For a quick comparison of not only the style of writing, but also the approach to criticism, of two Downright Creepy staff members, be sure to read Eric Havens’s review of The Legend of Hell House before reading my review below. I hold a great deal of respect for my colleague; his thoughtful comments dig deep into the underlying themes of a movie while mine merely scratch the surface as I talk simply about how pretty a movie is or how effective is at scaring an audience. Neither approach is necessarily better, although you may have a preference. I’m just admitting that Eric’s reviews are Wall Street Journal-grade while mine are USA Today-grade. (And I’ve always referred to USA Today as the “Weekly Reader” of newspapers.)
That’s style. However, at the heart of any review is whether or not a critic likes a movie. I’m not going to go all Siskel on Eric’s Ebert and tell him he’s wrong. But as you can read, I do not care for The Legend of Hell House as much as he does. As he shared in words other than mine, the set up in The Legend of Hell House is that an eccentric millionaire hires physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) to investigate “survival after death” in “the one place where it has yet to be refuted”, an old mansion he calls, “the Mount Everest of haunted houses”. The house was originally owned by Emeric Balasco, whose “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, beastiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies” made the house evil.
Barrett takes to the house his wife, Edith (Gayle Hunnicutt), a spiritual medium, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who also happens to be the lone survivor of a previous investigation. Barrett is the scientist who believes there is nothing but electromagnetic energy in the house that they can simply suck out. It is of course the believer, Tanner, who manifests psychic activity while in the house.
Originally released in 1973, The Legend of Hell House is, in a way, sort of timeless. I mean, it doesn’t matter in what era it takes place. It’s just another haunted house movie representing the particular time in which it was made. The only thing that distracts from this timeless quality is the big, clunky machine the characters place in the house to vacuum away its ghosts. Interestingly enough, this supposedly state of the art piece of equipment makes the movie feel older than it really is.
Richard Matheson supposedly toned down the subject matter when adapting the movie from his novel. This may be why it all seems somewhat underdeveloped. However, it is surprisingly more sexual than I recalled. Twice, Edith experiences erotic visions and throws herself at Fischer. But these are long, drawn-out scenes that include acts like caressing the private parts of a statue before coming on to any actual human beings.
The story is rather ho-hum (and a little confusing); however, the visual style is terrific. Directed by John Hough, who also made what is perhaps my favorite Hammer Films movie ever, Twins of Dracula, The Legend of Hell House is composed of mostly brief scenes that begin with a time stamp, giving it a documentary feel. The shot compositions are interesting and unique. Oftentimes, the camerawork is fluid, taking the experience of spending a week in a haunted house to another level; in a way, it’s like we’re there, too.
Oddly, the exterior shots are sometimes more foreboding than the interior shots. Outside, it’s dark and foggy and the wind is blowing. Inside, it’s better lit and the cinematography is crisper. Watching it, even through the end, I decided if I were there, I would rather be inside the house than outside.
I, unfortunately, did not gain any newfound love for The Legend of Hell House by watching it again recently. While extremely effective in what it does, it just doesn’t do enough for me. Oh, well, as Florence Tanner says, “The Lord certainly does move in mysterious way.” To which Benjamin Franklin Fischer replies, “So does this house.”
For more on this movie, visit It Came from Beneath My Mind and the Countdown to Halloween 2014.