Monday, March 12, 2012

The Legend Of Hell House!

This early 70's offering is a movie I've been wanting to see for a long time. I never caught in the theaters and I've never before seen it on television, but as it's a Richard Matheson offering and I'm a big fan, I expected a really involving experience.

Alas that proved not to be the case.

The story revolves around four paranormal investigators trying to prove the existence of the afterlife and doing so by inspecting the most notorious haunted house in the world, a mansion dubbed "Hell House" by all. It seems this house was owned by a man named Belasco infamous for his sadistic and perverse activities and who disappeared after a particularly bloody debauchery. Some years earlier psychic investigators were run from the house crippled and insane and the house had been off limits since.

The movie gives us a couple, a physicist and his wife (the fetching Gayle Hunnicutt) who are out to eliminate the ghostly apparitions, a beautiful girl who is a medium, and another man (Roddy McDowell) who is also a medium who is the sole sane survivor of the earlier attempt to investigate the house. These four spend a week in the place and suffer a host of paranormal experiences as the story slowly unwinds.

That's the plot and you'd expect a story like that, especially one concocted by Matheson to be pretty scary. This one isn't, not in the least. I can't put my finger on what goes wrong, but the characters are all aloof and that hurts my ability to identify with them, and so care what happens to them. The spookery is pretty contrived, but that might be the limits of the day. Mostly I think it's the dry business-like manner which dominates the show. This usually is a plus for Matheson's stories, but it doesn't work here.

The girl medium (Pamela Franklin), a source and target of much of the paranormal activity seems to encounter something every ten minutes or so and screams long and loud each time. Sometimes the others respond, sometimes they don't. There is an introduction about half way through of a giant gizmo (looks like a Twilight Zone prop) brought in by the physicist (Clive Revill) which is supposed to drive out the spooks, but it looks like a lot of movie equipment of the time, a big imposing but not very convincing box.

The eventual payoff in the movie is underwhelming I must say and the motivation for the evil seems more than a tad contrived. I'll say little else as I don't want to spoil it. I'm easily frightened by movies of this type, and this one didn't send a chill down me once, not a single time. Disappointing.

I can't recommend this one save for those like me who want to sample everything the great Matheson produced. Maybe the novel is better. I need to read that now.

Rip Off


  1. I saw it at the Ludlow theater on a Sunday matinee and I remember trying to convince myself I liked it more than i did. A good cast and a great writer but pretty darn dull otherwise. Still, that was the case with many horror films at the time that I consistently wished would live up to their own posters...or at least their trailers.

  2. It starts out very very well with outstanding mood, and I liked the timekeeping device. It kept the story moving, but that also undercut some of the scares for me too.

    I forgot to mention the cat attack in my review, that was a highlight of classic old-fashioned film making as poor Miss Franklin had to sell the bogus cat on her neck.

    Rip Off

  3. Rip

    The novel is excellent -one of the best things that Richard Matheson ever wrote.

    BTW there was a 1975-76 "haunted house" story arc in "Werewolf by Night" (4 parts or thereabouts) that, in retrospect was very closely based on the plot of "Hell House". It's a beaut story, but when I read the novel many years later, I was amazed at the similarities in the basic plot. I don't know if writer Doug Moench ever said that he wrote it as a tribute, but he should have (and no, I'm not accusing him of plagrism; it's similar, but certainly not identiical).


  4. I'll have to dig it out. I have a copy I bought several years ago and tucked away for later. Later seems to be here.

    That Werewolf story sounds intriguing. I'll have to dig them out too. Thanks.

    Rip Off

  5. Hi, Rip. I believe I've seen your byline several times in comments on Bronze Age Babies, a site that I particularly enjoy. If you are interested in the Silver Age as well, stop by Marvel University (, where every week we cover a month's worth of Marvel Comics from FANTASTIC FOUR #1 on up.

    As a longtime Matheson friend, fan, and scholar, I'm sorry you were disappointed with THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, and hope you will enjoy the novel a bit more. I share Mark's feeling that it's one of the best things Richard ever wrote. He wasn't a big fan of the film himself when he first saw it, but--as is often the case when his scripts are filmed--grew to like it over time. The restrictions of the time forced them to tone it down a bit on the screen; ironically, soon afterward, THE EXORCIST rewrote the rules on what a horror film could portray. Richard said that if he'd had his way, the main characters in the film would have been played by what were then two married couples: Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom as the Barretts, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the two mediums. Speaking of tributes to HELL HOUSE (like the WEREWOLF BY NIGHT arc Mark mentioned, of which I was unaware), among the faux trailers in GRINDHOUSE is one for DON'T, which was partly a pastiche of LEGEND. Aptly, its creator, Edgar Wright, has been tapped to direct the remake of Matheson's classic THE NIGHT STALKER. For further information on the various incarnations of HELL HOUSE, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (

    Finally--and at the risk of seeming totally link-happy, for which I apologize in advance--I see from your profile that you are a Bond fan, so you might be interested in the lengthy analysis of 007 on page and screen that I recently did for my blog, Bradley on Film ( Later this year, CINEMA RETRO is scheduled to publish my exhaustive analysis of the Blofeld canon as part of the 50th-anniversary celebration of Bond onscreen.


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