Academy Pictures Corproration/20th Century Fox
Directed by John Hough
Produced by Albert Fennell
Written by Richard Matheson based on his novel “Hell House”
Plain and simple, there are the two things upon which the success and effectiveness of a haunted house story depends on. One: there has to be a compelling and believable reason for why the protagonists go to a house they know is haunted. Two: there has to be a compelling and believable reason for why the protagonists continue to stay in a house they know is haunted. If there isn’t a powerful enough motivation for those two points then you just don’t have a good haunted house movie.
And I love a good haunted house story. Some of my favorite horror movies are haunted house stories: “The Haunting” “The Shining” “Burnt Offerings” “The House on Haunted Hill” “Poltergeist” because all of them are excellent examples of how well a haunted house movie can be done when there’s a solid reason why the characters don’t just run like hell when the dishes in the cupboard start flying through the air by themselves. And it’s why I enjoy THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE so much as each of our four main characters have excellent reasons for why they are in ‘The Mount Everest of haunted houses.’ The infamous and cursed Belasco House.
Dying millionaire Rudolf Deutsch (Roland Culver)puts together a special group, contracting to pay them £100,000 each to prove conclusively that there is life after death. There’s a catch, though (isn’t there always?) They have a week to accomplish their task. The team members are: physicist and parapsychologist researcher Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) his wife Anne (Gayle Hunnicutt) spiritual medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and physical medium Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell.) Fischer is the only survivor of a previous attempt to investigate the supernatural forces infesting the house that killed the seven other members of that team. Fischer intends to sit around the house, do nothing and collect his check at the end of the week. Dr.Barrett wants to test a machine he’s invented that he believes will dissipate the unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house that he thinks is the actual cause of the haunting. Florence Tanner has a deep Christian faith that perhaps opens her up far too quickly to the influence of the house. The four of them move into the house, which has been sealed up for years and they’ve just barely unpacked their bags before they realize that they may have made a really big mistake in coming to Hell House.
Built and owned by the depraved and perverted millionair Emeric Belasco aka “The Roaring Giant” the house gained its fearsome reputation after a hideous orgy of madness that included drug and alcohol abuse, vampirism, cannibalism, necrophilia, torture, murder and let’s not even get into the range of sexual deviancy that went from A to way beyond Z. Over forty people died during that event but Belasco himself was never found, alive or dead. One of the things that sets THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE apart from other haunted house movies is that it’s just as much a mystery as a horror movie as the team has to put together the clues as to exactly why the house is being haunted as much as who is doing the haunting. Florence Tanner is immediately convinced that it’s Belasco’s son Daniel who is haunting the house. And the house itself appears to to be working on her overbearing ego as she is convinced right from the moment she sets foot in the house that she’s the only one who knows what’s going on.
The house works on the others in various ways as well, especially on the sexual frustrations of Ann Barrett. She is tormented by erotic thoughts and visions of shadows on her bedroom wall engaging in lusty sexual acts. Barrett himself is so convinced his machine will work he refuses to give any credence to the opinions of Florence or Fischer.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE will seem dull and plodding to those of you who are used to CGI extravaganzas in your horror movies but it’s one of my favorites and a movie I’ve seen and enjoyed many times. The performances of the four main characters are all wonderful and carry us through the movie right along with them. Clive Revill gets criticized for playing Barrett as such an uptight, repressed, stick-up-the-ass prig but that’s what the character is. And because Barrett is that way, it’s pretty understandable why his wife is seduced so easily by the house offering to fulfill her sexual fantasies.
Pamela Franklin has long been a favorite of mine and if you like her performance in this one, then by all means check out “And Soon The Darkness” a nifty horror film from 1970. She and Revill have some great scenes where they go at each other tooth and claw. Despite their seeming differences, their characters are actually quite similar in their stubborn insistence that each of them are right and their refusal to entertain other ideas, beliefs or thoughts is what leads them to their eventual fates.
But it’s Roddy McDowall who walks off with the acting honors in this one. I really like how he stays in the background for most of the movie, along with Gayle Hunnicutt and lets Pamela Franklin and Clive Revill have most of the screen time in the beginning of the movie as it’s their characters that are driving the plot along. But the longer the movie runs, the more his character comes to the forefront and it’s terrific to watch Fischer put together the clues at last and take on the spirit of Emeric Belasco at the end. It’s McDowell at his best, going full tilt boogie and selling the scene not with special effects but his sheer acting power. It’s a great conclusion to watch him solve the mystery of Belasco House and put not only his personal demons but the demons of the house to rest at last.
Plain and simple: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is a movie to put on your Must See list of horror movies to watch if you haven’t seen it already. And it makes a fine Halloween double or triple feature with any of the other haunted house movies I mentioned earlier. Enjoy.