Friday, November 12, 2010

Helpful Hints for the Haunted

Congratulations!!  You have just been cast in the new Wes Craven film.  No, it is not MY SOUL TO TAKE.  Mr. Craven would like to wash the bile laden residue of that cineturd out of his system by jumping right back in the saddle with a new project.  The details are very hush, hush at the moment, but rumor has it that it involves some vengeful spirits and a spooky old house.  Since it is your primary objective to give the performance of your life and survive to the end of the film, (maybe even win that Oscar you so richly deserve,)  I would like to provide you with a few key pointers to help you complete this daunting task.  Truth be told, many people either die or suffer horrendous misfortune in horror films because they make the same mistakes over and over again.  Are they just frightened out of their minds or do they just lose all sense of reason in the heat of battle?  Who can say with absolute certainty?  What I can say is that if you follow my simple platform you will be greatly rewarded.  If you don't, well you can't say you weren't adequately warned.  So, without further adieu grab a pen and some note paper because here we go.

Very inviting.  I think I'll stay
As you embark on this endeavor the most important thing to remember is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  If you receive notice that an aunt, grandparent, or (insert random relative here) that you have not seen or heard from in quite some time has recently died and left you the ancestral home in her will, SELL IT!  Don't go for a visit.  Don't insist that you are going to honor this person that hasn't contacted you in just over a millennium by living in the home.  JUST SELL IT!  Contact a local realtor, and put that liability on the market as quickly as you possibly can.  Bank the proceeds and move on.  In so doing you have just saved yourself from months if not years of agonizing torture at the hands of the perceived dead and buried family secrets that are now preparing to haunt you from beyond the grave.  This is your first warning, but say you are curious and insist on a sentimental journey back to the homestead.  On your arrival the locals turn a cold shoulder to your family legacy and shun your very existence.  They go out of their way to make you feel unwelcome.  The adults accost you with cold stares from the porch of the dilapidated general store.  The children run from you, and their parents quickly lead them away from your presence.  When you attempt to question them they are overly evasive or flat out lie to you.  You continuously find spiteful, anonymous, handwritten letters in your mailbox.  Guess what, you have just reached warning number two.  Refer back to the beginning of this paragraph and look at those two words in all caps.  However, you are a stubborn soul.  No one is going to keep you from what is rightfully yours, especially a bunch of uneducated and uncultured country simpletons.  This second warning falls on deaf ears, and you proceed to your family home to commence with a little exploring.  You arrive at the home at dusk, and you are greeted by your relative's faithful housekeeper who nearly knocks you over on her way out of the door because, as she so eloquently states, "I don't like to be here after dark."  A strange breeze gives you a chill as you enter, but nothing seems out of place or unusual on the surface.  The locals have gotten you unnerved you say.  You begin looking around, and in the attic you find an old trunk with a collection of newspaper articles dating back over a hundred years.  Some of them are worn and hard to read, but you are able to decipher a story about an accident at the mill that you remember your mother saying was owned by your great, great grandfather.  Many perished in the accident which was believed caused by the unsafe working conditions at the mill.  Congratulations, this is your third and final warning.  Proceed with the two words in capital letters at the beginning of this paragraph or suffer the consequences.  This may not be baseball, but after three strikes you are still out.

You really don't want to know the answer to that.  Try again.
O.K. maybe this has nothing to do with your family.  Maybe it is all about you.  You just got divorced, were diagnosed with a terminal illness, or (insert life changing stressor here,) and you are not feeling emotionally stable at the moment.  The heavy anvil of depression is weighing down on you, and you need some relief.  You want to leave the hustle and bustle of city life for some much needed quiet and peaceful reflection in the countryside.  Before packing up your things and telling your boss you are going take an indeterminate leave of absence consider this simple advice, STAY HOME!  Listen, I know you feel bad, and everything around you reminds you of your current problems, but this is where your friends and support systems are located, and this is when you need them most of all.  Your friends are here to help you.  They will come to your home or apartment.  They will stay with you if needed.  They will provide you with the companionship required to get you on your feet again.  That is why they are your friends.  You do not have any friends in (insert name of small town 200 miles away.)  In fact most of the people in said town are probably suspicious of out of towners.  They have deep dark secrets of their own that they have kept hidden from the outside world for hundreds of years, and they don't want any city folk snooping around in their business.  I realize that you are just trying to help the restless spirit that is haunting the small home you have rented, but you didn't know this person in life so why bother with them in death.  Besides, the locals will go the extra mile to protect their traditions, and if you get too close to the truth you will become expendable.  Believe me, if you just stay home and tough it out with your friends you will be much happier in the end.

Can't you see I'm busy.   Get Out!
O.K. you just got a new job working for (insert name of successful development company here.)  You have a chance to make millions of dollars by spearheading the company's plans to build a huge new housing project in the suburbs.  Before you begin remember this simple mantra, SACRED LAND IS SACRED.  Whatever your boss demands of you,  no matter how much money you may lose,  regardless of whether or not this may even cost you your much coveted job, do not build your development over an existing cemetery, and most certainly do not desecrate the holy lands of an ancient but extinct Native American tribe.  Only trouble can come from this, and believe me, it isn't worth it.  Listen, death is the great equalizer.  No matter what our station is in life, we will all be dust in the end.  For many life is hard, and when they die they deserve to rest in peace.  They don't need some money hungry upstart raining on their parade by digging up their remains and dumping them elsewhere, or worse, removing the headstones, not digging up their remains, and planting a concrete foundation right on top of their heads.  I don't know about you, but I get pretty cranky when my earthly sleep is disturbed.  I can't imagine how I might feel if my eternal sleep was disturbed.  If that were to happen I would be coming after you, and the end result would not be pleasant.  O.K. maybe you aren't an upstart businessperson looking to make a quick buck.  Maybe, you are just a stupid college drunk.  Well, I am not going to tell you not to drink and party.  That is your business, not mine.  What I am going to tell you is, "Don't get drunk and party in a cemetery."  Look back to those capitalized words at the beginning of this paragraph. (I hope you can read.)  Yeah, I understand that you are not digging me up to build a home, but I don't want you dancing, peeing, and/or screwing on top of my head either.  This is my final resting place.  It is not a frat house.  Leave me in peace or suffer the consequences.  You have been warned.

Don't worry.  Nothing to see here.
O.K. let's say you are on vacation with some friends, and the group of you is staying at a quaint cabin, (insert preferred location here.)  While exploring the cabin you find some interesting handwritten notes in a language you don't understand.  DON'T READ THEM, especially not out loud.  In fact, it is best just to stick them right back where you found them and forget they are even there.  Well, maybe it wasn't a collection of notes.  Maybe one of your stoner buddies found an unlabeled videotape instead.  The answer is still the same.  DON'T WATCH IT.  Maybe it wasn't that either.  Maybe one of your friends brought an Ouija Board because he played with it once at his cousin's house while they were drinking, and it was a blast.  DON'T PLAY WITH IT.  Put that Ouija Board right back in the suitcase and leave it there.  Can you see the trend here?  Don't mess with anything that may result in unknown or unwanted events.  There is a reason why we fear the unknown.  It is because it is unknown.  Why would anyone want to put themselves in a position where they are forced to deal with beings whose behaviors are not understood and whose intentions are unknown?  It is best to just let sleeping dogs lie.  After all, curiosity killed the cat, because the cat got inebriated and thought it would be fun to, "see what happens when it does this."

There you have it budding young A-lister.  Heed my words, and you will quickly become a ghostbuster extraordinaire.  Ignore them, and you will be cursed until a most horrendous and unnatural death claims your immortal soul.

That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, November 8, 2010


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.