AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY [REGION ‘A’] AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 95 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Physicist Lionel Barrett is enlisted by eccentric millionaire Mr. Deutsch, to investigate “survival after death” in “the one place where it has yet to be refuted” – the Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses”, once owned by the notorious ”Roaring Giant” Emeric Belasco, a perverted millionaire and murderer who disappeared soon after a massacre at his home. The house is believed to be haunted by the victims of Belasco’s twisted and sadistic desires. Accompanying Barrett are his wife, Ann, as well a mental medium and minister Florence Tanner, and a physical medium Ben Fischer, who is the only survivor of an investigation 20 years previously. Barrett believes that ghosts are nothing but unfocused electromagnetic energy, and he brings a machine he has developed which he is convinced will rid the house of this energy….
The Legend Of Hell House seems to be often regarded as being one of the classic haunted house movies, but I was a little disappointed when I first saw it ten or so years ago, partly because it didn’t frighten the way I expected it to [an odd thing considering ghost stuff does tend to scare me], and partly because of its silly, unintentionally funny climax which made me wonder what on earth the usually good screenwriter Richard Matheson, who also wrote the novel of the same title upon which the film is based, was thinking. Viewing it again the other evening, it’s actually a load of good spooky fun, as long as you don’t expect it to scare very much, and has a few interesting aspects, notably an emphasis on sexuality which isn’t entirely worked out, even if I still feel that the picture is a little overrated and doesn’t come anywhere near The Haunting, its obvious inspiration, in quality and effect. It’s nice though, in these days of jump scares galore, to watch a movie ghost story which barely has any and relies more on atmosphere and suggestion. In fact, this movie is possibly one of those that is a bit scarier after you’ve watched it rather than during.
Matheson’s novel was loosely based on notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, and went into considerable detail about Emeric Belasco’s depraved exploits as well as having things like rape by a rotting corpse and rape by a Jesus crucifixion statue with a phallus. He toned it down considerably for the film, and softened the first draft even further. He also switched the setting from the US to England [it’s usually the other way round] when it became clear that the film was not going to be shot there. It was one of only two productions by James H. Nicholson after his departure from American International Pictures as co-head of that company. The external shots of the house were filmed at Wykehurst Park, West Sussex, while Mr. Deutsch’s mansion in the opening sequence was Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, though most of the movie, which had psychic advisors on set for accuracy, was shot in the studio. Rumours persist that The Legend Of Hell House was cut for release, partly because of the existence of two lobby cards which depict a corpse lying on top of Florence and Ann topless before Ben respectively, but these haven’t been confirmed. For some reason, some TV versions contain a slightly longer version of one character’s demise where, unlike in the movie, we actually see the chandelier which kills him fall on his head. The film was moderately well received though oddly got a ‘PG’ rating in the US.
After a strange disclaimer informing us that this is a ficticious story but is definitely possible by ‘John Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European royalty’, the first act really gets things underway at top speed while still building up a decent atmosphere, and both the setting and the dynamics between the four characters, and what they believe, are interesting, though we’re annoyingly provided with six or seven intertitles telling the time and date in the space of about ten minutes until these thankfully are seen much often for the rest of the film. This house is not so much a typical haunted house as an abode of corruption and perversion, Belasco having indulged in, when asked what he did to make the house so evil: “Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” Lionel is a variation on your archetypal sceptic, though he has a particular theory about the supernatural which is almost as fantastical, hauntings being the result of electromagnetic energy produced by humans. On the other side is Florence, a mental medium who believes that the paranormal is a manifestation of God’s will on earth. Then there’s physical medium Ben who only just survived a previous stay in the house [why the hell would he want to return, despite the decent amount of money promised to him?] and who also believes in the supernatural but certainly not because of religion, and is able to isolate himself, at least for some time, from its influence. And finally there’s Ann, who seems to usually accompany her husband Ben on his expeditions.
So it’s a good set-up, especially when you have Roddy McDowall at his most eccentric, and there’s a fine edginess to some of the early scenes with Florence, who despite being religious is ironically the person who is most vulnerable and becomes the most possessed, causing panic in the others because she senses a presence right away. Then there’s a record of Belasco welcoming his guests playing by itself, and a fine old poltergeist moment at the dinner table with things smashing and going everywhere. And there’s one truly creepy bit where Ann sees the silhouette of someone in the shower which is effortlessly achieved. There’s also a heady feel of carnality what with a sleepwalking Ann – who, it is hinted at, is possibly not being satisfied by her husband – trying to seduce Ben, and Florence, who – for some reason – believes that sexual intercourse will give this particular ghost the strength he needs to leave Hell House for good [hmm….makes sense to me], letting herself be ravished by a spook, a scene which provided a particular scary frisson for me because Florence is played by The Innocents’s Pamela Franklin and it was almost as if the ghost of Peter Quint finally caught up with Flora again and gave her more of what is subtly suggested in the earlier film. However, the movie only very occasionally achieves the chill it seems to be aiming for – at least for this critic – and threatens to ruin everything with a frankly pathetic climax involving a both baffling and pointless revelation about Belasco and Ben shouting at him: “You were a short man, you had short legs”! All this suggestion of an extremely powerful ghost and he’s got rid of by just being insulted.
It’s intriguing that the story doesn’t end up disproving any of the character’s points of views, with the theories of Lionel, Florence and Ben all being proven in some way, and all contributing to the house being cleansed. In terms of what we see, The Legend Of Hell House is slightly more explicit than The Haunting, with ectoplasm emitting from fingers, a very unconvincing cat attack, some bloody death aftermaths and rather too much noise of ghosts, wind etc, though it still remains quite subtle despite the fast pace it adeptly maintains throughout. However, the screenplay leaves so much unexplained – this kind of thing can work but doesn’t really suit this one very much – that I feel that I’ll probably have to read the book to get a proper understanding of much of what goes on. At least John Hough [a rather neglected director with some interesting stuff in his resume, from the oddball comedic psycho family romp American Gothic to the great Disney chiller The Watcher In The Woods] does direct with some style and Alan Hume’s cinematography is first class, with lots of great work inside the house emphasising particular colours [notably red for ‘summoning up’ scenes and blue towards the end] and some nice flourishes, like characters sometimes entering a room being reflected on a glass ceiling, and odd angles during moments of being possession.
McDowall is really the star of the film as it’s he who dominates the climax and he plays the silly sequence with so much conviction it almost hurts. Franklin has an appealingly strange presence and Gayle Hunnicutt is okay but Clive Revill is just annoying – mind you so is his character. Michael Gough makes a memorable cameo. The mostly electronic score by Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson and Dudley Simpson is simple but at times the most unnerving thing in the picture. A strong example of a film with a reputation which it doesn’t really live up to, The Legend Of Hell House is still fairly good, with enough memorable bits and pieces to make it worthwhile even if as a whole it doesn’t quite fulfil its promise. A remake has been suggested a couple of times, and in fact – and I’ll probably get roasted for saying this – a remake of it, going closer to the book and showing what they felt they couldn’t in 1973, could be justifiable and could just work in the right hands….though they’ll probably botch it like they normally do [remember the remake of The Haunting?]