|This poster is scarier than the film...|
Based on Richard Matheson's novel, Hell House, and with a screenplay adapted by the author, the film gets the ball rolling swiftly, assembling physicist Lionel Barrett, his wife Ann and two mediums, Florence Tanner and Ben Fischer to head to the Belasco House. It's a place so haunted that it has claimed the lives of eight people already and the mystery has never been solved. It is the ultimate in haunted houses and with the a fair amount of hubris and dash of trepidation, the four hunker down to solve the mystery of Emeric Belasco's haunted Gothic pile.
And boy, do we know we're in a Gothic tale here. From the moment they all arrive at the house, the exterior is bathed in thick fog, shrouding the early 20th century architecture and subsequently our cast of characters. The moody ambience is further enhanced when you realise the windows have been bricked up to prevent people from seeing into the house or, as one character ominously puts it, to prevent people from looking out. It's the last time we see the exterior of the house until the very end of the film and the claustrophobic location is established quickly and successfully.
As you would expect with a film of this title, the house itself is the most well-realised character in the film. Dark and foreboding, the edges of each and every room are shadowy and uninviting. The use of lighting here is particularly effective; we're never allowed to see the complete picture. It gives the house an unknowable quality, fitting for the mystery aspect of the narrative given that we're not supposed to understand it entirely.
It also helps that we never really see what is affecting these people in such a manner. The furniture is prone to moving around, the cutlery willing to attack you at any given moment and the chandeliers really don't want to stay attached to the ceiling. Every single aspect of the house feels like a threat because there is nothing tangible to cling to. It's just menacing and supposedly more scary as a result. However, despite the excellent set-up and the carefully cultivated atmosphere, the film never goes far enough in converting this into anything truly scary.
Matheson toned down the more overtly controversial elements of his novel in transferring it to the screenplay, but it does more harm than good. In the right hands, there's a terrifying film in there, something which plays on the idea of the psychosexual energy in the house and really lets loose in bringing that forth. And it doesn't even need to be explicit. If you compare it to another psychosexual repression themed film, The Innocents does far more with far less explicit imagery than The Legend of Hell House. The similarly-themed TV series Penny Dreadful also manages to suggest a huge amount with very little, though it does stray into the explicit as the ongoing narrative becomes more extreme. It helps to have the performances to pull it off (and Deborah Kerr and Eva Green have theirs nailed), but it can be done.
As it stands with The Legend of Hell House, it feels like every time it gets interesting, there's something there wrenching it back to stop it from going too far. Scenes that should carry an innate horror in them, like finding a shape in a bed or watching a body as its invaded by a malevolent presence, fall flat. The atmospheric set and production design can only do so much. When the actual scares fail to follow, the film can't help but feel like a bit of a failure.
You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.
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