There’s an ineffable clamminess to many British ghost films that’s evocative and unsettling. These films often give off a sense of decorum having curdled and of something very wrong hiding in plain sight. It’s often the British filmmakers who’re most cognizant of the haunted-house story’s prevailing subtext of sexual hysteria, which is submerged under hypocritically classist and sexist etiquette, and which must eventually come bubbling up again paranormally. So it makes sense, then, when director John Hough says (in an interview included on this disc) that his producer envisioned Richard Matheson’s American novel Hell House as a British film, as the setting—a luxurious mansion that’s said to be the “Mount Everest of haunted houses”—felt British to begin with.
Hough gets quite a bit of mileage out of Hell House’s forebodingly huge fog-engulfed exterior, and the interior is a triumph in that the chambers are somehow spacious yet constricting in their clutter, which is composed of ornate, often bluntly phallic pseudo-Victorian bric-a-brac. The house’s color scheme is dominated by shades of red that abound in distasteful copper tones that sometimes appear to connote a shade of menstrual blood. The setting’s an appropriate monument to discomfort, then, and there are a few scenes that eerily utilize it, such as the obviously fully corporeal form that’s underneath a bed sheet right up until the moment a character pulls it away to reveal nothing. And the film’s tasteful sense of innuendo is memorably, and all too briefly, broken in a disconcertingly animalistic image that shows a woman’s eyes curling up into a gleeful crook of implied insanity for just a second before dropping back to “normal.”
But this film also abounds in missed opportunities. The mystery, which revolves around Hell House’s fanatical owner, doesn’t make any sense, and the audience isn’t invited to play along and piece clues together. Instead, exposition is dumped arbitrarily at times when the plot most greatly requires it, and this is justified by the logic that two of the characters are mediums, which is to say that they have the powers to randomly discern things whenever they want, except when the plot can’t allow them to, of course. The direction is inelegant: Effects shots are often jarringly inserted into conversational interludes, and the frantically scrambling camera compromises a gradual encroachment of dread that’s often invaluable to the long game of orchestrating a haunted-house movie. The structure, taken from the novel, is also botched. There are titles on the screen tracking the progression of each day that the characters spend in the home, which Hough overly relies on so as to stitch incidents together in a stop-and-start manner that slows the narrative’s sense of flow.
The most galling disappointment will be felt primarily by fans of the novel (though the uninitiated will feel the film’s failures in a different way, as they won’t be able to fill in the overtly spare incidents with necessary context). Hough and Matheson, who wrote the script himself, have nearly eliminated the book’s sense of obscenity. In Hell House, the deceased home owner is revealed to be a man of Sadean depravity who fashions a setting for an ongoing orgy of gratification that’s so perverse as to represent nearly every historical atrocity perpetrated by humankind. Matheson, with unexpected bluntness, blew the haunted-house story’s subtextual doors off their hinges, reveling in the exploitation that’s often chastely implied but rarely so openly explored. The Legend of Hell House reinstates the chastity, reducing a classic novel to another cloak-and-ghost thriller that will prove amusing around Halloween time. The film requires something that’s ineffably American: a sense of rude outrage.
Most importantly, the colors come through robustly, particularly the predominant reds. The blacks are also generally well-differentiated (though they could be deeper), and background clarity is crisp, which is pivotal to landing a few of this film’s scares. There’s a scrim of grainy dustiness in the foreground, but it’s consistent, probably intentional, and also contributive to the film’s creepy sense of anachronistic oldness. The English DTS-HD Master Audio monoaural track is competently mixed, if undistinguished. The major set-piece sound effects could be fuller and more dynamic. Still, one of Shout! Factory’s better recent horror-movie transfers.
The interview with director John Hough is often redundant, though it allows him to engagingly contextualize a career that also includes Twins of Evil and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. The audio commentary with actor Pamela Franklin is a weird misstep though, as it appears to have been recorded as a regular interview and then awkwardly re-edited as a commentary track that’s characterized by frequent silences and by sentiments that don’t entirely correspond with the scenes at hand. Rounding out this surprisingly negligible supplements package are the obligatory odds and ends: theatrical trailer, photo gallery, and radio spots.
The Legend of Hell House is a regrettably just-competent adaptation of a great American horror novel. And "just-competent" pretty much sums up this Shout! Factory edition too, though the image is often pretty.