“The Legend of Hell House” is so intent on getting its cast into the titular, haunted mansion, as quickly as possible that you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that it wanted to to get to the scares as soon as possible. Unfortunately, where the film wants to go is straight into melodrama. Assembling a tight cast in the “Hell House” so that they argue and bicker about each other’s mettle and fortitude.
Their stated goal is to prove for a wealthy client that the afterlife exists, and given the spotted history of the cursed manor it is assumed that it has a particularly strong link. To suss out the truth of the matter the team includes a spiritual medium, and physical medium, a man of science and his wife. If they stay a full week, each will earn a generous payday.
Maybe Hell House can be best appreciated as one of the last horror films where atmosphere was more important than body counts, gore, or social commentary. Its a creepy old house. That should be enough.
Still Hell House churns up a remarkable amount of plot twists that it doesn’t bother to explore in any detail. There’s decaying bodies chained up in the walls, a different film would layer on murder mysteries but “Hell House” is content to simply bury. There’s the manner in which not a member of the cast is at all skeptical of each other’s abilities nor the existence of the supernatural world, refusing to dignify such quibbles to themselves or the audience. At one point the scientist unveils a giant computer complete with dials, gauges, and blinking lights that will cleanse out the demonic spirits. No one asks how such a thing works, not even in a coy way to explain its physics to the audience. It spurs to life like a disco air conditioner, and that’s that. Strangest of all, the setting is never really explored in any great detail. It only feels like we see a few rooms of the house and get very little backstory on the horrors that once took place there.
I will admit that despite these missteps, Hell House comes off better than “watchable”. Maybe that it keeps the bar low enough that success is a forgone conclusion. The cast also punches at their weight, including a typically neurotic Roddy McDowall who even gets to make the big reveal at the end.