Directed By: John Hough
Screenplay By: Richard Matheson
Based upon the novel by Richard Matheson
Produced By: Albert Fennell, Norman T. Herman
Cast: Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 95 minutes
Review Date: January 28, 2011
In The Legend of Hell House, an aging millionaire contracts a team comprised of a physicist and two psychics to make an investigation into the possibility of “survival after death.” That investigation takes place in the “Mount Everest of haunted houses,” that is, the Belasco House, where the concern isn’t just the survival of ghostly personalities — but the survival of anyone who dares step inside.
My problem with the film isn’t that it has a crappy premise. My problem is that it has a decent premise that just isn’t handled well enough — wasted by a combination of missing exposition, spotty characterization, and a lack of dramatic material. I got more into the character descriptions I wrote after the fact, than I did the characters themselves while watching — proof that at the nexus of this film there is something worthwhile, just mismanaged and largely unexplored.
While the story might not be anything to write home about, the ambiance, if anything, is worth noting. It’s a creepy, atmospheric trip of a movie. Inspired cinematography and a moody, sparse soundtrack highlight the dark voyage. Outside, a surreal abyss presses upon the house from all sides, black cats creep about stone walls against foggy voids, and inside, there’s no relief from the demons that haunt every room. The creepiness is reflected in the characters, especially Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), whose thick glasses and out-of-touch nature add a chilling presence to the scenes he’s in. It’s scary in a way that defies the “deluge of shock and gore” formula employed by most second-rate horror flicks. That said, it’s certainly not The Shining.
When the characters arrive at the Belasco House, they find the windows all bricked over, permitting no daylight. This notion sent a shiver down my spine, but unfortunately the filmmakers miss a plethora of opportunities for creating interesting lighting setups; once inside, ugly lighting serves only to reveal and emphasize the tacky sets.
The house itself is filled with perversely erotic reliefs and more than a few instances of dungeon-esque architecture. Yet there’s not enough character to set it apart from every other haunted locale we’ve seen. The cobweb-draped menagerie littered about seems to be just an arbitrary assortment of creepy-looking furniture, picture frames, candelabras, and so on that have been sitting in the prop room for the last twelve years.
Stark, documentary-like titles conveying the exact date and time, each accompanied by an electronic sigh from the brooding background score, are meant to give the film a scientific feel, fall in line with the observational, procedural nature of the plot, and echo the theme of a controlled experiment — but their recurring frequency over too limited a span of time is only jarring and quickly becomes farcical.
The motley cast of characters on the team include Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), the stalwart skeptic, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), his wife just along for the ride, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a young psychic who is most receptive to the presences in the house, and the aforementioned Ben Fischer, an eccentric physical medium, and the only survivor of the previous investigatory attempt. None of these characters ever really won me over. Characterization is sparse, undeveloped, and mostly one-dimensional. I attribute this to the film’s apparent lack of a first act. For a screenplay adapted from a novel by the novel’s author, it’s literally devoid of exposition.
Barrett subscribes to solely empirical rationalizations for the psychic phenomena that occur in the house, while Florence, under constant assault by ghostly manifestations, ascribes the same phenomena to something spiritual. Therein lies the film’s only attempt at dramatic conflict. Throughout all of their experiences, Florence remains weirdly unperturbed; offended more by Barrett’s skeptical views than, say, an instance in which she’s raped by a ghost. It takes a dead cat in the shower to rattle her resolve.
Barrett brings the scientific method to the table, but the voice of reason comes from the slightly unhinged, not-all-there Fischer, who has chosen to shut himself off to the energies of the house. He’s mostly removed from the proceedings until Barrett and Tanner (and their competing philosophies) are removed from the picture after having been showcased at the forefront of the plot.
The one thing the characters have going for them is that they’re not idiots, and Barrett’s rant about the house as a giant battery for “mindless, directionless” electromagnetic radiation is interesting food for thought. But some of the more intriguing dramatic potential is left by the curbside.
The film’s “scares” involve the characters’ successful or unsuccessful attempts to dodge physical manifestations Final Destination-style. The suspense begins to wane once it becomes apparent that all you have to do to survive, is not stand directly under a chandelier.
Luckily, the various instances in which the otherworldly force manifests itself aren’t causes for alarm. The characters, professionals though they may be, react with casual indifference to the temper tantrums of a narcissistic ghost — about as unnerved by this noisy, occasionally violent poltergeist as they would be by a meddlesome mouse. Ann is meant as the layperson, an anchor in the supernatural proceedings, but her reaction to the house’s manifestations is sometimes just as insipid.
The exorcism of negative energy in the house by machine is an interesting plot development that comes too late. A more interesting movie would have featured this as the central plot mechanic, from the very beginning. Here it feels like an afterthought — out of place.
The plot itself is a dreadful bore. Barely anything happens, and those events that do take place aren’t causally related to each other. We never transcend the premise of four paranormal investigators in a house reacting to loud noises and objects moving of their own accord. It’s just a shouting contest between two bickering characters amidst a canvas of scares and creepy moments.
I could see the film benefiting from an update where the house itself is more thoroughly and creatively explored, revealing the same kind of distinct personality as that of the Paper Street Soap Co. from Fight Club. An update featuring characters that are fully fleshed-out and actually likeable. Where the psychic manifestations are more subtle in nature, and thus more open to interpretation, waxing in intensity as the plot progresses (instead of being so brazenly overt from the get-go).
What this boils down to, when you look at the sum total of its parts, is just another made-for-TV movie of the week, a bad X-Files episode. Although the core idea deserves to be remade — but not by Rob Zombie, and neither Rose Red, nor Scary Movie 2, count.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.