The Legend of Hell House 1973
UK DVD Spirit Ent / Altitude Films – 90 Minutes.
Starring – Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Richard Matheson.
There’s a particular type of haunted house story that has, over the years, developed into something of a blueprint. A group of people from a range of backgrounds, with a variety of interpersonal grudges and at various points on the skepticism spectrum have cause to stay in a haunted house (sometimes for financial gain, but more often than not just to get to the bottom of why the house is haunted). Once they’re there, spooky things happen; things fly around and there’s lots of banging, screaming and running around. Ultimately some of them die and the whole story leads to a satisfactory conclusion with at least one survivor. The mystery of the house is invariably sort-of, but never entirely, solved.
The blueprint has been recycled many times, in a variety of guises, from William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1958) through the various Amityville films (1979 onwards) to Poltergeist (1982), and even, arguably, the “cabin in the woods” type of films epitomised by The Evil Dead (1981).
The seminal film in this sub-sub genre is The Haunting, Robert Wise’s cast-iron classic, made in 1963, and subjected to a truly rotten remake in 1999. The reason why it is so good, and why it still packs a punch fifty years after it was made is that Wise refrains from showing anything overtly scary, instead making the sound design, photography and editing creepy. This has the effect of concentrating the power of the film into its very fabric (rather like the haunted house itself).
The Legend of Hell House is, to all intents and purposes, a rip-off of The Haunting. Whilst it does have a few scary moments, and all of the constituent parts of the haunted house story present and correct, ultimately the parts don’t really add up to a particularly satisfying whole.
The story (which is disposed of with swift efficiency before the opening credits) revolves around the Belasco House, built by an evil millionaire and seemingly imbued with his demonic spirit. During his life, and since his mysterious disappearance, the house has been the site of countless debauched acts, as well as a series of gruesome and unexplained deaths. Into this, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses”, are sent the usual intrepid band of paranormal investigators; a psychic (Pamela Franklin), a sceptical scientist (Clive Revill) and his saucy wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) and the lone survivor of a previous investigation (Roddy McDowall), all banding together to solve the mystery of Hell House once and for all…
The film was adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel (entitled Hell House), and this is almost certainly where the problem lies, as it does have the feeling of somebody trying to cram an entire books-worth of material into a 90 minute-long film. There’s an awful lot of plot, and the (frankly ridiculous) explanation for Hell House’s haunted-ness is dispatched with in about two minutes.
That said, The Legend Of Hell House does have an awful lot to recommend it. It’s very handsomely shot, with lots of unusual camera angles that help to shore up the general air of menace, and the eerie score (courtesy of electro-geek pin-up Delia Darbyshire & Brian Hodgson from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) is most effective. Of note also are some of the film’s pseudo-scientific trappings. The film is split into chapters, headed by date and time captions. These captions, that predate the The Amityville Horror’s “based on real events” gimmick by several years, give the whole film a compelling real-life feel, helped by a well-intentioned respect for the science of the paranormal.
The performances are great too, with Clive Revill’s solid turn balanced by Roddy McDowall, who somehow manages to combine scenery-chewing hamminess with a touching subtlety. The star of the show, though, is Pamela Franklin, previously known as one of the spooky children in The Innocents (1953) and latterly the wise teenage neighbour in Hammer’s underrated The Nanny (1967). As the member of the group to whom the most spooky stuff happens (one of the spirits haunting Hell House seems to have taken a shine to her, for reasons that are never fully explained) she is required to carry the bulk of the film, which she manages with aplomb.
Ultimately, then, there are aspects of The Legend of Hell House that make it worth watching, and it does have moments in which it reaches the dizzying heights of The Haunting. Such moments are few and far between, though, and separated by acres of clunky dialogue. All told, a 6/10.