Stuff I Watch in October: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

legend of hell house

Happy October and welcome! All 31 days this month, I will be reviewing all the films I watch in the month of October. They’re mostly a selection of horror or suspense films in my own library or films and shows that have been recommended to me.

Please enjoy and leave a comment!

And if you missed any of our past reflections, take a look:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Psycho (1960)
The Haunting (1963)
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
The Other (1972)

Our next film is…

WATCHING: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

legend of hell house


DIRECTED BY: John Hough, a director who still flies under the radar with cult hits like the original maverick Disney efforts “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Watcher in the Woods” as well as the legendary “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry”.

WHAT IS IT?: An insane British haunted house film based on the late Richard Matheson’s novel, “Hell House”. If you’re not familiar with Matheson, you should be. He’s a god of the literary world. Not only did he write some of the most famous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Third From the Sun”, he produced such classic novels as “The Shrinking Man”, “A Stir of Echoes”, “What Dreams May Come”, the outstanding “I Am Legend”. He also wrote “Duel”, which he adapted from his own short story, and which was directed by Steven Spielberg. “The Legend of Hell House” is based on one of his works, one of my favorites, called “Hell House”, something one might consider to be the antithesis of Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Haunting of Hill House” — and it gets a stuffy, yet high-class British treatment.

THE PLOT: Starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin, and Gayle Hunnicutt, the film has virtually the same plot as Jackson’s story: a stern doctor (Revill) who believes in psychic phenomena — but also maintains a fairly thick wall of skepticism — brings his wife and two psychics to the foreboding Belasco House, a place which paranormal researchers have dubbed “The Mount Everest of Haunted Houses”.

The house is said to contain the spirit of the son of a war industrialist named Emeric Belasco, a man who is described by McDowall’s psychic, “Ben Fischer”, as over 6 feet tall with a “demonic face that had taken on a human appearance.” Immediately, whatever is haunting the mansion begins to pick on the quartet. It violently attacks Florence Tanner, one of the mediums, every chance it gets, while possessing Dr. Barrett’s wife and filling her with lustful impulses she’s unable to control, which angers her husband and turns him against Ben, who survived the house’s wrath during an expedition two decades prior and has mentally blocked himself from the house’s energy.

WHAT CRITICS THOUGHT: When all else fails, look to Roger Ebert who called this film “fun” on a couple of occasions. The film has a 62% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, comprised of reviews from some snarky, modern critics. For the most part, these reviewers get it. Others don’t. I refuse to listen to the one who called it “boring”.

WHAT I THOUGHT: The movie wastes little time once it gets started, eschewing the more friendly, lackadaisical approach of Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” for a serious, more clinical approach. The film is filled with claustrophobic close-ups of the cast and menacing establishing shots of The Belasco House from the ground up, giving it the same intimidating quality as it’s antagonist, Emeric.

The only downside is the dirty, grainy, exploitative “grindhouse” feel of the film (which, incidentally, inspired Edgar Wright’s fake movie trailer, “Don’t”, for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse”) which gives us a story about four people inside a house owned by a guy who loved “blasphemous acts” like “cannibalism and bestiality”, featuring two female protagonists who throw themselves at Roddy McDowall or the house’s head ghost, which ever is more easily accessible. Seriously, how this was “Rated PG” is beyond me because even back then, this should have been an easy “R”.

On top of the “possessed cat” scene, “The Legend of Hell House” gets hokey — but it pulls itself out of that fire with some nice casting choices (McDowall can play this kind of role in his sleep and Pamela Franklin is excellent as Florence Tanner) and actually gives the viewer a really good, fun ghost story in the aggregate with a climatic battle between the living and the dead which is enormously entertaining — even if it’s a little over-the-top and bombastic.


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