Well, hello there strangers! The Pup and I have been missing in action the past three weeks, but then real life unfortunately takes precedence over fun with movies time. Don’t you hate that? 😛 We’re back though and we come bearing a review of a classic early 70’s horror movie written by the incredible Richard Matheson–The Legend of Hell House! So without further ado…
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
CAST: Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicut, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough (uncredited)
As many of you might know by now I harbor an obsession with the paranormal. Well, maybe obsession is a bit of an over statement (looks around with guilty eyes)—okay, I admit it I’m obsessed. I blame it on my mother and movies such as The Legend of Hell House that I watched as a kid. By today’s standards of horror this particular movie would be considered tame, but what passes today for horror is little more than torture porn.
Yep, I said it—TORTURE PORN.
Now by just bringing this up I may be opening a can of worms. Many fans of modern horror dislike this term due to the fact they misunderstand the true meaning of it. In particular the word porn which is a shortened form of pornography. Most people hear the word porn they automatically think of sex, but Merriam-Webster lists three separate definitions for the word pornography; the third being the one movie critics are referencing. It is as follows:
- the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction <the pornography of violence>
Although, violence is not new in horror it’s reached an all time peak within the last twenty-five years. Often violence will be elevated and plot tossed to the curb, which is the main reason critics coined the term. The Legend of Hell House, made during the popularization of exploitation films in the 60’s and 70’s, does contain aspects of both sex and violence, but the true focus lies in the personal experiences and education of four characters (two women and two men) who are out to find hard facts proving the existence of the life after death.
Based on the novel Hell House by Richard Matheson, well known as the thinking man’s paranormal writer (he also wrote the screenplay) The Legend of Hell House opens with a meeting between one of the world’s most renowned parapsychologists, physicist, Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill, Crime and Punishment; Feast of All Saints) and the wealthy, aged Rudolph Deutsch. Mr. Deutsch wastes no time telling Barrett up front that he wishes him to provide the facts of survival after death and he’s willing to pay him £100,000. Barrett is amused until Deutsch tells him where he can find these facts—Belasco House aka Hell House—the only place on earth where survival after death has yet to be refuted. He tells Barrett that two other people will accompany him on the investigation. A young girl, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin, a staple of network television in the 70’s and 80’s) who is a mental medium and Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall, Fright Night; Remo Williams) who is a physical medium and the only one to make it out alive during the last investigation of the Belasco House. He then informs Barrett that they have precisely one week in which to accomplish the task.
After accepting the challenge, Barrett explains to his wife that this is not just any house. Belasco has a history, one as dark as hell itself with a body count to match. In the parapsychological community, Hell House is the Mt. Everest of haunted houses. After two failed attempts to investigate the house, leading to the deaths of eight investigators Fischer being the only survivor, the Belasco family sealed the house—until now. Barrett tries to convince his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt, Dallas) to stay behind due to the dangerous nature of the investigation. Of course, she’s having none of it and insists on going.
Introduced to Fischer first, a silent and intense man, and we get the impression right off the bat that he knows more about what’s going on in the house than anyone else. He was fifteen when he dragged himself out, the lone survivor of the last investigation twenty years prior. It’s obvious he’s no fool and he’s well aware that returning to the place of his nightmares may just destroy him completely this time. Florence, whom they pick up at a convent in the English countryside, is a mix of innocence, self-importance, and stubbornness. We learn later that she finds the idea of Barrett’s disbelief in existence after death ludicrous and close-minded. Not to mention she believes that what is labeled paranormal has an intimate connection to religion and spiritual belief.
On their arrival at Hell House, an imposing Victorian manor, surrounded by a gated fence, gargoyles, and undulating mists that seem to possess a life of their own, each of the group have different reactions. Its towering peaked roofs looming through the mist is what one would expect of a classic haunted house. The manor was literally sealed—even the windows bricked up so no natural light dare penetrate the shadows within. What adds to the atmosphere of our introduction is the deep booming electronic score created by Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire that resembles the beat of drums in the jungle or the rhythm of a human heart.
What is obvious about the characters is that the house openly affects the two women the most. Ann is in silent awe of the stature and size of the house. Florence on the other hand is quite vocal about her opinion referring to the house as hideous. When Barrett checks her at the front door by stating they are not inside yet, she informs him that she doesn’t have to be. As they enter, the viewer knows without doubt that the only one in the party who is awaiting a greeting of some sort is Fischer, who silently takes in everything, and whose expression speaks volumes. Roddy McDowall who breathes life into Fischer was one of the best character actors of his time, small in stature he might have been, but what he lacked in that department he made up for in his subtle yet mesmerizing performances. His performance as Fischer draws the viewer in and makes one wonder exactly what he is hiding behind those dark eyes.
Almost immediately, the impression is given that something lurks in the shadows watching and biding its time as the investigators settle in. As the movie progresses we begin to understand the darkness that lurks in Hell House is arrogant, and considers the group nothing more than mice in a maze. It also knows who it can manipulate and why. Dr. Barrett, for his unwillingness to believe in anything beyond his scientific theories, Ann because of her own insecurities within her marriage to Barrett, Florence because of her arrogance and immaturity, and finally Fischer because of the fear he refuses to reveal outwardly. One by one, each member of the team discovers themselves manipulated, using their flaws against themselves, and each other. The outbursts become more violent with each passing day until only the most foolish could deny that there truly is something not of this world inhabiting the halls of Hell House.
The Legend of Hell House relies more on mind games, minor special effects, and camera angles to inundate the story with a sense of horror than out and out violence. One of the most infamous moments from the film is when what appears to be a possessed cat physically attacks Florence (the scene was recreated for laughs in the Wayans’ Brothers film Scary Movie 2 in 2001). The atmosphere is claustrophobic, a sense of human depravity laced throughout, suggesting that even in death, the sickest appetites do not rest.
Final Rating: 4/5 Fox Pups
5 Fox Pups – Must See/Can’t Miss
4 Fox Pups – Excellent
3 Fox Pups – Good
2 Fox Pups – Passable
1 Fox Pups – Skip It