April 6, 2010
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
For those of you who are familiar with Robert Wise's "The Haunting", it will be no surprise for you to learn that "The Legend of Hell House" was little more than a 70s remake of the same story. Even the title was similar to Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" (which of course was the novel that "The Haunting" was based on). Some might call it plagiarism but I'd rather think of "The Legend of Hell House" as writer Richard Matheson's homage to a work of fiction which has inspired every director of a ghostie film ever since.
In this case, director John Hough, who is better known for his TV work and Hammer's "Twins of Evil" (1971), set the story during the week before Christmas in a fog enshrouded Blenheim Palace. No New England "Hill House" here but the birthplace of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill no less. Changing the location was largely due to APC moving the whole production to England hence also the cast of British actors rather than Americans. Yes, Roddy McDowell, who plays psychic Benjamin Fischer, was British in spite of being a staple of American TV for over three decades. Interestingly, the other psychic played by the gorgeous Pamela Franklin was actually born in Japan, Clive Revill was a New Zealander and Gayle Hunnicutt was born in Texas. Even Michael Gough who goes uncredited as Ernest Balasco was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It's funny what you find from a bit of Googling when writing a review. Perhaps this movie isn't quite so full of British actors after all.
One thing "The Legend of Hell House" is full of, though, is atmosphere. It's so intense that you could almost cut it with a knife although at just over an hour and a half long the claustrophobia of the apparent five room set does tend to get a little bit wearying after a while. Every ghost story cliché is used but this was before we even started to think of them as clichés. For the most part, it's all very original in spite of the aforementioned homage to "The Haunting".
There's hardly any gore in this apart from one important scene featuring Pamela Franklin but there are a couple of sexy moments. Gayle Hunnicutt's attempted seduction of Roddy McDowell is the most memorable for me but, without spoiling it for anyone, Pamela Franklin is the real star of the naughty bits here. Just think along the same lines as "The Entity" and you'll figure out exactly what happens to her in this film.
Possession and psychic abilities play a much bigger part in the story than I would have liked especially if you try to think of this as a true haunted house genre movie. The ending really felt like a bit of a letdown considering Roddy's speech about all the horrors (including rape, torture, and even cannibalism) which supposedly occurred in the house during its former occupancy. Like most films of this time a lot more is implied than actually occurs on screen so you just have to use your imagination and dig Roddy McDowell's performance instead.
All the acting is first class in fact with the characters being a lot less annoying and dated than the ones in "The Haunting". Clive Revill as scientist Lionel Barrett was overly stubborn to the extent that he almost became another Dr Frankenstein with his ardour to prove his techniques correct (with similarly disastrous consequences). The use of his machine to rid the house of ghosts, of course, became an important part of "Ghostbusters" later on and the science versus the supernatural theme is always an important part of any haunted house movie anyway. There'll always be a sceptic, a psychic, a control and a scientist in any of these stories. You can almost, but not quite, swap any of the characters for the ones in Stephen King's "Rose Red" too to see how much "The Legend of Hell House" has had an influence.
I expect you all want to know if it's actually scary or not. Well, depending on the age at which you first see it, it is definitely scary. Only "The Others" comes any way close to the same scariness for a modern audience although really that movie has more in common with "The Innocents" than anything here. Some scenes work better than others including the jump scares and twists. The ones which don't work usually involve Gayle Hunnicutt to some extent but it's more the fault of the dialogue than anything else. I also found Roddy McDowell to be a rather odd choice for a hero but I really couldn't see anyone else capable of filling that role either. "The Legend of Hell House" is all very tense more than anything else (and a little bit too wordy rather than graphic), but it's still one of the best haunted house movies ever made.