The Legend of Hell House
Directed by: John Hough
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
There are bad haunted house horror films, good haunted house horror films and there are really great haunted house horror films. The great ones know the secret trick, it’s about the people who visit the haunted house, their development and keeping the audience's imagination running rampant - not the shallow characters struggling for survival, the cheesy slamming door effects, superimposed spooks or CGI lurkers in the dark.
John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House is such movie. It presents a range of interesting characters, not stereotypes, which he sets together inside the haunted house of the house they are in is just part of the story.
Just as Robert Wise’s 1963 fantastic movie The Haunting is based on Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House published in 1959, The Legend of Hell House is also based on a book. This one by the masterful Richard Matheson [I Am Legend 1954, The Shrinking Man 1956, Stir of Echoes 1958, - a truly genius writer of horror and mystery books in his own right too] and, it’s his novel Hell House published in 1971 that supplies the base for this movie adaptation. Matheson also wrote the screenplay for this movie, which could explain why it stays quite true to the source material. [Terrence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out 1968 and Dan Curtis’ Dracula 1973 just to name a few of his screenwriting credits. Not forgetting the three movies based on his I Am Legend novel – The Last Man on Earth 1964, The Omega Man 1971 and I Am Legend 2007] In some ways it unfortunate that the more graphic violence and sexual activities found in the book have been toned down, but instead they have hosen to favour a more sinister and brooding tone which fits the movie like a hand in glove.
The movies focuses on group of individuals sent out to investigate the notorious Belasco House, more known as Hell House by the locals. Or the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses as head researcher Mr. Lionel Barrett [Clive Revill - who supplied he voice of the Emperor in Irvin Kerchner’s The Empire Strikes Back 1980] tells his wife Ann after first receiving the task by the wealthy Mr Deutsch [Roland Culver]. The band of rouges to take on the house is a splendid combination of self-assured characters, sceptics and scared personalities. But that’s just the defining titles if you what to slot them into some sort of archetypal arrangement, it’s what’s underneath the characters, the traits they hide beneath and are forced to expose during the course of the movie, by their own will and as they are forced by the ghosts living on the premises. They all host a wide range of dark secrets that will be used against them during their week in he Belasco house.
Much like Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters 1984 (without the gag’s and contemporary pop soundtrack) The Legend of Hell House sees man trying to battle the supernatural with the aid of science. Barret gets the assignment in a pre-title sequence from Mr Deutsch who has bought the house so that they can research it as the Belasco family sealed it up after “what happened the last time…” The fee one hundred thousand pounds, the quest: prove the facts behind survival after death. The team sees Barret, an arrogant physician, his wife; Ann Barret [Gale Hunnicut, who had a parts in Alberto De Martino’s 1976 Poliziotteschi, Blazing Magnums and the inferior ghost house movie The Spiral Staircase 1975] She’s obviously sexually frustrated because of the age difference between them and his pobsession with his research. There’s the cautionary medium, Florence [Pamela Franklin - who has yet to go up against real dark forces, and then there’s the traumatised evangelist Benjamin Franklin Fischer, the sole survivor of the last expedition into the Belasco house, played ever so gently by Roddy McDowall most known for playing the friendly chimp Galen in the 1974 Planet of the Apes TV serial and his part as TV Host / Monster killer Peter Vincent in Tom Holland's brilliant Fright Night 1985.
Obviously there is no power in the house, so the first thing for them to take care of after an eerie mist filled presentation of the house is find the reserve generator. As they start to grasp each other and find their place in the group they wonder upon how wealthy Mr Belasco could have been when he died… “Died….?” says Franklin, setting the tone right away for a series of vibes and premonitions of the entity living in the house as they search the cellar for the generator. At the same time they wander though rooms and locations that will reappear later on. It’s a grand way to setup the interior of the house and show us the magnitude of the location.
