You don't want to know the legend of Judge Patrick Bromley's house.
Our review of The Legend Of Hell House, published September 4th, 2001, is also available.
For the sake of your sanity, pray it isn't true!
Scream Factory brings an underrated haunted house movie to Blu-ray for the first time—one that will make you forget how stiff so many haunted house movies are.
Facts of the Case
A team of paranormal investigators is hired to look into the supposed haunting the Belasco mansion, known as the Mt. Everest of haunted houses, formerly owned by a wealthy man who supposedly murdered everyone in the house and then disappeared. Leading the team is Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), a physicist, accompanied by his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) and two mediums, "mental" medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin, The Innocents) and "physical" medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall, Pretty Maids All in a Row), who is the only surviving member of a previous investigation of the same haunted house.
In the entirety of horror, the "haunted house" film has always been one of my least favorite subgenres. Maybe it has to do with my own system of beliefs in the supernatural (or lack thereof), or maybe it has to do with fact that there are only a small handful of good entries—a criticism that could be leveled against every horror subgenre, I'm sure. Whatever the reason, it's rare that a haunted house movie hasn't left me cold. This one doesn't.
1973's The Legend of Hell House combines the static creeps of Robert Wise's The Haunting with the energy and occasional madness of a '70s Hammer movie. It's sweaty, delirious, and less about the possibility of ghosts and spirits than about the certainty of their existence. The movie doesn't want to scare us with the suggestion of something supernatural (as The Haunting did), but rather show people being terrorized by something otherworldly and, unfortunately for them, a little pissed. It's sort of the spiritual ancestor of Poltergeist in that way.
The "paranormal investigation" hook is the movie's masterstroke. While it, too, is borrowed from The Haunting, it affords the movie a healthy dose of skepticism that serves it well—there's little more satisfying than seeing someone in a horror movie underestimate what he or she is dealing with and having to pay for it. Adapted by author Richard Matheson from his own novel Hell House, the movie is surprisingly sexual for the period (though that has reportedly even been toned down from the book), as Anne is subject to a number of erotic dreams and even appears at one point to have sex with a ghost. On one hand, it's just another of the movie's feverishly theatrical qualities—it's a haunted house pitched at the level of a hysterical panic—but on the other uses its supernatural trappings as a metaphor for a disintegrating marriage. This isn't a movie loaded with subtext, but what there is makes a compelling case for the intelligence behind the writing and direction.
It's the direction that comes off best of all, as The Legend of Hell House is an energetic, often crazy movie that mainlines a dose of adrenaline into what had been established as the staid, "classy" horror film. There's not much about the movie that could be accused of being "classy," but that's because director John Hough has the heart of an exploitation director. Before The Legend of Hell House, he made Twins of Evil for Hammer; afterwards, he would direct the violent car movie classic Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. He brings the same kind of energy and spirit to Hell House. He's aided immeasurably by Roddy McDowall, who immediately earns my sympathy as the most fearful of the team (he's the only one who has seen firsthand what the house can do), because no one plays afraid quite like he does. His work here is like a precursor to his great performance as TV host-turned-vampire hunter Peter Vincent in the great Fright Night.
The Legend of Hell House arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory and is actually one of the older titles in the company's catalogue, which consists primarily of films from the '80s onward. The 1.85:1/1080p HD transfer is mostly free of wear or signs of aging, with good detail work and a color palette that has held up well. The image has a general softness to it, but that's a function of the original photography and not the fault of a weak transfer. Fans of the movie should be plenty happy with how it looks on Blu-ray. The original mono track has been maintained, and while it's nothing revelatory it does a good job of presenting the dialogue clearly (English subtitles are also offered) and balancing it out with the score and the occasional sting or scary noise.
Because it's not being released as one of the studio's "collector's editions," The Legend of Hell House is much lighter on bonus features than I'm accustomed to for a Scream Factory release. There's a commentary with star Pamela Franklin, but it's really just an audio interview passing itself off as a commentary—there's not really any screen-specific information. Much better is a nearly 30-minute retrospective interview with director John Hough, who speaks about the experience of making the movie and provides a good overview not just of how things were done, but what his intentions were the film as well. A few fun vintage radio spots, a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer round out the supplemental section.
Despite my own general lack of interest in haunted house movies, I had a lot of fun with The Legend of Hell House—another reminder of the late, great Roger Ebert's maxim that movies are not what they are about, but how they are about it. It's not a horror film I'll be returning to every year, but it's one I'm glad to have seen and happy to have available on Blu-ray. My love affair with Scream Factory continues.
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