From James Whale's superb THE OLD DARK HOUSE, through it's respectable 1960s remake and Robert Wise's sublime THE HAUNTING, taking in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and even the animated latter-day film MONSTER HOUSE along the way - not to mention the countless offerings in-between - haunted houses have been a regular source of inspiration for horror filmmakers. Indeed, THE SHINING, a psychological expose of alcoholism or a haunted house caper, depending on who you ask, is often cited in mainstream polls as the greatest horror film of all time.
And now there is HELL HOUSE: THE BOOK OF SAMIEL ...
A group of randy teenagers gather one night to drive up to a house on the edge of town: the infamous Shively house.
While they prepare to spend their Independence Day night in the foreboding mansion, drunk Steve (Geoff Libby) tells them tales about all of the people who have met tragic ends within it's walls previously. Cut to a flashback of a young couple getting it on in their car outside the house ten years earlier, only to end up burned alive.
When Steve is convinced that his car has moved by itself, he gets the willies and almost backs out of going to the supposedly cursed house ... but only for the sake of his nervous friend Dani (Sheila Kraics), of course. But pal Paul (Michael Anthony Carlisi) goads Steve about being scared, and so the quartet of friends - completed by Steve's hot filly Sasha (Jessica Marie) - make their way towards the house.
In another part of town, a small TV crew pose to shoot a video story on the house, before retiring to their motel rooms. The co-presenters enjoy a bout of energetic sex until their cameraman, possessed by demons, ends their fun by setting them, and himself, alight.
Unaware of this latest happening, Steve and his pals continue towards the house with the intention of nothing more than having a few laughs and proving they're not afraid of the rumours of murder and demonic possession ...
On their way, the group pay a visit to local psychic Theadora (Kari Wishingrad). They ask her advice about confronting the house. She tells them to clear off and lets them carry on their way. However, she knows something they don't, and - after consulting her Tarot cards - makes tracks to catch up with them and dissuade them from entering its walls. If she can't do that, she knows she is the only one who stands a chance of saving them from the evil they will encounter.
When the kids finally reach the house, Steve is even more pissed and has a pop at Dani for showing fear. Reminding her that nothing is scarier than her abusive father, he provokes her into entering the house first. The others gather their overnight gear from the car and follow suit ...
From there onwards, HELL HOUSE becomes even messier and incoherent than it's opening 30 minutes were. And that is quite an achievement.
The last hour is a lazy traipse through horror clichés as one set-piece after another throws moderate gore, J-Horroresque shock-edits and corny piano-led noodlings at us. To cap it all off, a hilarious possessed groundskeeper called Adam (William Martin) turns up to torment them further with his terrible mugging.
With overwrought music, unsuitably hyper performances and overly dark photography, HELL HOUSE wades right into the pitfalls you expect from such a low-budget horror film. Jason D Morris directs each set-piece sequence like it's a cheap music video and the fact that his film also suffers from a dreadful obvious script and impatient storytelling nails it even further into the ground.
On the plus side, there is a healthy amount of female nudity and the girls are attractive. The best scenes are a gratuitous lesbian liaison between Sasha and Dani on the settee - moments after they've settled in the house, and Sasha's thorough bathing session in the house bathtub.
Nonsensical, implausible character traits suggest that this may be better taken as a pastiche of horror conventions. Bad dialogue, inconsistent behaviour from the protagonists (they're happy to have sex in a haunted house, moments after being terrified) and ludicrous FX work add to this theory. Alas, this is not a parody. It's a serious attempt at a horror film, and one that falls flat on its dumb by-the-numbers face.
HELL HOUSE is 83 minutes of my life that I'm never getting back.
Brain Damage presents HELL HOUSE uncut in a dark and grainy non-anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer. Images are soft but colours are admittedly strong. It's probably the best-looking film out of the current batch of Brain Damage discs, by a very narrow margin.
The English 2.0 audio is clear and clean throughout.
The disc opens with an animated main menu page that leads into an animated scene-selection menu allowing access to HELL HOUSE via 4 chapters.
The only extras on Brain Damage's DVD are a trailer for HELL HOUSE that clocks in at less than a minute, plus trailers for the remaining titles in their second run of releases: AWAKEN THE DEAD, FIST OF THE VAMPIRE, CURSE OF THE WOLF, BACHELOR PARTY IN THE BUNGALOW OF THE DAMNED and TASTE OF FLESH.
If you absolutely need this stinker in your DVD collection (well, we do get boobies), be aware that Brain Damage's Region 1 version includes a whole host of extras including a commentary track, short films, deleted scenes and interviews.
The UK DVD of HELL HOUSE: THE BOOK OF SAMIEL, however, is on a par with the film: poor.
Review by Stu Willis
|Released by Brain Damage Films|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|