Review: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Legend of Hell House

Rating

Director
John Hough
Screenplay
Richard Matheson (Novel: Richard Matheson)
Length
95 min.
Starring
Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver
MPAA Rating
PG

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Review
For almost as long as there have been motion pictures, there have been films about haunted houses. The Legend of Hell House is just one of hundreds of films set in a creepy, spectre-filled home.

Based on his own novel, longtime science-fiction and horror writer Richard Matheson crafted The Legend of Hell House surrounding a mysterious estate whose poltergeist inhabitant has maimed or killed a number of people who’ve attempted to cleanse it of its haunted taint. One survivor of these attacks, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall) is part of a three-person team sent to Hell House in another effort to rid it of evil presences.

To do so, a wealthy investor has promised each of three people a handsome some to enter the house for ten days, assess the situation and put an end to the hauntings. In addition to Fischer, the team includes a fellow medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and a physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) who is accompanied by his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt). The events in the house are fairly innocuous at first until the believed former owner of the state begins amping up the terror, stalking the meek, innocent young Florence who’s far more open to the spirit than the more guarded Fischer.

The expected chills in The Legend of Hell House are accompanied by a few sordid details about the sadist former owner and his regular sexual encounters in the mansion, as well as a few provocative scenes involving a nude-in-silhouette Mrs. Barrett possessed briefly by the ghost, Ann’s imagination playing tricks with the shadow of a sexually explicit urn, and regular visions of a nightgowned Florence taunted and attacked by every manner of invisible stalker. It’s a little more risque than a lot of these types of films prior had the nerve to be, but it never moves beyond good taste like it would if it were made today. And to be honest, I’m surprised this film hasn’t been optioned for a remake considering just how sleazy it could become in the wrong hands.

Revill and Franklin preen themselves far too frequently, delving haphazardly into caricature as each square off in the pro-science and pro-metaphysical debate, even if unified briefly early in the film. Their performances are all bluster and no substance. Though, Franklin does get a few really admirable scream scenes to add drama to the proceedings, but even when she’s terrified, it’s too manner and controlled to be honest. Hunnicutt, despite being in several scenes is almost lost as an actor, never really getting the material she needed to excel.

McDowall on the other hand, long a fixture of the niche genre pictures of the 1960s and 1970s, does exactly what we expect him to. His physical medium (a medium who manifests spirits physically around them as opposed to a mental medium, Florence Tanner, who simply feels the ghosts around her) has been through this torture before and has shut off his mind and his heart to any different outcome than before. He has also closed his gifts as a medium off to any intrusion in an effort to protect himself from the dangers of the house, leaving Florence to open herself up to invasion. Yet, as the film progresses and his character begins to see through the events and slowly comes to understand the origins of the haunting, McDowall breaks free of his refined performance and delivers an energetic and entertaining performance. Late in the film as he yells into the air taunting the spirit of the former owner, his anger and frustration are fully displayed and the audience gets an empathetic jolt as they cheer Fischer on.

Director John Hough isn’t a terribly gifted director as evinced by his lack of recognizable or respectable filmography, is best known for his work on the Disney features Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel Escape from Witch Mountain. His lack of zest behind the camera fits better with Disney’s kid-friendly pictures than with a terrifying tale, but some of the scenes are shot quite effectively and laced together seemlessly. Hough is no massive talent, but he does a workman’s job of stringing everything together.

The Legend of Hell House doesn’t hold a candle to a number of other films in this horror sub-genre, but it’s an interesting look at the role science plays in attempting to debunk metaphysics and its belief in ghosts. It even goes so far as to attempt to explain psychic phenomena in terms of scientific jargon, explaining ectoplasm or residual tormented energy as if there were real scientific principles behind them. Yet, once you get past the more ludicrous aspects of the film and allow yourself to be carried along for the fun, this seldom frightening, but frequently creepy film should provide a suitable scare for those who aren’t impressed by more terrifying fare.
Review Written
September 12, 2011

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