Fox should have put a bit more effort into designing the packaging of The Legend of Hell House, because the film is more entertaining than the very cheesy-looking cover art would suggest.
Richard Matheson, widely-known as a master of horror fiction, adapted the screenplay from his own novel Hell House. For film viewers, Matheson's name may be familiar from the credits of the more recent movies Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come, both of which were also based on his novels. Like the latter films, The Legend of Hell House addresses the existence of life after death, and the uneasy relationship of the dead to the living. Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, and Gayle Hunnicutt play four investigators – two psychics, one physicist, and a spectator – who are lured by the promise of a hefty reward to investigate the "Mt. Everest of haunted houses": Hell House, which has remained brooding and boarded-up since the unpleasant deaths of nearly all of the last team of investigators to brave its secrets.
One aspect of the premise was a bit hard for me to swallow. Barrett (Revill) is from the outset depicted as a skeptic, whose objective evaluation of the "haunted house" is valuable precisely because he is a scientist. Yet he seems very blasé about such supernatural phenomena as tables clattering, dishes flying around, and the like. I finally realized that while the character was presented as skeptical about life after death, he accepts psychic phenomena as a matter of course. Granted, the idea of psychic abilities was somewhat more seriously considered by scientists in the 1970s than today when it has been mostly (if not totally) debunked, but even then, it was at best considered a possibility, not a fact. In terms of the movie, this meant that I spent the first half of the movie considerably confused about what, exactly, Barrett was skeptical about, what he was trying to prove, and why he was hostile toward Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), the "mental medium."
I'm pretty susceptible to scary movies, and The Legend of Hell House had me peeking through my fingers as I held my hands over my eyes a few times. Still, while the tension is kept fairly high throughout the movie, there were few genuinely scary moments. I think that this is partly due to the fact that the characters themselves don't seem particularly nervous or scared. The audience in theory "feels" the terror of the house both for them (afraid of what will happen to the characters) and through them (experiencing vicariously the emotions that the characters are having). While I felt the first type of fear as I imagined the various horrible things that might happen to these characters, this feeling was dampened by the generally low-key performances from the actors. That's not to say that they do a bad job, but the fact is that, with the exception of Roddy McDowall's character, they don't seem to react much to their environment.
At only 95 minutes long, The Legend of Hell House is just about the right length. It gets moving right from the get-go, tells the story without any excess padding or draggy moments, and does manage to pull off a few surprises with what happens to, and around, the characters. The ending falls a little flat, partly because of what I'd consider weak plotting and partly because there isn't much of a sense of building to a climax, but overall it makes for an entertaining if not terribly substantial viewing experience.
The Legend of Hell House is in fact anamorphically enhanced, despite the fact that this piece of information is not mentioned anywhere on the DVD package, not even in the fine print. There's what I would call a "70s look" about the image, with muted colors and a touch of graininess, but overall the images are clear and show minimal noise. Despite the low light levels of most of the scenes in the film, contrast wasn't a problem. All in all, I found it to be a visually pleasing viewing experience.
Silence can be as important as sound in creating a mood... especially when that silence is broken by a scream, or by creepy whispering voices. While The Legend of Hell House doesn't make all that much use of surround, the Dolby 4.0 track is clear, without any background hissing during silent moments, and allows for reasonably clear dialogue throughout the movie.
The Legend of Hell House doesn't have a trailer for itself, but it does have trailers for four other movies: Batman: The Movie, Big Trouble in Little China, Bedazzled, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm not a big enthusiast for trailers as DVD extras, but I admit that these were fun to watch.