ben Fischer (McDowell), a physical medium and the only survivor of the previous expeditions. He accepts the assignment and goes to the house with his two new colleagues and his wife, Ann (Hunnicutt). An initial seance suggests that something has indeed survived the years since Emeric Belasco, owner of the house (and notorious cannibal, necrophile, drug addict, sex addict and so on) vanished into thin air. However, the intially benign spirit of Daniel Belasco, abused son of Emeric, turns nasty when Barrett expresses scepticism about the hauntings, and the good Dr is nearly killed by a meat rack, a chandelier and a fire. Meanwhile, Ann is turning into some sort of nymphomaniacal temptress, Florence is being attacked by a particularly unsociable cat and Fischer is blocking himself off with the intention of surviving the week intact.
This is a promising set-up, although hopelessly reminiscent of the introduction to The Haunting and the some nice tensions are introduced between the characters. Barrett is a rationalist who refuses to believe that Florence and Fischer are anything more than conduits for a variety of electrical forces, while the two mediums clash over the exact nature of the haunting. The acting is variable with the best work coming from the excellent Pamela Franklin and the always highly watchable Roddy McDowell. In contrast, Clive Revill comes across as wooden and Gayle Hunnicutt is out of her depth as the faithful wife suddenly experiencing carnal lusts of a type she never knew existed. There is a nice little cameo from the old stager Roland Culver and Peter Bowles adds a touch of elegance as Culver’s snobbish lawyer.
But somehow things seem to go wrong once the characters are established in the house. Matheson and Hough have decided that the film has to appear as realistic as possible - perhaps influenced by Nigel Kneale’s classic 1971 TV play The Stone Tape - and the film is tricked out with scientific jargon and dates and times, as if to suggest a documentary realism. But the exterior lighting and the times stated on screen don’t always seem compatible and the clearly delineated passing of time takes us out of the claustrophobic house and thus dissipates the tension. Even the more promising ideas, such as Tanner producing ectoplasm from her fingertips, fall apart because of some poor visual effects and the sort of pseudo-scientific dialogue which is more reminiscent of Star Trek than anything else. For example, “Premature retraction of ectoplasm causes systemic shock” and the like, which strikes me as golden bollocks, and even if it makes scientific sense, it sounds idiotic. We can’t simply have lots of different ghosts, we have to have “Multiple Presence Haunting”. What makes it even more irksome is that Hough and Matheson clearly think they are making some kind of a serious film when they are, in fact, making the same old ropey ghost story that Hollywood has been regurgitating for years. The Haunting worked because the characters were believable, the concepts were left ambiguous enough to be tantalising while still being convincing, there were no mediocre visual effects and the tension inside the house gripped you like a vice. In The Legend Of Hell House, plot points are laboriously spelt out and the cheap shock effects are often more amusing than scary.
It’s not exactly a bad film - it’s often exciting and atmospheric. Pamela Franklin's performance is splendid in its control and the sense it creates of barely restrained religious rapture bordering on hysteria. Roddy McDowell deserves a lot of praise too, not least for bolstering up the last half hour of the film. His decision to make Fischer aloof and disdainful of the others is a masterstroke. I also rather liked the electronic Doctor Who type score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, which is particularly effective in the early sequences. Indeed, Doctor Who came to mind more than once here, especially the early Jon Pertwee stories and the Tom Baker classic “Image Of The Fendahl”. But, overally, Legend of Hell House doesn’t really work. Nigel Kneale does this science/supernatural crossover stuff much better in The Stone Tape and his Quatermass stories - even John Carpenter’s messy but laudably ambitious Prince Of Darkness manages to build up more tension than this film does. The eventual impression is disappointment that Matheson couldn’t come up with something that was more genuinely frightening and ambitious, rather than latching so closely onto Shirley Jackson’s coat-tails. A particular mention should be made of the ending, which is as bathetic as they come and so ridiculous that it’s bound to draw a smile from any viewer who has bothered to get that far.
This is one of Fox's recent back catalogue releases and it follows the general trend in being adequate without being especially impressive.
The film is presented in the original 1.85:1 ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It looks fairly crisp for the most part and is certainly better than the print which has been frequently screened on television. The muted colours come across very well and the dark scenes in the house are well defined, despite a disappointing amount of artifacting. There are also artifacts on display in the mist-shrouded exteriors of the beginning. Grain is frequently present but not a serious problem. This is an above average transfer which would have been better had it been sourced from a restored print.
The soundtrack is supposedly Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo but the amount of stereophonic action is extremely limited. The dialogue is confined to the centre channel and only some of the music and occasional sound effects stretch across the right and left front channels. The original was recorded in mono and there was no pressing need for a change to have been made.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which, in the grand tradition of these things, tells you far too much about the film and spoils some of the better scenes, notably the dinner table attack on Barrett.
The Legend Of Hell House is a generally mediocre film but it's worth a look for those of you who like ghost stories, although even then you'd be better off getting the BFI DVD of Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape. The DVD is competent and if you want a copy of the film it is priced reasonably enough to be worth buying.