The fear that we create in our minds in anticipation of unpleasant events is more often than not more powerful than the event itself. Also, the actions of unseen forces are more unsettling than those by forces we can see, and can thus relate to and understand. Along these lines, in horror cinema, the most frightening ghosts are of the unseen variety. They make their presence felt by being menacing, by toying with those who trespass on their realm. They make noise. They bang, shuffle, and walk loudly across hardwood floors. They spark chills and cold winds. They speak, threaten and cajole. Eventually they move things around, simply and quickly, such as doors opening and closing by themselves, books falling off of shelves, etc. It’s usually around here that the separation is made between good ghost films and bad ghost films.
Good ghost films try their best to maintain the creepiness of an unseen entity’s actions, even while the audience is quickly growing accustomed to being in a haunted house or hotel, or wherever. Bad ghost films just chuck all restraint and set up a titanic battle between good and evil, slave to special effects under the belief that seeing a big bad scary ghost in an explosive finale is what the audience craves after spending the first half of the film scared out of their wits.
Both these films suffer from the same problem. There’s only so much a story can wring out of a central character in the plot who insists on remaining unseen. Also, the very mystery, the circumstances surrounding cinematic haunts, adds to the unease of the audience. As questions are resolved throughout the natural progression of the plot, much of the menace of any spirit is lost.
The best ghost film ever made, The Haunting, from 1963, solved this problem by keeping things simple, and allowing the living characters to drive the plot. Even late in the film, long after it is clear that the setting is indeed haunted, questions abound about just how much of the problems which beset Julie Harris’s Eleanor are caused by a ghost or brought forth of her own making.
One of the worst ghost films ever made, The Haunting, from 1999, descends into funhouse spectacle, overwhelmed by an outlandish set and tawdry CGI effects that fail to make up for the dumbing down of what was a fine story in the original.
In much the same way, a good ghost film turned mediocre in 1408, when subtleness and extreme creepiness gave way to showiness.
The toughest question of all in ghost films is, “What next?”
The Legend of Hell House, from 1973, is very similar in plot and structure to the original Haunting. A small group of people enter a notoriously haunted mansion to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts. There is a ghost, or ghosts, and the characters find themselves witness to all sorts of spectral events, but never to an actual apparition. In this way, Hell House tries its best to mirror its predecessor. What is different about this film is that there is never any doubt among any of the characters that something is going on in the house. The psychics believe in ghosts, and while the physicist does not, he does believe that there is a measurable energy that is responsible for the phenomena that others associate with ghosts.
It doesn’t even take long for things to get going, as tables and chairs rattle not long after the protagonists enter the building. The rest of the film is spent solving the mystery of the haunting and dealing with the malevolent presence in the house.
While Hell House is a conventional ghost story, and in reality an almost complete clone of The Haunting, it is a well made horror film. It’s creepy and dark, and any horror film can get loads of mileage out of big, menacing mansions, as long as these places remain somewhat believable. Dark, airy spaces and ostentatious wood moldings do wonders for adding to the unease.
Director John Hough also shot the film well. His use of close-ups, slow pans, and foreshortening close in the viewer, forcing them to consider what might be offscreen that neither they, nor the characters, can see. The film is sparing in its effects, preventing overuse. And in this film, the decision to hide much from the viewer only makes it better. The cast, including Roddy McDowall, is very English. There really isn’t any other way to describe it. If a viewer is at all familiar with British horror films, then the characters of Hell House will be familiar.
The film does have a final confrontation with the source of the haunting, and it introduces a confusing and somewhat silly wrinkle, but nothing explodes, and nothing is overdone.
The Legend of Hell House is satisfying throughout because it has steady consistency and pacing. It is a quality horror film because it establishes an unsettling atmosphere and doesn’t overdo the shocks. It looks professional and feels professional from beginning to end. Its intent — to tell a good story and scare the audience — is always clear, always where the focus stays, and it never waivers. It’s rare to see a film that is this complete.