The Legend Of Hell House (1973 UK)

catOn a first watch this is a very unsettling motion picture. The synthesized ‘score’ just creeps me to the bone every time, very effective, much more than straight music would have been; totally ahead of its time. It feels like some kind of un-natural percussion is performing drum fills inside my stomach. Yikes! I have seen this so many times but I still have to look away from the screen during the ‘ectoplasm’ scene (“leave a sah-mple in the jah, please”) though to get to the end of this film without flinching a number of times is difficult.

No suprise that this is yet another adaptation of that most prolific of authors, Richard Matheson. He was a special writer who contributed more to spooky cinema and TV than any other in that 1960s/70s era. The Belasco Mansion, the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses, a place where many have stayed but never escaped alive or sane. Now four more people are challenged to enter it and investigate if survival after death exists….all for a fistful of dollars of course. They are bribed by a wheel chair bound millionaire. The back story to the house sets the scene. It was run as a place of complete debauchery, a Hellfire Club type of place.

The master of ceremonies was owner Emeric Belasco, a man with a fearsome reputation, that of a ‘roaring giant’. One day the sins and violence overspill, all inside are found dead. Twenty seven in all, only Belasco was never found, and ever since that day the house is believed to be haunted by numerous spirits. Enter our four protagonists (a physicist and his wife, a mental medium and a physical medium who was the sole survivor of the last Hell House carnage), who under a financially dangled carrot set about unearthing the truth.

What unfolds is a lesson in how to get the maximum scary atmosphere with so little to hand, technology-wise. Following the brilliant example set by 1963’s ‘The Haunting’, special effects are kept to a minimum . Director John Hough lets our minds eye fill in the blanks. We don’t need to see the horror up front, it’s better when we can just feel or hear it. Little incidents help fuel the fire, a mad cat, a séance, suspicious noises, eroticism, possession plus a continous count-down of the date and time running out for the intrepid foursome.

hell houExcellent use of subdued, sepia-toned lighting keeps the nerves a-jangling too. The mansion itself is suitably eerie (exteriors are the wonderfully Gothic designed Wykehurst Place in Bolney, West Sussex). The direction is tight, the cast work exceptionally well to bear out the interpersonal conflicts before the final battle against the paranormal decides who gets to live and who gets to die. As far as I’m concerned this psychological horror is something you can experience differently every time you see it. Anyone who gets to watch this for the first time, I envy you. As for the acting honours I feel that Roddy McDowall as the most effective.

He is the ‘mental’ medium. His sing-song vocal mannerisms are unsettling to hear and he’s one of the good guys! He seems to be mocking Clive Revill, the physicist named Barrett who sneers at anything spiritual in a tone of voice I can only describe as ‘clipped’. Gayle Hunnicutt is sympathetic as Dr Barrett’s unappreciated wife. While the rest of us are getting tense she’s getting horny. As for Pamela Franklin as the ‘physical’ medium, she gets too hysterical for my liking. Roland Culver, Peter Bowles and Michael Gough all have small but effective parts to play and all have that marvellous way of speaking English that you rarely hear in today’s movies. There are a couple of sadistic/perverted scenes that I don’t approve of, such as cruelty to a cat, so I won’t give this a perfect rating. But it is a classic horror film.



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