"The Legend of Hell House" is a guilty pleasure from 1973. I remember seeing the rather lurid trailer at my local movie house, The Arcade Theater, and knew I had to see the film. Considering the violence, and somewhat tasteful nudity, I am surprised the film was merely rated PG at the time of its release and I was able to see the film unescorted by an adult.
I liked the film, but I must admit I was a little disappointed initially. First, I remember thinking that I had already seen all of the scary moments in the trailer. More importantly, however, I felt the film was an amped-up ripoff of Robert Wise's 1963 masterpiece "The Haunting." At the time I considered "The Haunting" the best ghost movie ever made. Still do. I have had considerable experience with paranormal activity. Whenever someone asks me what it was like to live in a haunted house, I tell them to watch "The Haunting." (Please, whatever you do, avoid the Jan De Bont's 1999 remake of the film. It is a travesty.)
Subsequent viewing, however, have allowed me to enjoy "The Legend of Hell House" on its own level. The plot is simple. A dying millionaire sends a physicist, Clive Reville, and his wife, Gayle Hunnicutt, and two mediums, the tasty Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowall to the Belasco House, described as "the Mount Everest of haunted houses," to prove or disprove the survival of personality after death. Two other psychic expeditions into the house ended in disaster. Roddy McDowall's character is the sole sane survivor of the second expedition. Needless to say, madness and bloodshed ensue before the riddle of the Belasco House is finally solved.
The real strength of the film is the script by Richard Matheson which was based on his own novel. Matheson is one of the most interesting horror/sci-fi screenwriters of his time. His credits included films like "The Incredible Shrinking Man" to "The Night Stalker" and numerous episodes of "The Twilight Zone." This film itself is reminiscent thematically of Matheson's classic novel "I Am Legend," in that it explores the boundary between scientific knowledge and the supernatural. Matheson always likes to have his cake and eat it, too. He accepts and celebrates the supernatural, but he always provides it with an acceptable scientific explanation.
The film is moody and atmospheric, but it might be too slowly paced for MTV-generation. The performances of the four leads are generally solid. That said, I do sometimes waver in my opinion as to whether McDowall is brilliant or hopelessly over the top in the film.
It's definitely worth a look. Here's the trailer: