[25 August 2014]
In The Legend of Hell House, like the best visceral horror films, it is not what is seen, but what is unseen that is truly terrifying. This intelligent, creepy and disturbing horror film preys upon the most primal aversions to discomposure and the paranormal that even the most staunch realists among us harbor, but hide. As the closing credits finally roll, one might be very shocked to discover that this terrifying haunted house film was actually rated PG.
Then again, so much of what is terrifying is unseen. As the character Benjamin Franklin Fischer (brilliantly portrayed here by Roddy McDowall) describes the corrupting influences on the house: “Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” We never actually see any of these R-to-X-rated moments. The Dionysian debauchery is described and suggested, but never actually portrayed onscreen, leaving quite a bit to the imagination.
Of course, the imagination that brings this brilliant film to life was that of Richard Matheson, the genius author behind I Am Legend, Duel, The Night Stalker, A Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, and much more. Matheson brings the same terrifying mastery to his screenplay as he did to the original 1971 novel, simply titled Hell House. As the title might imply, there is something of a similarity between this tale and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. However similar the initial haunted house premises may be, the stories themselves go in completely different directions, and bear little resemblance to each other in the final product.
Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was made also made into a film ten years prior to The Legend of Hell House. Like this film, Robert Wise’s film adaptation is a terrifying experience in truly deep horror… but The Haunting, for all its terror, was rated G upon re-release under the MPAA’s guidelines. By contrast, the earlier film was rated X in the UK.
The tale begins with an elderly millionaire named Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver), who is obsessed with discovering the truth about the afterlife. To this end, he hires Doctor Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), a physicist and skeptic, to investigate “the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses”, the Belasco house, the one place on Earth in which life after death had yet to be refuted. Barrett and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) have only one week to prove or disprove this fact for Deutsch and thus earn their 100,00 pounds sterling payout. With Barrett representing the scientific side of things, Deutsch also hires psychic medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and physical medium Ben Fischer (McDowall) to communicate with the supernatural side of things.
As brilliant as it was for Deutsch to hire Fischer, it was even more brilliant for director John Hough to hire McDowall for this role. Roddy McDowall is absolutely perfect in the role of the multi-faceted Fischer. Initially the timid, very Roddy McDowall-esque victim (he is revealed to be the only survivor from the last time Hell House was investigated), Fischer soon becomes the most rational and capable member of the team, capable of standing up against the “roaring giant” that is whatever is left of Emeric Belasco (Michael Gough).
Of course, a level head is needed as the ghostly and cruel influences within the house begin to twist and tempt the personalities of the rest of the team, bringing out many of the “goodies” that Fischer warned about.
Many of these frights begin as if they are mere haunted house parlor tricks and little more. One of the best things about The Legend of Hell House is the way in which the film pushes the boundaries of audience expectations, surprising at every turn. Hough takes what could have easily been seen as ridiculous or over the top in the hands of a lesser director with lesser actors and reshapes it into something that is not only scary as hell, but somehow believable and serious, even and especially at its most psychotic and dramatic. A table bounces, throwing food around, a chandelier falls, objects fly across the room. However, much like the same year’s The Exorcist, these frights are handled with such dire seriousness that the audience will find it hard to dismiss these moments. What could be a minor fright becomes deadly serious in a split second with no flinching from the camera. Much as he would later do with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Hough choreographs the stunts so perfectly, often without stopping the camera, that everything falls into place as if truly orchestrated by a ghostly force.
The cinematography by Alan Hume is at once understated and beautiful, focusing on interesting choices for camera angles and a rich appreciation for the environment (be it in the real world or within the art direction of Robert Jones). The music by Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire similarly works to enrich the film, not to overpower it. In one of the few Blu-ay extras on this edition, Hough indicates that much of the creepy atmosphere of the film was achieved due to a series of accidents. The fog and lighting of the outdoor scenes were all natural, for example.
Sadly, for all of the genius of the film itself, the current Scream! Factory edition is not exactly a “collector’s edition”. Hough’s film is dark and murky to begin with, and a high definition transfer will preserve this darkness. That said, it is debatable how restored or high definition this transfer truly is, considering the film dust and scratches that can be detected (albeit barely). The film still looks and sounds great, but considering the impact, influence and true depth of this film, one might have expected a more bonus-heavy release. This edition contains no commentary track and while the interview with Hough is welcome as are the promotional materials (original trailer, radio spots and still gallery), true fans of The Legend of Hell House will clamor for much more in the extras category.
As for the film itself, The Legend of Hell House still stands as one of the greatest horror movies ever made (even when compared to The Haunting). It is easy to be impressed by the film’s quality. That said, this smart fright flick might not be for all tastes. Certainly there is no taboo against blood in The Legend of Hell House, but this is hardly your standard ultra-violent gore fest either. The horror is cerebral and intelligent, never pornographic or simple. For those who consider revulsion and startles to be the core of horror, you are cordially invited to seek your entertainment elsewhere. For those who appreciate suspense and more intelligent terror, The Legend of Hell House might be for you. For Roddy McDowall fans, his performance here is nothing short of excellent.