Revisiting a film which chilled you as an impressionable youngster is a tricky proposition, would a return to 1973 and the Belasco house still raise the goosebumps?
The haunted house, or the 'bad place' as Stephen King calls it, is an ancient and much revisited story premise: An unhappy occurence imprints itself upon an often large and usually run-down dwelling where a small group of people stay the night, willingly or otherwise, and face then face supernatural consequences after nightfall.
It's a simple template, but used so many times that it takes a writer of huge skill to employ it in a fresh and effective way. Fortunately, Richard Matheson is such an author, and even more fortunately for someone like me who watches plenty of films but doesn't read nearly enough; his work has been constantly adapted for the screen for many decades. And usually adapted well, sometimes by Matheson himself.
You'll have seen interpretations of his work whether you realise it or not, from William Shatner/John Lithgow suffering worse-than-usual flying anxiety over 'something on the wing', to Will Smith fighting dodgy CGI vampires in his cargo pants, a tiny man trapped in his cellar by the household cat, Robin Williams in a Rennaisance artist's heaven and Dennis Weaver pursued by an implacable, malevolent truck along a Californian desert highway.
That's a mixed bag of good and bad adaptations - fortunately The Legend of Hell House is one of the very best. Adapted by Matheson from his own, more explicit novel Hell House, this is the story of four psychical researchers spending a full week in the 'Mount Everest of haunted houses'. A cold, clinical physicist who believes in a purely scientific explanation (played by ex-Rongotai College Boy and original Emperor Palpatine Clive Revill) and his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) are joined by a Spiritualist minister and a medium (played by former child stars Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowell, respectively) .
There is plenty of tension between the four, providing the drama when the surprisingly confident and startling depiction of paranormal activity isn't on screen (I don't think I've seen a manifestation of ectoplasm shown in any other film, for example).
The opening is extremely creaky, with murky establishing shots and the worst letraseted titles seen outside of a sixth form art class. But as the story gains momentum all else becomes secondary. The four leads are instantly convincing, each affected in a different way by the baleful influence of the Belasco residence. There's an early bravura 'effects' sequence which gives Revill's character a much-needed lesson in manners, but the creepiest scenes involve Pamela Franklin's bed sheets. Convincingly done, but perhaps it's the element of invasiveness which lend these sequences their extra shudder.
This and another scene involving a possessed cat has apparently been spoofed in other films, which I suppose can be taken as high praise. (Come to think of it, the Ghostbusters theme song video blatantly riffs on Hell House's scariest scene: "An invisible man, sleepin' in your bed, who you gonna call...? and of course the 1984 comedy fairly drips with ectoplasm).
But what gives The Legend of Hell House it's real sense of creeping dread is the soundtrack. Churning electronic music, punctuated by eerie sighs and half-heard voices, permeate almost every scene; subconsciously unsettling us. Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgeson, (two names instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Doctor Who), are responsible for this 'music', and the result is remarkable, although not an album you'd ever put on to chill out to. (Well, not that kind of chill, at least).
I'm still happy to recommend this as one of the best horror films I've ever seen. Long before this genre became unfortunately littered with slasher flicks, zombies and tiresome CGI, The Legend of Hell House still shows that a good story told and performed well, with reliance on creating atmosphere rather than massive computer files, can't be beaten.