Here's a tough critical quandary - what's worse? Bad ideas expertly executed, or ambitious concepts crafted into crap. Put another way, does imagination trump terrible acting, amateurish direction, bad production design, and an overall feeling of talent-free time wasting? That's the big problem with Hell House: The Book of Samiel. It's clear that everyone involved - from director Jason D. Morris to screenwriters William Martin and Jennifer Brugman know their horror. They've got their spook show requirements and references down pat, and when they borrow, they tend to borrow from the best. But that doesn't make up for a complete lack of filmmaking competence. Indeed, Hell House is so problematic and piecemeal that it's almost impossible to understand what's going on - and when, toward the end, the movie tries to make sense of itself, it turns from lamentable to laughable. Thus, the aforementioned question - is it better to be awful while polished and professional, or interesting within a thoroughly incomprehensible motion picture mess? Decisions, decisions...
A group of young people decide to head over to the famous Shively House to see what all the supernatural hubbub is about. Seems that every family that's lived there, or come into contact with the place, has died a miserable, mysterious death. All Paul, Dani, Steve, and Sasha want to do is hang out, party, and play ghost hunter. But the spirits inside Shively House won't let them rest. Even worse, a local psychic, the last in a long lineage of sages, understands the evil that's possessed the place. She must stop the foursome before they come face to face with the truth behind the domicile's demonic reputation. You see, Shively House sits on one of the Gates of Hell, and all the Devil needs is three human sacrifices to unleash his minions - and guess who'll be supplying the blood ritual fodder?
Oh boy...is Hell House: The Book of Samiel bad. Not just bad in the "this is almost unwatchable" kind of bad. Not bad in the kind of "I wish there was a Twilight marathon on tonight" kind of bad. Not bad in "can I still gouge my eyes out and enjoy the rest of my life" kind of bad. No, this so-called movie resembles the rough footage some homemade horror filmmaker would cobble together at the beginning of their lessons on editing and mise-en-scene. It reeks of ambitions unfulfilled and abilities unavailable. With its combination of shot-on-video vagueness and purposeful post-production fiddling (lots of CG lights and color correction) it's clear that this was an unholy hackjob from the start, pseudo salvaged in the mind of the makers by ample nudity and some gratuitous girl-on-girl action. The most unnerving part of this entire project is the unsettling notion that, if done correctly, if handled by someone whose grasp of moviemaking wasn't so unsteady and incomplete, this might be good. Nay great! Instead, we suffer through endless sequences that don't match up, moments of near functionality flummoxed by tonal twists and narrative ineptitude.
While it may seem like piling on to continue at this point, it's safe to say that the makers of Hell House would probably disagree with the aforementioned sentiment. They clearly believe in the power of their approach, milking everything they can out of a decent old Victorian house and some magic store props. They venture into territory they're unprepared to address, like alcoholism and child abuse, and then tack on plot points that seem unbelievable given the movie's previous explanations. Of course, the argument would be that all of this flash in the pandering is part and parcel of a demented dive into terror, an experience where Satan is strangling the precepts of reality to get his minions through the house's haunted portal. Or it could just be a really bad film making excuses for itself. While Morris does show some minor - and it needs to be repeated, MINOR - directorial flare, the resulting entertainment is stifled and stupefyingly lame. Hell House: The Book of Samiel might speak to a demo sick and tired of more mainstream monster moviemaking, but for this longtime horror buff, it was much ado about nothing...redeemable.
Provided to DVD Talk in a final product DVD without the packaging, the optical elements at play here are all over the map. The night sequences are filled with grain. The interiors vary between well-lit and far too dark. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image can be colorful one moment, washed out and soft the next. Toward the end, when almost every action takes place in a gloomy, gritty basement, we can barely see what's going on. At other instances, the post-production tweaks really announce their presence. They just don't match with the rest of the movie's made-on-a-shoestring look.
As with any movie that's made for less than mainstream money, there are issues with both the sound recording and the final mix. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 offering barely gets the dialogue across, while background sounds and ambient noises abound. Similarly, the score (and song selection) frequently wipe out anything trying to make itself known on the other channels. One imagines that Morris meant for there to be some kind of chiller conceit to the sound design. Sadly, it's all but lost here.
Distributor Brain Damage Films deserves credit for giving this crappy film the kind of fully fleshed out DVD treatment that few titles actually warrant. We get a commentary track, a series of cast interviews, discussions with the crew, deleted scenes, a music video, a pair of short films, production still, storyboards, and a trailer. Wow. It has to be said that some of this material is very interesting. The Q&As reveal a lot of where the participants thought this movie was going, while Morris and his compatriots explain a lot of what they were trying to accomplish during the alternate narrative track. Sure, things eventually go from insightful to dry and informational ("the house was actually a very weird place where..."), but for a while, the discussions do add a lot.
To quote the great Yogi Berra, "it's like déjà-vu all over again" - this critic condemning yet another poorly realized fright flick. It happens so often that it's long since grown dull. Yet for some reason, even beyond some clearly better judgment, DVD distributors keep pouring this junk out into the movie marketplace. While one could try to build some suspense and question the final score, a Skip It is all this film deserves. It does none of the things that a good spook show is supposed to and barely warrants the time taken to master the aluminum disc for sale. Hopefully, Mr. Morris and his pals will pull themselves together, learn from their mistakes, and make a decent direct to digital fear fests one day. Until that time, avoid Hell House: The Book of Samiel. While it may not answer the dilemma regarding bad ideas done well or great concepts executed poorly, it does illustrate one thing. A lame movie is just that - a lame movie.
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