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Botch job at Hell House....
on 17 February 2008
I was really looking forward to this film, being a long time fan of supernatural tales, haunted house mysterious and Richard Matheson's previous excellent output (Twilight Zone, Poe adaptations, novels etc), I thought - how could I go wrong? This film can't fail.... regrettably, for me, it did - and I thought i'd write a little review (something I don't normally do!) explaining why, as every other review here gives this film four (and mostly) five stars!
The film is a direct descendent from Shirley Jackson's amazing novel The Haunting of Hill House, Matheson probably thought he was paying tribute with the title of this movie (and it's 'borrowed' tropes and themes) but for this reviewer it stepped pretty close to plaigarism. The film also bears the mark of the superb Robert Wise adaptation of Jackson's novel 'The Haunting' which is easily the daddy of all supernatural haunted house flicks and I would recommend Wise's immensely chilling film wholeheartedly to anyone who enjoyed this film.
The two problems as I see it are script and direction, am sure all the actors would have acquitted themselves in a tighter, leaner production, with better atmosphere, subtler effects, more rounded characters, but Matheson's script is messy,and felt a little half baked.
We get hardly any expository scenes at the start detailing the house, the rich patron that initiates the experiment (there's the odd line about wanting to know about life after death and that's about it), any background detail on ANY of the characters, except that they're all 'experts' in their fields. Mcdowell's character who went into Hell House when he was 15 and was the last surviving member of a previous team is NEVER questioned about his experiences or memories throughout the entire movie which seemed incredible to me! The relationship between Revill's investigator and wife is pretty threadbare, we know nothing of their history, what makes them tick. It's only due to the cast being pros that this film doesn't collapse under its own flimsiness.
The plot itself is, pretty much, an outright steal from Jackson, with a malevolent spirit choosing to pick on and channel one of the group for its own malevolent reasons. Pamela Franklin is fantastic though and that's why this film gets three stars from me, she's worth the price of admission alone! Mcdowell gives a nicely controlled/borderline creepy performance until the very end - where he flies into full on ham mode, it's a little embarassing to watch.
The shocks and scares of this movie are pretty weak to, from cutlery bouncing up and down, ectoplasm coming out of Franklin's fingers and some bed sheets being pulled around, the climactic reveal of a stuffed Ian Mckellan was the rather absurd icing on the cake. It should have taken pointers from some of the cream of the genre, far better to scare an audience with what you can't see, what you dread, than spell it out. If anyone unfamiliar with some of the classics of this genre I would recommend Wise's The Haunting, The Innocents (a superb retelling of the Turn of the Screw), The Signalman (an adaptation of Dicken's chilling ghost story), any of the tales of M. R. James, and - contrary to one of the other revewers here, The Others, which I thought was a remarkably astute re imagining of the classic english ghost story.
So I guess I'll be the one to go against the grain on this page and NOT recommend this film unless you're a genre completist or a huge Pamela Franklin fan. It's poorly structured, the characters are thinly drawn and some of the dialogue is downwright awful! Something I never thought i'd say about the otherwise excellent Matheson output (see I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes, Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel and many other wonders of cinema and literature). The direction is incredibly mundane, compare it to Wise's outstanding use of his set in the Haunting and you'll see what I mean.
Wrapping this up I would also like to point out this is only MY opinion, so have a read of the other comments too, and hey, maybe watch the movie yourself and make up your own mind! But if you haven't seen/read the above recommendations i'd urge everyone to track them down, superb examples of this neglected genre..... :o)