There is a bright, interesting line, I believe, that can be drawn between Shirley Jackson's influential 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King's pop culture titan The Shining, and that line goes directly through The Legend of Hell House, and its source material, which was written by Richard Matheson. In fact, I find it very difficult to discuss -- or even really think about -- The Legend of Hell House outside of the context of Shirley Jackson's book, and the 1963 genre movie classic it spawned, The Haunting, directed by the quietly masterful Robert Wise. Despite the overlap with The Haunting, Richard Matheson is a legend of the genre and was a huge influence on Stephen King, so this is a clear spiritual, and possibly even direct, influence on both the literary and film treatment of one of King's best-loved works.
In The Legend of Hell House, almost every element of the earlier Jackson/Wise works is recycled, and then turned up to 11. The basic set-up for both is the psychic investigation of a sprawling, Gothic mansion with a reputation for being haunted, and the four (two men, two women) poor, dumb souls who decide to spend a week in the house to investigate it. Needless to say, things go awry.
For me, The Haunting is still one of the finest horror movies ever made. It evokes a pervasive creepiness, relies on the psychological for its scares, and manages a not inconsiderable amount of them. Despite being made a decade later, after blood found its way into the movies, I found The Legend of Hell House to be a less frightening, and certainly less disturbing, film. That said, it brings in some interesting new additions to the discussion (like deviant, deviant sex!), and starts from a place where paranormal manifestations and occurrences are a given. The question at hand, then, is not whether something weird is going on at the Belasco House, but whether the source of it is a lingering personality (a ghost), or an imbalance in electromagnetic energy that can be scientifically measured and counteracted.
On the whole, an effective-enough film as a bridge between The Haunting and The Shining, though the former exceeds it in humanity and the latter exceeds it in terror.
|"Heeeeeeere's....some familiar genre tropes!"
Objective Quality: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for Richard Matheson's screenplay from his own book; +1 for the lower third date/time stamp throughout the film that would be reused by Kubrick in The Shining.
Penalties: -1 for hewing so very closely to The Haunting; -1 for the cool at first, then just kind of odd finale (prosthetic legs? wha?!?).
Cult Movie Coefficient: 7/10. An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws.
[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]