Haunted house movies are nothing new, and weren’t even anything new in the 1970s. Some form of spooky old manor, often populated by spectres and psychic energy, have been in film since the beginning. The most effective films of this nature are, for me, the ones that are about mood and ambiance more than any physical ghoul or ghost and none hit this on the head so exactly as Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting where you see nothing but hear and feel everything. This type of movie was on the back burner for just about everyone in the gore-soaked 70’s, but the movie that has come the closest at capturing The Haunting‘s style and mood, while still employing a bit of sex and viscera, is John Hough’s 1973 British classic, The Legend of Hell House, as eerie and creepy a ghost movie as has ever been made, and just a little schlocky too for good measure.
Written by the legendary Twilight Zone writer and author of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson, based on his own novel Hell House, The Legend of Hell House follows the same formula as a number of haunted house flicks, with people being forced to spend an allotted period of time in a scary place with the goal of surviving, but it rises above that with the exploration of themes, its deep and complex characters, and a visual style comprised of shots designed to make you feel ill at ease. Almost all of the effects were practical, as well, even some of the ones that make you think surely an edit happened somewhere.
A very small cast, the movie mainly concerns four people who have been paid to stay inside the fabled Hell House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.” The house has been left abandoned for twenty years since the last people to try to exorcise its demons were killed, barring one lone survivor. The rich owner of the property is paying an exorbitant amount of money to the four to try to get them to clear the house. Those people are physicist Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill), who doesn’t believe in ghosts at all and believes it to be a simple psychic phenomenon; his unfulfilled wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt); a spiritual medium named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) who means to help the ghost or ghosts pass to their rest; and Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), a physical medium who is the aforementioned lone survivor of the previous experiment, who is only here to collect his paycheck and bid this life farewell.
The reason for all the evil in the house, it is believed, derives from its former owner, Emeric Belasco, the “Roaring Giant,” a behemoth of a man who was known to openly practice witchcraft, vampirism, Satan worship, ritual sacrifice, blood orgies, regular orgies, and just about every other creepy or hedonistic thing you can think of, something it seems most incredibly wealthy people were. Once in the house, Miss Tanner immediately begins channeling the angry spirits and manifesting ectoplasmic phenomenon, despite her being a spiritual medium and not a physical one. Dr. Barrett believes she is somehow making these violent things happen after he’s attacked by objects in the house. Mrs. Barrett begins to be possessed nightly by some hyper-sexual force which causes her to try to seduce Mr. Fischer, who has closed himself off entirely to the forces. Miss Tanner becomes convinced the angry spirit in the house is actually Daniel Belasco, Emeric’s son whom nobody is sure even exists.
This is a movie that never tells us the paranormal isn’t real, but does call into question whether or not these particular manifestations are real, which is a different way to tell this kind of story. Miss Tanner is in some way psychically inclined and she may or may not be doing this to herself, though we the audience kind of know she isn’t. She’s attacked or interfered with quite often by the ghosts in the house and is even attacked by a possessed black cat at one point. Eventually, and despite wanting nothing to do with the actual things on display, Mr. Fischer is forced to confront the demons that plague him and the entity that took his friends 20 years earlier before he, and the house, can truly be at rest.
The performances and script of this movie are all top notch, but what really makes this movie one of my favorites in the subgenre is its direction by Hough, who had directed Twins of Evil for Hammer and who would go on to direct things like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Escape to Witch Mountain, and The Watcher in the Woods. He really finds a way to make the house engulf the characters and shoots things in such a way as to make everything feel on edge at all times, until the burst of scares come through. As I mentioned earlier, this movie also has a great deal of impressive on-camera effects, including making it look like a person is underneath bed covers only to reveal nothing when the covers are pulled away, doors opening, chandeliers crashing to the ground, and implements flinging across the room on their own. He gives all his actors intensely close close-ups which allow their weakening mental states to come to the forefront.
The music in the film is also notable for having been performed by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson formerly of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and two of the people responsible for the sound of Doctor Who in the early days. The score to this film is the same kind of electronic, industrial groaning and squeaking that one would hear on the TV show and it adds a real sense of foreboding and unease throughout and makes the film much more unique than a simple orchestral score would have done.
This is one of the best British horror movies ever made and a creepy haunted house flick perfect for rotation around Halloween. The film on Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release looks and sounds wonderful without lessening the grindhouse-style crackle and fuzz of the film grain. While not having much in the way of features, it does have a feature commentary by star Pamela Franklin and a 30 minute interview with director John Hough, alone with trailers and things. Heavy recommendation from me.