The Legend of Hell House, like the novel on which it is based, Hell House, was written by Richard Matheson. Watching it, you feel as though it almost had to be. It seems more like a companion piece than a work in its own right. The body of the story is there, but the connective tissue is missing. The individual parts aren’t so much scenes as vignettes, each of which imparts another important plot point. I suppose for that reason it’s comprehensible without having read the book, but it’ll probably leave viewers who haven’t feeling as though they missed something.
This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a terribly good one either. It is, however, different, unusual. And all of a piece. Because each scene is, really, equally important, it doesn’t build the way a narrative should. On the other hand, if the peaks are missing, so, too, are the troughs. It comes at you like a truck on a flat highway moving at a steady 45 mph. Relative to other traffic, that isn’t very fast. But if you’re standing still…
The story, of course, is the same, relocated to England. A dying rich man hires three investigators to settle the question of survival after death in the only place he knows where such an answer might be found: Hell House, a haunted mansion that has already defeated the efforts of two previous teams to solve its mysteries. The team consists of physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and physical medium Ben Fisher (Roddy McDowall). Accompanying Dr. Barrett is his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt).
The primary team members are all professionals, all experienced in dealing with hauntings. This helped make the book atypical in that fear wasn’t driving the characters. It’s the same thing here, but now it’s just another part of the overall tonal flatness of the film. Oh, there’s some yelling and there’s some screaming, but it’s all just bumps in the road. This isn’t a scary movie. It’s ominous, from beginning to end.
Matheson unfortunately kept his ending more or less intact. I thought it was simplistic in the book; it’s sillier here, although it has some nice special effects as one of the team members gets pushed around. The special effects, in fact, are good throughout.
The actors do well across the board and the movie is well-made. The real reason to see it, though, is for a taste of something different.
When physicist Lionel Barrett asks for a list of phenomena observed in the Belasco house, popularly known as Hell House, it contains about a hundred alphabetical entries, of which the following are the P’s:
“…Paraffin molds; Parakinesis; Paramnesia; Paresthesia; Percussion; Phantasmata; Poltergeist phenomena; Possession; Precognition; Presentiment; Prevision; Pseudopods; Psychic photography; Psychic rods; Psychic sounds; Psychic touches; Psychic winds; Psychokinesis; Psychometry…”
This is, clearly, one badass house. Barrett is the nominal leader of a small group of investigators hired by Rolf Deutsch, its dying owner, whose mission is to establish conclusively whether or not there is survival after death. Barrett doesn’t think so; Florence Tanner, a mental medium, disagrees; and Ben Fisher, a physical medium and the only sane survivor of a previous investigation years before, agrees with Florence — but he’s there less to prove anything to Deutsch than to avenge his previous failure. Edith, Barrett’s seemingly timid wife, is along for the ride.
It’s a wild ride, to be sure. This is not a book that skimps on its supernatural manifestations. Spirit guides, poltergeist activity, possession, teleplasmic extrusions — the list, like the one Barrett receives at the beginning of the book, goes on and on. You want action? You’ve found it.
To Matheson’s credit, it isn’t, however, mindless mayhem. He doesn’t toss a ghost in the house and figure anything goes. Matheson weaves together the personalities of his investigators with the sordid history of the Belasco house to create a believable framework for all the insanity.
Belasco, we learn early, was a man pulled from the pages of something by the Marquis de Sade. He established his house as a haven for depravity, debauchery, and criminality. Torturers and victims alike were tormented beyond endurance; any or all of them could be haunting the house. Indeed, when the house was finally opened by police, everyone (except Belasco himself) was found dead.
Capturing particular psychologies isn’t one of Matheson’s gifts, but he’s more effective with personalities. Miss Tanner, the touchy-feely spiritualist, sees the house as a groundbreaking case of multiple haunting. She believes she is contacted by one of the spirits, a man not as cruel as the others who desperately wants to be free. She, of course, is desperate to help him. Fisher, remembering his earlier experience, advises her not to open up so much to the forces in the house, but then he is afraid to open up at all. Barrett, meanwhile, has his own ideas about all of this, and spends much of his time constructing a machine that he says will neutralize the house in a matter of minutes. Edith, as an “outsider,” is caught between the confidence of her husband and the evidence of her own eyes. Each of the characters gets more than one nasty surprise as the story progresses.
One of the unusual aspects of this story is that all of Matheson’s characters are good, intelligent people, doing their best in their own ways to deal with the house, and none of them is entirely right or wrong. It’s true that the final revelation is, psychologically, weak, but otherwise the story has a satisfying resolution.
And the build-up is very good, establishing the characters and their internal conflicts, as well as the house itself, which includes a spooky steam room and a profane chapel. Matheson did his homework regarding spiritualism, and Florence’s “sittings” owe much to the history of well-known spiritualists. The research — and the inclusion of Barrett, the scientist, as a main character — keep the book grounded in the real world, even as Matheson uses the house to twist that reality in an evolution of the characters’ various theories.
I can also tell you this: not all of these characters will survive. Which seems fitting for a place called Hell House.
Tom Wallace’s latent psi abilities are awakened after he is hypnotized at a party. He experiences telepathy, precognition, even a limited degree of mind-reading. He also sees a ghost. Awkward mashup of two independent storylines, the one a Peyton Place-like melodrama of the secret lives of a group of implausibly sinful neighbors, the other a simplistic and ultimately dull tale of a dead woman with an agenda. Meanwhile, Tom struggles to hold his mind and marriage together. For all its histrionics, the book is well-written and surprisingly readable, if never entirely satisfying.