The lights come back on and they find a gramophone with a strange recording of Mr. Belasco greeting the investigators to the house, obviously a recording made for previous investigations, but it gives Hough yet another chance to have Franklin, the survivor of last time, chance to blurt out some important exposition about Mr Belasco and his mysterious powers to move among the living even though he’s supposedly dead. It’s also his knowledge of Belasco that allows him to tell of Belasco and the sinister events that have taken place at the house; Belasco’s wife’s suicide, sexual orgies with humans and animals, dark rites and uncanny happenings. That paints up a nice tableau for the audience anticipation doesn’t it?
With this exposition out of the way the first night sees them start their inquests; first out the naïve medium Florence attempt to make contact with Belasco. Based on what she knows after Franklin’s tales she moans, groans and says that the house is an evil place… The others stare at her and give the impression that she’s full of it. But then her voice changes as the strange voice threatens to kill them all if they don’t leave the house at once! The mental medium Florence has become a physical medium – the first transition is at play. But Barret, the man of science still believes that it was Florence who made the pounding noises and not a ghost. Neither does he believe Florence or Mr Franklin’s tales.
this initial encounter with the spirits and first establishing of characters Hough starts winding up his audience. Florence encounters an entity in the privacy of her own room, an entity calling itself Daniel. Barret goes about his experiments, examining ectoplasm he’s gathered from Florence second séance. Daniel the ghost, continues to manipulate Florence and attacks Barret when she claims Belasco’s son has visited her and he rejects her claims as ridiculous. Next up is Barret’s wife who starts seeing the erotic statues cast explicit shadows on the ceiling during the night. She finds a selection of fine spirits among the kinky books Belasco has hidden in a cupboard and soon finds herself returning to the bottle for comfort. This leads her to ventilate her sexual frustrations with Franklin who she also tries to seduce big time in her drunken ecstatic stupor.
Now as I mentioned previously, some of the more visual and sexual elements have been left out in this adaptation, and I feel that it in some ways is a shame, but at the time quite good because the sexual stuff is quite complex and relates to Ann Barret’s alcoholism and sexual frustrations, inner thoughts and feelings that would have been complicated to get across on screen with out it being corny or odd. In the book they are wonderful and it gives an grand portrait of a confused and sexually frustrated woman possessed by something that makes her take matters into her own hands. In the movie it’s not as obvious, but Hunnicut makes the most of it and she brings life to one of the books most empathetic characters.
Back to the movie, Florence searches the cellars as she tries to find Daniel and discovers a corpse chained to the wall. After burying the corpse she hears Daniel talking to her and has a midnight visit from the black cat that has been streaking around all those exterior shots of the house. A cat that attacks her with such a fury that she ends up a crying, torn up mess in the bathroom she’s locked herself in. Cat attacks are never easy scenes to shoot believable, but this is among one of he better ever attempted. Mr. Deutsch high-tech machinery arrives to the joy of Barret who now feels that he has a chance at explaining the scientific elements behind the last few days’ happenings. Florence is convinced that Belasco is holding the other entities prisoner in the house and using them as soldiers against the investigators. Ann makes a second attempt at seducing Franklin, but realises that it’s the spirits (the ghostly ones, not the liquid ones) that are forcing her to her dirty deeds. Barret starts to recognise that something is askew in the house. Franklin is attacked by something and tries to persuade Florence that they have to escape before it’s too late, as he’s convinced that they will die if they don’t escape. But Florence holds her ground and tries to assure him that Daniel wishes them no harm. Franklin reveals the horrible tales of how the house and forces within killed and maimed each and every one of the members in the last investigation he was part of. Later that night the entity has sex with the innocent Florence who still thinks that she’s communicating with the friendly ghost Daniel, an act that she soon regrets as she realises that it’s not Daniel at all and leaves her scared, frail and possibly possessed as she shows a more aggressive attitude towards the others.
