Thursday, September 11, 2014

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) Blu-ray Review

Legend of Hell House, The (1973) d. John Hough (UK)

In the pantheon of top-notch haunted house movies, this fine, moody offering ranks just below Robert Wise’s outstanding The Haunting, to which it owes a great debt. The familiar premise concerns a team of spiritual sleuths – a scientist, his wife, and two mediums – assigned to investigate Belasco House (aka “Hell House”) to prove (or disprove) the notion of life after death. However, unlike the ambiguity of Shirley Jackson’s story or the subsequent 1963 film version, Richard Matheson’s screenplay (adapted from his 1971 novel Hell House) elects to make the existence of the malevolent presence within the so-called “Mount Everest of haunted houses” undeniably explicit. According to Matheson, his personal dictate was “I’m going to do a haunted house story where you damn well know it’s haunted and there’s no question in your mind.”

Emeric Belasco, the “roaring giant,” filled his house with every mortal sin conceivable, including “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” Such debauchery seems to have left a dark presence shrouding the opulent abode, but who or what it is ... that is the mystery to be unraveled.

Rather than resorting to cheap bloodletting, director John Hough (Twins of Evil, The Watcher in the Woods) achieves a more visceral quality through skillful use of camera angles and sound, earning terrific suspense and shocks through well-executed low-tech effects (slamming doors, flying silverware, etc.). Aiding in this task are superb British cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi) and electronic musicians Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, working in concert to develop an atmosphere of isolation, claustrophobia, and disorientation.

Matheson’s story is well served by its accomplished cast, headlined by Pamela Franklin (having cut her acting teeth in another masterful ghost story, 1961’s The Innocents) as mental medium Florence Tanner and Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes, Fright Night) as physical medium Benjamin Fischer, the rattled sole survivor from Hell House’s last expedition. Clive Revill, best known as the voice of The Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, plays the practical-minded physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett, perfectly matched by gorgeous Gayle Hunnicutt as his devoted wife Ann. There’s also a brief cameo from a certain horror icon and Batman butler, but we’ll leave that to sharp-eyed viewers to discover.

Matheson adds a kinky sexual element to the proceedings, complete with lusty somnambulists and unnerving spectral assaults, although nothing in this PG-rated feature is as blatant as his original source material (which is well worth seeking out). If there is a flaw to be voiced, it’s that the long-awaited final resolution of both the book and the film fails to match the nail-biting tension of the preceding scenes. One can’t help but be left with a head-scratching “Huh, that was it?” feeling, but enough goodwill has been built up to earn a more-than-passing grade.

Shout! Factory’s recent Blu-ray release is a godsend to hardcore fans, who have had to content themselves with 20th Century Fox’s smudgy, ill-handled, decade-old DVD release until now. Blessed with a gorgeous hi-def transfer, art director Robert Jones and costumer Eileen Sullivan’s excellent work can finally be appreciated in all its glory. As for the supplementals, there’s the usual collection of photo galleries, trailers and radio spots, but one can’t help but feel a slight tinge of regret that the Powers That Be (aka BD producer Cliff MacMillian) chose to have Franklin do the audio commentary track as opposed to director Hough (who is spotlighted in a featurette), especially after encountering both firsthand.

The 30-minute interview with Hough, cleanly directed by Calum Waddell, reveals a man well-versed at his craft and eager to discuss details of the personal favorite of his films. (Understandable, as it was the one that landed him a three-picture deal with Disney, where he did the two Witch Mountain films followed by Watcher in the Woods.) He’s also a pleasantly cheeky fellow, pointing up the difficulty of creating some of the illusions and trick shots in-camera but electing not to disclose how they were pulled off! (A good magician, as they say.) He also briefly touches on working with John Cassavetes on the unsettling demon rapist flick, The Incubus, as well as how the generous McDowall agreed to appear uncredited in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.

With all this enthusiasm and knowledge up for grabs, the decision to go with Franklin for the commentary is puzzling; one can only assume it was one based on the actress’ proximity (she lives in L.A., Hough in England) rather than her instant recall. Once the track started, my worst fears were confirmed; Franklin, though a lovely subject with kind words to say about all involved, offers little insight into what’s happening on screen and most of the time doesn’t seem to be watching the film at all. Further compounding frustrations is the inexplicable choice of having a moderator present ... MINUS A MICROPHONE.

"Who is that disembodied, really WHO IS IT...???"

The end result is akin to listening to one half of a telephone conversation, with our unnamed individual gamely soliciting anecdotes from the genre veteran’s career, although half the time we don’t know which movie she’s talking about (unless you’re sitting with IMDb open and clicking through her credits). “Oh yes, Marlon Brando was quite nice on that shoot.” (Night of the Following Day) “That was the one with the giant worms, yes?” (Food of the Gods) Sigh. Great big effing sigh. It's a rare misstep for S!F regular MacMillian, one that I’m afraid I saw coming. Should have been Hough for the commentary and Franklin for the featurette, no question. And next time, turn on both mikes.

"Quite right, AC," says Revill.

Even so, any lover of bumps in the night should make every effort to snap up this HIDDEN HORROR (so nice to see so many of our award-winning tome’s selections getting the high-def treatment lately). The Legend of Hell House is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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