This is an atmospheric but dated haunted house film, which features some decent moments but not enough chills or scares to truly recommend it.
This movie takes place in a world in which haunted houses exist – there is a “Psychic Research” facility at the University – and I must say I appreciate that approach because too often we have a protagonist who doesn’t believe and is made to believe. I am tried of watching movies claim the paranormal isn’t real only to reveal that it is. Better the film take place in a world in which it is real.
But I also agree with Roger Ebert that a major issue of the film is Scott’s character’s relative rationality. Yes, too often people in horror movies do stupid things – and characters here do an awful lot of stuff in the dark too – but Scott is so calm most of the time that you basically never fear for his life. It’s a different approach but I think I agree with Ebert that the character is perhaps too much the other direction. Another, related issue, is that the film regularly cuts away from the creepiest moments so that we don’t have to deal with the after effects of the moment. (When the ball comes down the stairs the second time we don’t know how Scott spends the night, same when they see the wheelchair. Only when the doors slam do we know he didn’t go upstairs.)
Then there’s the left turn when the film goes from a haunted house film to a mystery/conspiracy film. I can’t say I dislike the idea of such a left turn – it certainly fits with Scott’s characterization that he’d want to know the whole story rather than just be scared – but again I’m not sure if it serves the film’s desire to be scary. The biggest jump of the film comes well into the mystery/conspiracy part and Scott’s character just sort of shrugs it off as a matter of investigating the house. It’s a very ’70s approach to a haunted house film.
As I said, there are some really creepy moments, and there is some great Steadicam and hand-held work. But the sound design is not great – well, it’s dated poorly any way – as it often sounds like the sounds are on the soundtrack ,not in the house. It’s an interesting film in many ways but I just don’t think it’s entirely effective in part due to the quirky nature of the approach (be it the plot, Scott’s performance, the direction, the sound design, etc).
Beware the Wheelchair of Death!