Friday, February 3, 2012

One A Week Reviews #5: The Legend Of Hell House

Of all the well-known horror films I've seen over the years, I somehow continually missed The Legend of Hell House. I haven't even read the Richard Matheson novel, "Hell House," that it's based on. I have however read "The Haunting of Hill House," and seen both versions of The Haunting. I wondered, based on the similarities in plot, where a small group of psychics spend some time in a legendarily haunted house, if they'd be similar. In the end I have to say "Pretty much, but with more sex, violence, and tacky fashion."

Lionel Barrett (Clive Revil) is hired to investigate the truth of life after death, and if the "Mount Everest of Haunted Houses" is a real thing. The Belasco Mansion has a sordid history, and has evidently killed off previous teams who hoped to solve it's mysteries. Barrett has four days, and has psychic Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell), who survived the last go round with the house, mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and Barrett's wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) are along for the ride. They're dropped off at the house, and you do expect their driver to say that no one comes there "in the night... in the dark..." as the maid in The Haunting says.

Immediately upon walking in, everything gets portentous and "act-y," with odd noises, thick darkness, and unflattering close-ups. (McDowell particularly suffers, always looking hang-dog and dejected.) They even find a record left by Emeric Belasco (an uncredited Michael Gough), the wonton devil who caused this whole mess, essentially welcoming them to the house. The movie successfully sets an ominous tone, though the general decaying-mansion quality has not aged well in this day and age of condo-set banality, à la Paranormal Activity. The cobwebs, dust, and draperies scream sound stage. Haunted house movies really are scarier when they could be happening in your little Ranch or Cape Cod.

That said, Belasco's referenced history of "Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies" fits right in nowadays. Of course, it's raciness is restrained to the implications of sex. Ravishment happens (though it's the Seventies, so shampoo doesn't seem to), but even the terrible things that do happen never seem to penetrate the walls of politeness. Evidently, just showing a book titled "Autoerotic Phenomena" was quelle scandale in the pre-internet age.

Ah, the Seventies - she's wearing tights with that turtleneck...
As the story goes on, there's a seance, an exorcism, the medium speaks in voices, and wires move objects as "ghosts." The try to figure out and fight this haunting with "science," including a computer that's practically the size of EMERAC. The physical effects are practical, and must have been quaint even when this came out. There's some tediously slow animated "ectoplasm," but there's also lots of talk-talk-talk. There's a little gore and some flashy deviltry at the end, but on the whole this is pretty staid stuff. More "Hammer Horror," it's far more reserved than another horror film from the same year, The Exorcist. About the only thing that's contemporary to it is the terrific electronic score. Serious actors telling instead of showing, and the conservative pacing date this film terribly. Describing the ending as "hokey" would also be generous, at best.

As an old fashioned haunted house story, including a ghost generally polite enough to close doors behind him, it's pretty good. There's really not much to say about this one beyond "save it for a rainy Sunday." It's not The Haunting, but it's watchable.

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