Friday, 2 May 2014

The Legend Of Hell House

"May you find the answer that you seek. It is here, I promise" Emeric Belasco.

Welcome to Hell House. The "Mount Everest of haunted houses" according to Dr. Barrett ( Clive Revill), who accepts a challenge from businessman Rudolph Deutsch ( Ronald Culver) to produce evidence of survival after death. Accompanied by his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and mediums Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), Barrett's party enter the house on 20th December, intending to remain there for 5 days and collect £100,000 for a positive result.

I suppose it's entirely reasonable to compare The Legend Of Hell House to what could be termed the 'Mount Everest' of haunted house movies: I refer, of course, to Robert Wise's The Haunting. Both films pitch their audience into a house allegedly alive with psychic phenomena, where a team of investigators will attempt to deliver irrefutable proof that the spirits of the dead are often unwilling to depart from the land of the living.

For me, the most fascinating similarity between the two films is that neither Hell House nor Hill House provide the aforementioned evidence. In short, the various events that take place may well have been unwittingly (The Haunting) or intentionally (Hell House) caused by the living, rather than the dead.
We'll take a look at The Haunting some time soon, but let's concentrate on the house owned by Emeric Belasco which, years earlier, played host to vampirism, sadism, necrophilia, drug addicition, orgies and other unsavoury activities. In 1927, just 8 years after the house was built, Belasco disappeared without trace and Hell House was boarded up for over 20 years, with its master missing presumed dead. During two attempts to discover whether Belasco really was responsible for the reported ghostly manifestations, eight people died: on both occasions, Ben Fischer was the only person to emerge in one piece.

As the film progresses, Dr. Barrett's expedition appears to encounter a barrage of supernatural phenomena, including a ferocious assault where the good Doctor has practically everything bar the kitchen sink thrown at him, and a spine tingling seance that really sets the nerves on edge when Florence begins to speak with a gruff male voice apparently belonging to Belasco's son, Victor. Later in the film, Florence is attacked by a supposedly possessed cat and allows Victor's spirit to have sex with her, while Dr. Barrett's wife - also seemingly possessed - invites Ben to get down and extremely dirty with her.
As with The Haunting, there are some very strong human emotions gathered together here: fear, sexual repression, rage, jealousy.....enough to move mountains, never mind a few tables and sundry household appliances. The sexual angle is particularly interesting. Ann Barrett, who clearly suggests her husband is no longer interested in what lies beneath ("He's sleeping"); Florence, who likely experiences a wet fevered dream in lieu of her first (?) sexual encounter, with scratch marks from Victor's alleged violation probably caused by the feline from hell, and what about Ben? The only person to walk out in one piece from two previous investigations! In both cases, practically every male participant had their legs crushed in some form of 'accident', and either died or suffered permanent paralysis. Did Ben harbour some dark secret that turned his mind against both sexes? Was this self-confessed 'physical' medium compelled to use psychokinisis to kick up a real storm directed at his temporary companions, and were his powers sufficient to cause Florence to hallucinate,and to bring Ann's sexual urges to the surface? To put it bluntly, if Fischer couldn't get laid he'd make darn sure no-one else would. Dr. Barrett clearly believed his own brand of science - including a machine designed to 'drain' the house - succeeded in clearing almost every room, but maybe Hell House had always been devoid of energy.....until Fischer walked through the door. First-time viewers will have to see for themselves whether he makes it back to the outside world for the third time, or perishes during a showdown in the chapel - the nerve centre of Hell House, or so Fischer would have us believe

Whether or not the Belasco place really was haunted is very much open to interpretation, but even the sternest disbeliever will surely agree that John Hough's direction realises many flesh-crawling moments, with every shadow, each creaking door bringing an icy chill that seems to reach out beyond the screen. Even the presence of one wholly inappropriate line, uttered during an ectoplasm display at the seance, ("Leave a specimen in the jar, please") fails to dispel the tension for more than a few seconds.

20th Century Fox's Region 2 DVD delivers the best looking small screen version of this film, with a nice 1.85:1 transfer revealing that Hough and his team used every inch of the screen to explore the nooks and crannies of Hell House, turning damn near every room into a snapshot from some gothic hell. While this film retains its 70s look - due, no doubt, to the filmstock - colour reproduction is good and shadow detail is well rendered, making the £5.99 price tag for this disc seem like daylight robbery; in our favour for once.On a performance level, it's pretty much 'as you were' with McDowall and Franklin both excellent, Hunnicutt remaining an attractive piece of window dressing and Revill still struggling after all these years to draw any feelings of dislike or concern from either side of the camera.
While The Legend Of Hell House was never quite good enough to enter the upper echelon of classic spookers, it does remain a fascinating film; possibly for what it may be, rather than what is has long been perceived as.

1 comment: