The Legend of Hell House Blu-ray Review
Directed by John Hough
Written by Richard Matheson
1973, Region A, 95 minutes, Rated PG
Blu-ray released on August 26th, 2014
Roddy McDowell as Fischer
Pamela Franklin as Florence Tanner
Clive Revill as Dr. Barrett
Gayle Hunnicutt as Ann Barrett
Roland Culver as Mr. Deutsch
Emeric Belasco was a man capable of any misdeed, and the house he built retains the secrets of his disreputable lifestyle. Long rumored to be haunted, the manor has claimed almost thirty lives, remained sealed for twenty years and taken on the moniker Hell House. The secrets behind its doors have encouraged paranormal researchers to investigate, only to lead them to their doom. The property has recently sold and the new owner has hired a new team to spend a week inside in order to get an answer regarding the possibility of life after death.
Leading the group is Dr. Barrett, a skeptical physicist joined by his spectator wife Ann. They will be working with a pair of mediums, including Mr. Fischer, the sole survivor of the previous investigation, which left him emotionally fragile. New to the house is Florence Tanner, who makes an immediate psychic connection to the place and insists there is a restless spirit in need of release. It is hard to deny that something is amiss in Hell House, as the night is filled with strange noises, creeping shadows and objects moving on their own. The intensity amplifies when Barrett reveals his intention of using technology to essentially exorcise the grounds. Soon, the house is attacking the researchers both mentally and physically and if anyone survives the assault, there is no certainty they will retain their sanity.
The Legend of Hell House is generally overlooked in the subgenre of haunted house pictures and as a kid, I frequently confused it with The Haunting (mostly because of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House), which in turn misled me to thoughts of The House on Haunted Hill. Richard Matheson's Hell House is something much darker than either of these and he actually toned down the violence when adapting the novel into a screenplay. The script contains all of the elements one associates with the classic rhetoric of horror films, including a Gothic mansion, foggy atmospherics, black cats, creaky doors, giant spider webs and disembodied voices. While all of these pieces work together here, they provided a blueprint for countless cinematic imitators for the next four decades.
Roddy McDowell (Fright Night) leads the cast as the emotionally damaged Fischer, and runs with the role from detached observer to determined adversary challenging the spectral forces that once tried to kill him. Pamela Franklin (The Innocents) is perfect in the role of the naïve medium Florence Tanner, who may or may not be right in her assumptions regarding the identities of poltergeists in the house. Clive Revill (Avanti) is given the hardest performance as Barrett, the skeptic reluctant to admit things are bizarre despite all evidence to the contrary. Audiences will not want to dismiss Gayle Hunnicutt (The Spiral Staircase) as Ann, whose character undergoes a surprising sexual awakening. Genre fans will want to watch for an uncredited cameo by Michael Gough (Horror of Dracula) during the finale.
Working from a script by the legendary Richard Matheson (Jaws 3-D), director John Hough (The Watcher in the Woods) skillfully explores every menacing angle in Hell House with the assistance of famed cinematographer Alan Hume (Lifeforce). If an odd camera angle might increase the growing sense of unease, these two are likely to find it and put it to good use. There is a nice balance between wide shots that establish the size of the rooms in the house with frequent tight close-ups on people or objects that force an intimacy with the surroundings. Perfectly complementing the visual extremes of the picture is a wild score composed by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, both known for their work on the long-running Doctor Who series from 1963-1979.
The Legend of Hell House holds up well and is easily recommended viewing especially for anyone who has not seen it before. There is a welcome seriousness to the material that does not waste time with fake scares or clever one-liners. There is a surprising level of sexual tension in this film that adds to the dynamic of the characters and contributes an additional level of unease to the series of events. Our heroes face plenty of dangerous situations, including violent poltergeist activity, physical injury, madness and even a few uncomfortable moments of paranormal sodomy. It is a bit surprising that the movie was released with a PG rating, but 40 years ago things were different and horror movies were able to shock viewers at every turn.
Video and Audio:
The Legend of Hell House is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and this transfer offers a lot of minor detail that has been missing from previous editions. While not exactly reference quality, the transfer hits best where it needs to with colors and natural flesh tones, but also in small-object detail in fabrics and hair.
The DTS-HD mono track preserves the original mix that is full of both carefully-orchestrated ambient sounds as well as powerful moments of silence. Dialogue remains clear and free from distortion and English subtitles are provided for anyone in need.
Director John Hough sits for The Story of Hell House (28 minutes), an overview of his career in general and this picture specifically. He has a lot to say and his tales are revealing and entertaining.
The audio commentary with Pamela Franklin is a bit spotty, as the session is more of an interview with the questions edited out, resulting in some awkward pauses. Once she gets going, however, the information is solid and worth the patient listen.
A photo gallery offers a collection of promotional stills that are rather nice.
A few radio spots provide just the right amount of nostalgia for this type of marketing.
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