This somewhat solemn and humourless departure into the splintered realm of the paranormal has stood the test of time exceptionally well. In recent years a lot of haunted house films have been all noise and no intelligence. Just because technology in sound design has reached an apex, that doesn’t mean one should feel duty bound to bombard the audience with an aural discharge that borders on an assault. When modern sound design goes hand in hand with CGI the results are cinematic artificiality on a par with 3D. The Legend of Hell House is a comforting return to an age when creativity was genuinely required in the sound department and where a real set could conjure an atmosphere unlike anything we see today. The blueprint is obviously Robert Wise’s film adaptation of The Haunting (1963). A film that rightfully holds a very prominent place in any discussion of ghostly goings on (or not goings on as the case may be) and although Hell House doesn’t quite reach the brilliance of that earlier film it still achieves a respectability within the form. Richard Matheson’s source material places a greater emphasis on deviant sexuality and past perversion, and plays up in a more aggressive manner the age old dichotomy between rational scientific thought and the irrationality of the psychic world. Matheson’s screenplay tones the novel down, but not to an extent that damages the film.
What is most noticeable now to a modern viewer is the lack of spectacle here. It has an understated and minimal quality which is to be truly admired. With the release of The Exorcist (1973) in the same year this style of filmmaking within the horror genre would increasingly seem outmoded and tame - but there is no doubt in my mind which of the two films is more watchable and enjoyable now - and it isn’t William Friedkin’s masturbatory tribute to the European new wave directors he so desperately wanted to be linked too. Instead the filmmakers here seem intent on creating subtle scares mostly through performance, reducing the physicality that would come to dominate the genre. It doesn’t succeed at all on an intellectual level, but then neither does it insult the audience with petty and ponderous moralising. The film relies almost entirely on the actors and their commitment to the material. As a result of this the special effects are weak and clichéd (airborne crockery, creaking door hinges, slamming doors, ghostly footsteps etc). No doubt budgetary constraints were a concern, but the key aspect of the film they get spot on - the casting.