From the DVD case:
It sits there, shrouded in mist and mystery, a nesting place for living evil and terror from the dead. It’s Hell House. Roddy McDowall heads the cast of this exciting chiller about four psychic investigators and the dark, brooding mansion they themselves call “the Mt. Everest of haunted houses.” It’s already destroyed one team of researchers. Now this brave quartet ventures in for another try at unraveling its secret. (1973, color)
The Legend of Hell House is another film adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson (Duel, The Incredible Shrinking Man). Matheson wrote the screenplay himself, though many of the explicit scenes from his novel (Hell House) had to be toned down to receive its PG rating.
Matheson had high hopes in regards to assembling a cast:
At one time I had in my mind a dream cast of Richard Burton and his wife Elizabeth Taylor to play the two mediums, Rod Ststeiger and his wife Claire Bloom to play the professor and his wife. Just after they made The Legend of Hell House people began making the really classy, A-picture-type horror films, starting with The Exorcist, so if I had held onto Hell House a few more years, it might have gotten that kind of treatment, too.
Though Matheson did not receive his “dream cast,” the players in Hell House are quite competent. Clive Revill (The Headless Ghost) plays Mr. Lionel Barrett, a physicists and paranormal investigator hired to establish the facts regarding life after death. Barrett believes in paranormal phenomenon, but postulates that it can be explained scientifically. Specifically, he believes all hauntings can be reduced to the effects of electro-magnetic radiation. He even develops a machine to neutralize such radiation.
Gayle Hunnicutt (Eye of the Cat) plays Mr. Barrett’s wife, Ann. Ann doesn’t seem to be much help to her husband, but it is established early on that she attends all of his investigations as a type of moral supporter. Hunnicutt does an excellent job of playing not only a naïve housewife, but a sexually charged vixen when possessed by an entity within the house.
The two actors that really make this movie click for me, though, are Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes, Fright Night) as Benjamin Fischer and Pamela Franklin (Necromancy, The Innocents) as Florence Tanner. Matheson did not think either actor was quite right for their roles (he stated Franklin “seemed too young”), but short of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, I think they give fine performances.
Mr. Fischer is a “physical medium,” which means the spiritual realm is able to manifest itself physically through him. Fischer is the only survivor from the previous investigation twenty years earlier, when he was only 15 years old. Accordingly, Fischer comes off as a bit of a coward and we eventually learn that he has “shut himself off” from the forces of the house. Perhaps wisely, he is only willing to stick out the week, collect his money and run. Fortunately, by the film’s conclusion, Mr. Fischer attains some gumption and ultimately unlocks the primary secret of the house.
Florence Tanner is a young “mental medium,” which gives spirits the ability to speak to and through her. Pamela Franklin plays the role exquisitely as a virginal innocent who is primarily concerned with helping the “residents” of Hell House achieve peace. Florence is treated quite shabbily by the house. She is slashed, attacked by a possessed cat, is possessed herself, and even raped by an evil entity. One of the most chilling scenes of the film occurs when the other investigators discover Miss Tanner after the rape. Tanner turns to face them, and her girlish innocence is replaced by an utterly wicked smile and giggle. It’s truly an unsettling transformation.
The theme of The Legend of Hell House lends itself to comparison with the 1963 classic, The Haunting. Both films deal with a group of investigators researching a notorious haunted house. The Haunting, however, focuses primarily on one character, Eleanor Lance, played by Julie Harris. Hell House, on the other hand, is more of an ensemble. The tension in Hell House is not only derived from the spiritual shenanigans, but from the battling egos and theories of the investigators.
Ultimately, I find The Haunting to be the superior film, not only in story, but in cinematography as well. The Legend of Hell House uses reflections and a distorted fish-eyed lens to enhance the uneasy and unreal flavor of the story. Unfortunately, some of the camera work borders on cheesiness. For example, a scene involving a distressed Pamela Franklin begins spinning faster and faster in a fashion reminiscent of the old Batman TV series.
However, the most crucial flaw of the movie is its climax. I am not going to give away anything here, but I will say that the final showdown is so preposterous that it is dangerously close to being silly.
Flaws aside, this is a wonderfully atmospheric movie that uses very little gore or special effects to achieve its eeriness. The acting is strong and the story is intelligently told. Look for a brief cameo by Michael Gough (Konga, Horrors of the Black Museum) as Emeric Belasco, the deceased, nefarious owner of the house who participated in “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies,” which made the house so evil.
Directed by John Hough (Twins of Evil).
Scene to watch for: When Mr. Fischer decides to finally “open up” to the forces of the house, he suffers contortions that are almost comical. Strangely, I experienced the same contortions when the mystery of the house was revealed.
Line to listen for: “What’s to tell? The house tried to kill me. It almost succeeded.”
Trivia: The Legend of Hell House was the first and last film produced by James H. Nicholson (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Pit and the Pendulum) after he left AIP. He died of a brain tumor shortly after production.
Reference notes: Any quotes by Screenwriter Richard Matheson (directly or indirectly) were taken from Tom Weaver’s book, Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes. Highly recommended!
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.