Movie Review: The Legend of Hell House

I enjoy a good haunted house film – like Poltergeist and the Woman in Black. When this film, adapting a novel by Richard Matheson which was in turn inspired by a Shirley Jackson novel, came up on my radar. 

The plot is pretty basic. An eccentric millionaire, Mr. Deutsch (Mr. German – cute), hires a selection of people with various talents to investigate a haunted house that has come into his possession, but not just any haunted house, but the ostensible “Mount Everest of Haunted Houses” – The Belasco house. The previous owner, Emeric Belasco, called “The Roaring Giant” reportedly held orgies and engaged in various other forms of debauchery before his mysterious disappearance following the deaths of everyone else in the house.

A previous attempt to investigate the house in 1950 resulted in the entirety of the team being either killed or driven mad, with the exception of the team’s physical medium – Ben Fisher (Roddy McDowell). Deutsch has roped Fischer into returning to the house, along with Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a Spiritual medium, and physicist and parapsychologist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill). Barrett’s wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), has also chosen to come along with her husband.

As they investigate the house and attempt to get to the bottom of the haunting, and to hopefully “cleanse” the house, the ghost – or ghosts – within the house begin to fight back through various means.

The film has an incredible (though very small) cast, with Revill, McDowell, and Franklin at the forefront. With the cast being so very small – effectively just four people, it’s important for the cast to have strong chemistry – which they do. Their performances do a remarkable job of overcoming some of the film’s other issues, especially related to effects.

McDowell’s performance is particularly great – as a person who was incredibly traumatized by his experience in the last expedition, who doesn’t want to be here because he knows exactly what this house is capable of. Similarly Franklin does an excellent job putting forward Tanner as a character who is involved in this (as she’s also a minister) because she’s legitimately concerned about the souls involved in a haunting, and wants to help them pass on.

That said, having seen Poltergeist and The Woman in Black, I have to say that this film has one tremendously fatal flaw – it’s just too well lit. It’s not that there aren’t scenes in shadow – there are, it’s that far too often the haunting takes place in a well lit room. This can work if you’re confident that of your haunting look good in clear lighting. Unfortunately, a lot of the effects of the poltergeist are basically stuff being thrown at the main characters from off camera which, due to the framing, lighting, and some of the continuity, makes the effects a little rough.

Also, while this film has a balance between male and female members of the cast, the female characters are not treated well. Both female characters, over the course of the film, are sexually assaulted by the ghost. One is compelled to sexually come on to one of the other investigators, and another is raped as an avenue for a partial possession. A possession that, I should note, predates the release of The Exorcist. So, keep that in mind going into the film.

I still thought the film was good, but it didn’t exactly scare the pants off me the way The Woman in Black did.

The Legend of Hell House is available on on Blu-Ray and on Amazon Video.