One of the best things about The Legend of Hell House is the way in which it pushes the boundaries of audience expectations, surprising at every turn! It 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.
That skilled cast begins, but does not end, with Roddy McDowall, who brings us physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer, a seemingly dull and nerdy man who is unimpressive when compared to the rest of the team he works with.
This team was assembled by wealthy eccentric Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) who is obsessed with finding out the truth about "The Mount Everest of Haunted Houses", known to the world as "The Belasco House". While he's not convinced of the existence of the Supernatural World, he's willing to pay big money to those who are willing to either prove or disprove its existence within the walls of the one place where survival after death has never been refuted. To this end he hires Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), who brings his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) along. Barret soon finds himself in a strange group rounded out by the lovely young spiritual psychic Florence Tanner (sexy Pamela Franklin) and, of course, the only man to both survive and stay sane after the last time the house was investigated, twenty years prior... that being Ben Fischer himself!
The fear fest they expect to face (if any of this is real at all) begins and ends with yet another eccentric millionaire who also was a reputed murderer, occultist and pervert named Emeric Belasco (played, when seen and heard, by Michael Gough). Belasco's Crowley-Like Parties included, to quote Fischer, "Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies." Such things were said to have left a psychic residue in the old house, not unlike a haunting by thousands of unquiet spirits.
Both Fischer and Tanner feel it right away, but Barret approaches the whole thing with a physicist's skepticism, knowing that there is something in the house, but never becoming superstitious or unscientific in his approach to figuring the whole thing out. Plus he just happens to have a pre-Ghost Busters weird device for fighting ectoplasmic and electromagnetic phenomena wherever in the DAMNED house it might arise.
Unfortunately, before he can work his magic (and he only has a week before his Christmas Eve Deadline), the forces of the house begin to influence the fantastic four within its walls, pushing them to violent and sexual appetites and attacking them with shocking revelations, forgotten corpses and even possessed cats. I'm guessing they're Bengals, but that's a personal opinion on my part.
It's during this middle part that Hell House goes from being a scary story to a series of rapid-fire surprises and frights that never seem to come across as cheap or startling due to the care with which they are handled. Pamela Franklin's brief nude scene is lovely and sensuous, but leads to a horrifying aftermath. This serves only to show how seriously this very fine actress took her role. She is uniquely in tune with the supernatural aspects of the house and seems determined to solve this groovy mystery, but never devolves into a stock damsel in distress who ignores obvious self-preservation cues like "Don't go IN there, lady!"
On the same level is Roddy McDowall who cuts out multiple facets for his character of Fischer. Where Franklin ranges from the innocent to the sexual to the startlingly creepy (with her petite laugh and blood-curdling scream), McDowall goes from strange little man to stoic to brave raving knave giving us some scenes that would be considered over-acted and ridiculously over-the-top if done with a milliliter less care than he gives it. Each confident scream can be believed and he shows both his character's bravery and his own acting chops! Bravo!
As always, Matheson is at his best when his work is at its most surprising! Furthermore, even as filtered through the directing of John Hough, Matheson's wry sense of humor shines through if ever so darkly. In truth, Hough is no stranger to adventure, horror or even subtle humor, being the director of four episodes of The Avengers along with three of the Witch Mountain films, Howling IV and a whole slew of other films.
Similarly, 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 works to enrich the film, not to overpower it.
You may have the idea by now that the film is pretty much brilliant. It's easy to be impressed by the film's quality. However, the film might not be for all tastes. Certainly there is no taboo against blood in this film, but this is hardly your standard ultraviolet gore fest either. The horror is cerebral and intelligent, never pornographic or simple. For those who consider revulsion and startles 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.
The Legend of Hell House definitely lives up to its title. Yes it's a house of horrors, but the real key is the legend that surrounds and penetrates the house. The astute viewer will appreciate the way these mysteries unfold and will probably agree with me when I recommend Four and One Half Stars out of Five for The Legend of Hell House! This ectoplasm-soaked supernatural thriller is wonderfully written, beautifully directed and skillfully executed by its talented cast! Make no mistake, this film pulls no punches. This is deeply frightening and makes every scary moment count! Hell House may make you think twice before spending the night alone in a strange place. Might I recommend that you spend said night with somebody else? Just make sure they're still alive when your fun begins.
Oh, shudder... shudder! See you ghostly fiends in the next reel!
WILL THIS NEVER END?
When I speak to thee, thou shalt
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Thus sayest the Critic!
To be fair, if I were a ghost and I were going to try to have sex with somebody, she probably WOULD look like Pamela Franklin!
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