The Legend of Hell House

The Legend of Hell House ★★★★½

Entry number 12 in Shocktober 2014.

While the premise of this film is fairly rote by current standards (a varied group of paranormal investigators inhabit and study a house that contains any number of ghouls and ghosties), The Legend of Hell House does most of the standard stuff quite well, and the non-standard stuff is even better. To begin with, the setup is remarkably efficient, just a quick conversation between one of our heroes, the physicist of the group, and the rich old man who hires him and two others (plus the physicist's assistant/wife) to investigate Hell House in order to discover if there is, in fact, life after death. The brevity in this scene allows the film to get to the house as quickly as possible so it can start setting up the characters and the scares. Joining Mr. Physicist is a young female "mental medium" and a male "physical medium," who also happens to be the only surviving investigator from a previous round of study. Again, each character fits a role quickly and easily, a great use of tropes and actors to do the majority of the heavy lifting of the story. Roddy McDowall plays the physical medium and he seems totally innocuous and even superflous until a certain point in the film when he basically becomes the main character. Most of the film is spent with Pamela Franklin (the mental medium) and Clive Revill (the physicist) while the other two characters hang out around the edges. When the film upends this imbalance it works in its favor to shine new light on the people we had already made our minds up about.

The hauntings themselves walk a delicate line between the silly and the sublime. Director John Hough, working with a script adapted by the book's original author, Richard Matheson, wisely decides to keep the ghosts off screen. It's too easy for spectral entities to seem entirely fake in movies, especially when working with older tech. So Hough instead gets by on camera moves, creepy sounds, and some rattling furniture. Over the course of the film it becomes a little tired, unfortunately, but it mostly works. There's one scene that doesn't, though. A possessed cat attacks Franklin as she gets ready for bed and the effect is not great. However often they use a real cat is not enough to sell the fake one that they must use for the actual attack. It's too bad, but it does get called back to in a good scare later on. The rest of the film is full of fun atmospheric touches, especially at night as things take a turn for the lurid. Hough films much of the movie with super wide lenses to fill as much of the screen with detail as possible. He often puts something big in the foreground and places the action off to the side, which heightens the atmosphere and sense of character of the house delightfully.

To truly discuss how successful this movie is, I must talk about the ending. So, spoilers from here on out. Again, SPOILERS!!!!

After the first hour and 20 minutes or so, our two "leads" have died, leaving us only a grieving widow and the heretofore useless Roddy McDowall to save the day and stop the haunting. In a spectacular scene that again splits between the scary and the screwy, McDowall pieces together all the clues only to discover that the evil entity in the house was... really short! Previously described as a menacing 6 foot 5 inch giant, the bad guy was, when living, actually only like 5 feet tall, and McDowall basically berates him (or his spectral remains) until he goes off to hell crying about being bullied by the guy from Planet of the Apes. To his credit, McDowall gives the scene his all and shouts at nothing like it was the most important thing in the world. I love this kind of commitment to something that is, in all fairness, pretty dumb. I wasn't really scared at this point, but I did buy everything that was happening. Really fun stuff. I'm not sure the movie adds up to much beyond a good time, but that's never a bad thing in a genre so filled with tripe.