THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is a British film based on the Richard Matheson novel, HELL HOUSE. Richard Matheson is one of the better horror writers of the 20th Century, and his work can be found scattered across both big and small screens. Some of his most notable adaptations include three versions of the vampire story I AM LEGEND, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME with Robin Williams, and STIR OF ECHOES with Kevin Bacon; on TV, multiple episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and DUEL, the made for TV movie that launched another legend, Steven Spielberg. Matheson's stories dealt with many themes, from simple twist endings to satirical humor to paranoia. Sometimes he tried to create a horrific tale that attempted to find balance between the supernatural and the natural. With added inspiration from my favorite ghost story, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, HELL HOUSE is one of these tales.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE opens with a meeting between physicist and paranormal researcher Lionel Barrett and aging millionaire Rudolph Deutsch. For reasons unclear in the film, but more developed in the book, Mr. Deutsch is interested in scientific evidence supporting life after death and has asked Barrett to find it. For Dr. Barrett the temptation, possible academic notoriety, and money are too good to overlook, but the feat will be no small one. In order to find the answers he seeks he must journey to Belasco House, the only known location where paranormal activity remains unexplained, and Belasco House will not give up its secrets easily. In the paranormal circles it is known as Hell House, the "Mt. Everest" of all haunted houses. No one has even set foot within its evil walls in 20 years, and the last research group to investigate it did not fare very well. Of the eight member team, most died or were driven permanently insane. Only one, Ben Fischer, crawled away with both mind and body intact. Now it is Barrett's turn to solve the riddle. Together with his wife, Ann, mental medium, Florence Tanner, and physical medium, Ben Fischer, (the very Ben Fischer, who nearly died the last time,) he travels to Belasco House to encounter the waiting demons within.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is a British production and has the look and feel of a Hammer Studios film. For this reason some may feel it looks dated, but I disagree. Seeing that I still really enjoy Hammer Studios productions, as a mimicker it was an added bonus. All in all the film creates a wonderful atmosphere for malevolent specters. The sets are stylish and elegantly dressed. The surroundings are horrifically ominous, and the soundtrack creates an eerie sense of foreboding. The film remains effective at generating some legitimate scares, and I found myself feeling hairs stand on end like it was my first viewing all over again. For this, it was enough for me to give the film a positive review, but Matheson's screenplay has some discernible weaknesses, namely in characterization. I have often discovered this problem when watching film adaptations in which novelist and screenwriter are one in the same. It almost seems as if the novelist is already very close to the characters and understands them, creating assumptions that we do as well, though we have never met them before now. With the exception of Ben Fischer all other players in the film seem one dimensional. We know Barrett is a determined researcher who wants to prove that paranormal activity has a natural basis, but his motivations are never explored beyond that. His wife is mere window dressing. Many of the more sexually explicit aspects of the novel center around her, and with the sexuality toned down for a PG rating it leaves her little to do. Florence Tanner represents the yang to Barrett's yin, but beyond that we really don't know much about her past experiences or motivation. It is not even fully explained why Deutsch sanctioned this project in the first place. When added together, this proved to be somewhat dissatisfying. The house and its history seem to dominate most of the group's attention, leaving us little time to get to know them as more than just pawns in an evil game of ghostly cat and mouse.
Besides its drawbacks THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE does offer some appeal for the lover of horror. As I previously stated, some effective scares and creepy crawly tension remain as integral components to the film. In addition, Matheson filled his story with scientific explanations for the paranormal, some of which are still relevant today. The ideas of ghosts generating electromagnetic fields and draining environmental energy in order to create physical manifestations are widely accepted by today's parapsychologists. For believers, like me, it adds an element of realism to the story. Beyond that, the film has proved to be a model for more recent haunted house stories like POLTERGEIST and ROSE RED.
In conclusion, has THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE worn a little with time? Perhaps, but despite its shortcomings, I still find it to be a worthwhile experience especially if you enjoy haunted houses and incorporeal harbingers of doom.
That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.