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THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)
Directed by John Hough.
Produced by Albert Fennell, Norman T. Herman, James H. Nicholson (executive), Susan Hart (executive).
Novel & screenplay written by Richard Matheson.
By Matt De Reno
It is always delightful to discover a gem of a film perhaps lost in today's deluge of blood and gore. Such is the case with the The Legend of Hell House, which first haunted the silver screen in 1973. Starring a horror legend himself, Roddy McDowell, The Legend of Hell House is the classic, if not cliched, The story of the atypical haunted house and the team of investigators sent to go prove if it is haunted or not; the experts, if you will, concerned with a supernatural task. I mean isn't this the plot of most Scooby-Doo episodes? It doesn't matter.
We still eat up these plots and for good reason: A haunted house is a great canvass for human drama. In many ways, haunted houses are like any tale where it is "man versus nature." Only in this case, nature is of the supernatural variety.
Imagine a group of people lost at sea. All of their personality differences, skills and talents all come to play to determine if the group will survive. A haunted house flick is no different. The haunted house becomes the ocean.
So what is the scenario in Legend of Hell House?
Physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) is hired on by an eccentric millionaire, a Mr. Deutsche. His task is to somehow validate "survival after death" in "the one place where it has yet to be refuted". We are talking about the Belasco House—one spooky and creepy place.
Barrett later calls it the "Mount Everest of haunted houses." Originally owned by the notorious "Roaring Giant" Emeric Belasco, as the tale would have it, Belasco was a towering six-foot-five mad man of perverted interests to say the least. Moreover, he was an alleged murderer, who disappeared soon after a massacre took place at the Belasco house (i.e., Hell House).
As our group readies to investigate the Belasco house, it is believed to be haunted by fiendish spirits; victims of Belasco.
Accompanying Barrett are his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicut), as well as two mediums: a mental medium and Spiritualist minister, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and a physical medium, Ben Fischer (McDowell), who is also the sole survivor of an earlier investigation though it must be noted he was a "mental wreck" when he crawled out of the Belasco house the first time. Barrett, a rationalist is brusquely skeptical of Tanner's spiritual beliefs. He asserts that there is nothing but "unfocused electromagnetic energy" in the house. To prove so, Barrett brings a machine he invented, which he believes will rid the house of any paranormal energy hanging around. It must have been running Windows Millennium or something, because it didn't quite work right in the end. In any case, this is where the fun begins.
This is an evil house, a place of sickness, says the medium during the first sitting on their stay at Hell House. The first ghostly encounter is when Tanner channels a ghostly apparition that is filled with such hatred and malice it is enough to make you shiver. It is very similar to the feeling you get in the Exorcist when the girl is possessed and the devil is speaking through her. That stuff just creeps me out.
This team is a typical assortment of folks who all have a particular skill to lend to a haunted house excursion: Tanner, can channel the spirits and Barrett is the scientist who makes the inevitable mistake to try to explain the unexplainable through scientific means and conditions.
Fischer, however, is the one lone survivor to have actually lived to tell about an experience in the Belasco haunted house. Naturally, and not supernaturally, these human elements are what form the dramatic triangle and point of interest with this film
It is not necessarily the ghosts themselves or the moving objects, dreams, nightmares or unexplained sounds and shrieks that truly generate the drama. Rather it is how the human characters interact with each other. Haunted House films, or any sort of film that knows that, gets it right. Hell House gets it right. It is the team that is most interesting to me.
These are interesting and contrasting characters that have their own doubts, scepticisms, strategies, opinions and methods for verifying the supernatural. That they turn on each other and cast doubt on their fellow team members is testament to that otherworldly knowledge of human nature, which knows that humans who still walk the planet will eventually fight and blame each other and will be the best source of killing each other off when faced with peril or the unexplainable. Save the falling chandelier when envy and distrust will kill a fellow man just as quick.
I greatly enjoyed how the film was set up. In the beginning, we get the assembly of the team and all the suspense is set up with their differing opinions and philosophies. I also liked that bygone era technique of opening a movie without the credits. You have a scene or two and then a pause where the credits explain who is who. In this case, they paused at the gates of the Belasco house only after the characters were introduced. I liked that and wish Hollywood could get back to that. However, I believe I read somewhere that credits must be shown at the very beginning of all films now as it is part of the SGA or something or another. Moreover, I understand George Lucas was fined for bucking this stipulation in his Star Wars flicks. Then again, I could be imagining these things, much like the characters question their imagination during their stay at Hell House.
I shouldn't give this film too much credit. It is good in a way that reminds us how far we come in today's cinema. It is like an old piece of clothing we would never wear again but are greatly entertained to be reminded of how we all used to dress back in the day. This film can be described much like Fischer describes the ghost of Belasco: it has figured out a way to protect itself years before it knew what was coming — like all the blood and gore films we get today. All the trash and hackneyed horror films that seemed to have cluttered up the decades ever since. Hell House, for the most part, is a cliched film done well. That is what I liked about the story and the movie as a whole.
I also think I am giving more credit to it because it is one nail in the coffin of Roddy McDowell's legendary career (I should explain that metaphor was meant as massive tribute to his contribution to the horror genre). McDowell endeared countless movie goers over the years with his sharp, nuanced and intellectual looks, while playing anything from characters on Planet of the Apes to Batman arch-villains to retired vampire killers. Maybe then that McDowell nostalgia lends credit to a film, which otherwise might not be deserving of such fondness so long after it was made. Perhaps. Nonetheless, there is something classical about Hell House, which for lack of McDowell, is quite hard to lay an ectoplasm-covered finger on.
Is The Legend of Hell House still haunting? Yes, indeed. It reminds us that haunted houses are full of spirit and are great arenas to play out earth-walking human drama. It reminds us that McDowell, much like the "roaring giant" Belasco that haunted Hell House, is a spirit that will endure for some time in these sorts of films. The Legend of Hell House is really part of the legend of Roddy McDowell