Saturday, April 1, 2017

Retro Movie: The Legend of Hell House

The haunted house thriller is a longtime staple of horror films, and 1973's The Legend of Hell House is one of the better entries in the genre. As the movie opens, physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett is asked by a wealthy man to conclusively prove (or disprove) the existence of life after death. He's given one week to investigate Belasco House, which is considered the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.” The house was owned by Emeric Belasco, a notorious occult practitioner & murderer. Belasco went missing after a series of horrible events took place on the premises. No one has been able to explain the strange things that have occurred at this location, also known as "Hell House." Barrett’s joined by his wife Edith (Gayle Hunnicutt), as well as two mediums, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall) & Florence Tanner. Fischer was involved in a previous attempt to cleanse the evil energy from the house, which ended in failure. He’s still scarred by the experience, which left several people injured or dead. Fischer is wary of getting involved in this new investigation.

Roddy McDowall & Pamela Franklin
As the group tries to figure out exactly what is going on in the house, the supernatural forces within begin targeting individual members of the team. When Florence tries to communicate with the spirits in Hell House, she's first contacted, then attacked, by the unearthly presence. The ghost who speaks through her claims to be Belasco's son, but is that its true identity? Edith is also affected by the spirits in the house, but in a much more sensual fashion. She tries to seduce Fischer on two occasions while her husband is sleeping. Once she's aware of her actions, she's mortified. These incidents cause more tension within the group. Despite all of this, Barrett clings to the fact that there's a scientific explanation for these uncanny occurrences. Meanwhile, Fischer has kept his psychic power closed off since returning to the house. He has to decide if he'll once more open himself up to the danger there, in order to help the team. Can they solve the mystery of Hell House, and survive the experience?

"This knows we're here."
The movie is a bit less subtle in its horror and scare elements than previous haunted house or ghost stories such as The Uninvited or The HauntingBut it's a great deal of fun; it's kind of a cross between a Hammer film and a B-movie thriller from the Roger Corman era at American-International Pictures. In fact, James Nicholson, a founder & former partner of AIP, produced the film. The movie is well-directed by John Hough, who provides an eerie atmosphere, and builds a nice level of tension as the story moves forward. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and couple of nice twists and turns to the tale, courtesy of screenwriter Richard Matheson. The movie is based on Matheson's novel Hell House. There's also a subtle & nicely crafted electronic score by Delia Derbyshire & Brian Hodgson, which is ideally suited to the tone of the film.

The cast is wonderful; they achieve the perfect balance in their performances, never going too far over the top. The Legend of Hell House is a treat for Roddy McDowall fans; there’s nothing better than seeing him give his all in a juicy role like Fischer. He's outstanding in the film. Pamela Franklin is excellent as Tanner; she pulls off a difficult part very successfully. In an earlier role, she appeared in The Innocents (1961), the classic ghost story based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Clive Revill as Dr. Barrett & Gayle Hunnicutt as his wife Edith both have some nice moments, but this movie is really a showcase for McDowall & Franklin. Genre fans take note; look fast for Michael Gough, who appeared in several British horror films of the 1960s & 70s, and played Alfred in Tim Burton's Batman movies. He has a brief but important cameo in the movie. The Legend of Hell House is an effective, intelligently made chiller that should please discerning fans of old school horror. The film is available in a Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory, and as of this writing, is also streaming on Netflix. Here's a link to the movie's trailer:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for submitting to the Classic Movie Marathon Link Party.