Friday, September 9, 2011

The Mount Everest Of Haunted Houses

The Legend of Hell House(1973)
Director: John Hough
Cast: Roddy Mcdowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt

Adapting for the screen from his novel, Hell House, Richard Matheson constructs one of the greatest of all haunted house films with this seminal 1973 thriller. Every bit as scary as Robert Wise's far more celebrated, The Haunting(1962), this film is a much more visceral and violent experience that never lets up. Matheson's Hell House is a highly disturbing and underrated classic and it's something of a blessing that the producers were able to acquire his services for this film. Most of the plot is intact, save for the changes in locale from New England to London, and the sexuality being toned down a tad. It's still a really powerful film, nonetheless and a well remembered spookfest.

A team of investigators are sent to a house to disprove it's reputation as the "Mount Everest of haunted houses." The team consists of a psychic investigator, Mr. Barrett(Clive Revill), his wife, Ann(Gayle Hunnicutt) and two psychics, Florence Tanner(Pamela Franklin) and the only man who has ever returned from the house alive, Benjamin Fischer(Roddy Mcdowall). The house was once owned by a devious man named, Eric Belasco, known as "the roaring giant",  who committed all manner of foul deeds within the home, eventually dying along with 27 of his followers in 1929. Ever since then, the house has been haunted and all who have entered have either become insane, crippled or killed, including a 1953 expedition, where Fischer was the only one who got out alive and sane.
Immediately upon entering the home, Florence makes a connection and percieves the spirits to be in pain, assuming it to being Belasco's son, Daniel, a character that has never been mentioned on record. The spirits speak through her and warns the rest to leave or die, and soon begins to raise hell that includes hurling objects, possession and other horrors. Most of the terror is inflicted upon Florence who has a psychic connection with the spirits and who is being used by them. Eventually the spirit of Daniel rapes her and leaves her half mad. Fischer refuses to open himself to the home, fearful of what occured before and Barrett, despite all the evidence to the contrary, believes the home to be channeling forms of energy and not something from the supernatural. A machine is brought in that is supposed to suck in the energy from the home, but not before Florence is killed inside the chapel within the house, crushed by a giant cross. The house appears to be clear, but the spirits remain and destroy Barrett, leaidng Fischer and Ann to the chapel, where the last remnants of spiritual energy reside. Fischer battles the spirit and discovers that Belasco has manipulated them all, being the only ghost that has ever haunted the home. Fischer attacks the ghost by revealing his secret that he was an illegitimate son and a dwarf who had sawn off his legs and had them replaced with prosthetics to look like a giant. A window in the chapel breaks and the still preserved body of Belasko is found(it's Michael Gough!) and Fischer figures out that Belasko's spirit has lasted so long because his tomb was coated in lead. The two survivors leave the house, now cleared of the spirit of Belasko.

The Legend of Hell House is one intense little movie. The film is able to seamlessly blend together the subtleties of the classic horror film, while heaving a more graphic attack on the viewer that would foreshadow the explicit horrors to follow. What makes the film so effective is the small cast, which we learn about intimatley and get to know and empathize with. The terrific performances, combined with the brooding atmosphere of the house itself, forever covered in fog and looking ominously against a pale sky, in the best gothic tradition.

Roddy Mcdowall has always been a fine actor, but really outdoes himself in this film, delivering one of his finest screen performances as the tormented and cynical, Fischer, who ultimately becomes the film's hero, proving brave enough to face down the malevolent specter. Mcdowall's explanation of the film's legacy and it's twisted owner makes for some of the eeriest moments in the picture and his earnest belief in the supernatural, enhances the seriousness of the horror. The final duel between him and the house is very effective and only an actor of his professional quality could have made it believable and keep it from parody that is does dangerously come close to being at times, as he shouts out insults at Belasko's spirit, at one point calling him a "sawn off little bastard!"

Clive Revill is very effective as well in the role of disbeliever, constantly trying to disprove the supernatural implications that are presented him, despite being attacked by an array of kitchen utensils and witnessing a physical manifestation of the spirit through Florence. His ultimate fate becomes that much more terrifying and horrible, as we all know that he's just plain wrong in his assumptions and that the house is indeed haunted! Pamela Franklin is wonderfully naive in the role of the young psychic, who gets taken advantage of by the ghost of Belasko, suffering all sorts of abuse including being attacked and clawed by a black cat and the truly bizarre rape sequence. She has a very sensual quality to her character, as her constant religious musings and caressing of her always present crucifix, indicate a suppressed sexuality that only arrives when under the influence of the house. Gayle Hunnicutt has less to do, but is very good as the wife of Revill, who ultimately falls victim to the house's power, unleashing her own inner-sexuality, including a great seduction sequence with Roddy Mcdowall, which made me assume the man must have been made of iron, because she's very sexy in this film. One of the most memorable elements of the picture is it's underlying sexual nature, which was otherwise unexplored in the genre up to this time. Sexuality was always a subtle fixture, dating back to the silents, but utlizing it in connection with spirituality and the supernatural was an effective choice and makes for a more disturbing, psychological experience as the ghost practically becomes a represenation of the character's id.

This is a surprisingly underrated movie for whatever reason. It contains enough scares and suspense to appeal to many a horror fan and is well acted and directed to boot. Certainly, the appeal would seem to be much wider, but the film has slipped into the realms of the obscure. The Legend of Hell House is not just one of the best haunted house pictures, but ultimately, one of the finest horror films of the period, if not all time. Few movies have as much atmosphere or such a palpable sense of evil and menace as this one. Far more sensual and violent than just about any other in it's subgenre, this is a classic horror film that deserves it's place among the greats. It may very well be the Mount Everest of haunted house films!

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