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.
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.
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.