Barret is convinced that their investigation will be over as soon as he activates his strange machine. He’s moved from the sceptic that he once was to a man who demands that his science proves him right or else his world will shatter, Ann is a wreck and stays behind Barret as not to fall back into her drunken erotic frenzies again, and Florence tries to sabotage Barret’s machine, an action that Barret takes as a sign that he’s on the right track “she had to destroy my beliefs before they destroyed hers!” – Franklin is still the only one who hasn’t changed. He’s still the same silent and scared man that entered the house at the beginning. Florence takes action in the only way she knows and goes to the chapel in a search for Daniel, partially to warn him about Barret and prove his existence. Instead realises she’s been fooled and meets her doom, but not before leaving an important message for the others written in her own blood. The others find her dead in the chapel and Barret claims that it’s time to activate his machine. They all leave the house as it produces such an immense force field, and he flicks the switches that will rid the house of ghosts once and for all and gather the evidence he so desperately needs. The house moans, groans, creeks and aches, as the remainders of the team stand patiently outside. They go back in and Barret taunts Franklin to try feeling the atmosphere for entities. He assures that there will be none left. At first Franklin doesn’t feel anything and it looks like we’re moving towards an anticlimactic ending; “Is it really over Lionel? Yes, done, finished!” Now there's a red herring if there ever was one. Even Franklin now believes in the machines abilities. Ann goes for a rest and Barret starts to go over the readings from his successful action. But… and there’s always a but, as he starts reading his documents the gauges on the machine spring back to life exploding in his face. Franklin comforts Ann, and when she asks him to take her out of there, he answers that he’s going back into the chapel… Franklin is going to step up to the table here and finally take some action and reveal Mr. Belasco’s secret once and for all.
Without a doubt in my mind I’ll claim that this is one of the best British horror films of the seventies, (outside the hammer outlet that honestly was getting quite fucking lame at the time.), and is easily a real counterpart to Robert Wise masterpiece of the genre, The Haunting.
One of, if not the main ingredients that make this movie so splendid is the restrained use of effects and visuals. Much like The Haunting, a lot of the action is driven by audio and delicate camera work, leaving much of the haunting to the minds of the audience. A trick that forces us to summon up the most disturbing images that we can, images that never would have had the same impact on screen. It’s a wonderful way to work and the kind of trick that differs the psychological horror films from the embarrassingly silly ones. The gimmickry of William Castle and Roger Corman is swell, but it sure aint scary.
The reveal at the ending, which explains why Belasco can’t be beaten, is dazzling and once again proves of Matheson’s brilliance. It leaves nothing more to be asked for and the movie wraps up nicely.
The original music by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson is noteworthy and was produced by the company Electrophon Ltd. As the name indicates that they where early users of electronic instrumentations which bring an added eeriness to the movie. Another amusing fact about these two is that they have both have worked on the sound production on cult UK sci-fi horror serial Doctor Who at various times.
Producer James H. Nicholson originally co-founded and worked as a producer for American International Pictures together with Samuel Z Arkoff. A.I.P., the legendary Grindhouse / Drive-in company that released many of those fascinating Euro Horrors State side, earning them the legendary status that those movies hold today. The Legend of Hell House was the second of two movies he produced after departing A.I.P. and unfortunately he died from a brain tumour before the was released.
Director John Hough had already dabbled in the horror genre, with the 1971 Twins of Evil for Hammer, and returned to the genre several times with really good entries, like the very creepy and almost forgotten Disney flick The Watcher in the Woods 1980, the rough entity/rape movie Incubus 1981, and one I’m kind of fond of American Gothic 1987. And don’t forget his boyhood fantasy actioneer Biggles from 1986, Hammer Icon Peter Cushing’s last ever film.
If you still haven’t seen The Legend of Hell House you really need to track it down and give it a watch, it’s great stuff that will leave you very content and pleased you spent ninety five minutes watching this classic piece of horror history.
1.85:1 aspect Ratio
English dialogue, Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. Optional Norwegian, Danish, English for hard of hearing, Finnish and Swedish subtitles available.
Well it’s definitely a sparse version as all that there is available from the extras is a rather shoddy theatrical trailer giving away the key moments of the movie.