Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Review: Hell House

Hell House by Richard Matheson (1971)

There are haunted houses and then there is Hell House.   Where your run of the mill Gothic two-story with a spectre moaning and clanking chains is a bit of a hair raiser, the Belasco mansion is a place of pure evil.  It doesn't just frighten visitors, it maims and kills those it doesn't drive insane.  Having already destroyed two teams of investigators, a third is hired by a dying billionaire who believes that at the bottom of the mystery is the answer to life after death.  Each of the team members will be paid $100,00 for a week's work, but the price they pay may be their very souls.

Those who have seen the screen version of the novel, The Legend of Hell House, will already be familiar with the book's plot, which the film follows closely.  This isn't surprising since Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay as well.  The story of how the three psychic investigators and one investigator's wife cope with trying to unravel the secret of a house with a hideous past of degradation and murder only to be followed by decades of lethal haunting translated well to the screen and Matheson took the opportunity to tighten the story a bit and to improve the climax, which is far more dramatic and satisfying on film.  Also, the low budget and technical limitations of the time was an unintentional boon because the work arounds used by the director (in one scene employing nothing more than a wind machine and piano wire) are far more effective than anything CGI could have created.

However, a film can only give the highlights of a novel–or should.  Yes, I'm looking at you, Harry Potter!  In the end, the film could only present simplified versions of the characters and even today the sex and violence of Matheson's story would have a hard time getting away with less than an X-certificate.  In the book, the characters are American, ten years older than their cinematic counterparts, and their motives and rivalries are much deeper and stronger.  Where in the film the physicist Dr Barrett is bent on proving his theories, the book's Barrett is a man who has spent thirty years struggling in near poverty trying to get his ideas taken seriously and looks fearfully at an old age spent in penury.  His wife, meanwhile, is so devoted to him that she becomes suicidal if they're separated for more than a couple of days and struggles with a strong case of sexual confusion.  The medium, Miss Tanner, is an ex-actress who is aware of her strong physical attractiveness and how it conflicts with her new-found spirituality.  She is also in stark denial about her abusive father and the tragedy of her brother's death.  Finally, our hero Benjamin Franklin Fisher isn't just terrified of the house after being the only survivor of a previous encounter, as he is in the film, he's also a man who has run away from himself and comes to the growing realisation that he must either confront the evil before him because that will mean confronting the failure of his life.

The final character in the story is the house itself–or rather, the evil within it.  What begins as a breeze on a staircase grows with each chapter in eeriness and violence until the reader is genuinely frightened when the characters decide re-enter the house after fleeing it.  It goes beyond scary to being A Really Bad Idea.

I would not recommend reading this book in any house larger than a bungalow and more than 20-years old.

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