Friday, October 3, 2014

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

So I finally got around to picking up some stories by Richard Matheson, and the collection included the novel “Hell House”. This was a great read with some very disturbing moments and some really interesting sequences where the characters are really put through the ringer. I’d seen the movie a long time ago, but I figured I’d revisit it and see how it compares to the novel. Usually this is a bad idea… let’s see what happens.

Super wealthy but aging billionaire Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) demands to know if there is an afterlife. He wants facts and so he gathers the best of the best in paranormal expertise. There is Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) a physicist who is convinced he knows the secret behind all types of paranormal activity and he has a machine to prove it. With him is his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) who is looking forward to some fun in a haunted house. Then there is Florance Tanner (Pamela Franklin) a mental medium who is very successful contacting spirits. Last but not least is Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall) a physical medium who barely survived the last excursion.

And what excursion is that? Why a nice trip to the most dangerous haunted house ever known: Hell House. This sprawling mansion was once owned by the infamous Emeric Belasco. This man was into debauchery, decadence and all manner of horrors. As such his house if filled with evil spirits that can’t wait to harm anyone that comes inside. The last group that risked it were either killed or driven insane – except for Benjamin. Now this new group must face disturbing haunting, horrifying revelations and even a possessed cat if they are to survive Hell House

Good Points:
  • Some fine acting by the small cast
  • Remains fairly true to Matheson’s original novel
  • Has some pretty creepy moments in it

Bad Points:
  • Some aspects of the plot and characters seem a bit too familiar
  • Seems to move in fits and starts
  • The ending doesn’t quite have the punch it should

This movie almost works, but a bunch of little things keep it from being as memorable or scary as it should be. Hanging in the background is that Robert Wise’s film The Haunting covered similar ground and did it better. Some of the big moments don’t quite deliver. But the whole gothic atmosphere is handled well, and the cast does a very good job, especially the tormented performance by Pamela Franklin. Haunted house fans will enjoy it, but the novel worked a bit better and was able to get more extreme and disturbing in its own way.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.


  1. I liked this movie, but I agree the motive of the deceased owner (revealed at the end) is too facile. Pamela Franklin didn't get nearly enough work when she was active in the biz. After her smashing performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (which I saw, appropriately, while in high school) she found herself mostly in low budget horror films. Nothing wrong with those, but she could have done more besides.

    1. Yeah, as much as I liked the novel, the ending was a bit of a letdown there too, even though they a bit more time to work other elements of that concept into the story.

      Franklin is really a standout in the film. I'm curious to see other movies with her, the "Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" sounds like a good place to start.

    2. A great place to start. Set in the 1930s at a private girls school in Edinburgh, Scotland, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie follows a set of girls through school years; sometimes we move ahead a year without warning when a scene changes. Their teacher Miss Brodie (Maggie Smith) is nonconformist, romantic in the broader sense, and inspiring in every way. But…well...she’s a fascist. We admire her defiance of the Victorian values she encounters from the school’s uptight reactionary headmistress among others, but Miss Brodie truly is objectionable in ways the headmistress doesn’t really grasp. One of Brodie’s special students Sandy (Pamela Franklin) eventually does, charging, “You are dangerous and unwholesome, and children should not be exposed to you!” Yet, even in rebellion, Sandy owes her independence of mind about moral choices to Miss Brodie’s influence. A complex film with great characters and real insight into the appeal of fascism to the most surprising people. The movie develops at a more leisurely pace than than films today, but it still works.

  2. I've seen the Hell House movie, and I like that type story, though as you said, it's not as good as the haunting. That said though I wouldn't mind watching it again. Two of my other favorite films in this genre are The House on Haunted Hill with Vincent Price, and William Castle film, The 13 Ghost. You'd think someone would have tried to remake Hell House by now.

    One of the newer films that has approached it recently is The Woman in Black.

    1. To me "The Hauting" is the king of haunted house movies. Really hard to top that one, but a few movies come pretty close. I love the feeling of dread it builds up. That is a key element in horror and a lot of movies don't attempt it (and when they do, they rarely do it this well).

      "House on Haunted Hill" and "13 Ghosts" are both a lot of fun. Some classic Castle style chills and Vincent Price is devilishly good in "Haunted Hill". We just caught "The Woman in Black" last month and my wife and I really liked it. Great gothic atmosphere and some surprisingly effective jump scares. I also really liked the melancholy mood of the whole thing. Really one of the better haunted house flicks I've seen in the modern era.

  3. Love the mood and atmosphere of this one which puts you on edge from the get-go and keeps you there. I'm not a big haunted house fan but this one is one of THE best.

    1. I agree the atmosphere on this one is perfect. The house really seems to swallow up the characters. It is also a very oppressive feeling film, with the lighting and shot selection really closing in on them and the viewers.