Directed by John Hough
Distributed by The Scream Factory
There are a number of variables that can lead horror fans to make assumptions about a film’s quality before seeing a frame of footage, but none seems more arbitrary than the rating. Slap an “R” on a film and there’s a buzz of excitement in the air; garner a “PG-17” and almost immediately complaints pop up decrying that a film has been neutered for younger audiences. Sometimes the latter is true – and also foolish, since the 12-17 demographic that studios so desperately chase is a minor slice of the movie-going public pie – but, really, a film’s rating is not intrinsically linked to its quality. Just look to the past for ripe examples of horror films that are truly terrifying despite their (gasp!) “PG” rating. Of course, many of these examples were from an age before the advent of a “PG-17” rating. Still, the great thing about horror is that gore and nudity aren’t required to instill terror, and there is a subgenre that can skate by without either of those: hauntings. Going back to an era before these films relied almost entirely on jump scares, some of the most consistently lauded fright films are decades-old favorites such as The Haunting (1967) and Poltergeist (1982), both of which have “mild” ratings.
One film that seems to get overlooked on many lists is the British cult classic The Legend of Hell House (1977) which, personally, I’ve always found to be quite effective. The screenplay was written by famed literary icon Richard Matheson, based upon his own novel of the same name. The plot is very basic: four people are commissioned to stay in “the Mount Everest of haunted houses” in an effort to prove whether or not life continues after death. That’s it. There are no ulterior motives, no sneaky sinister characters, and no slow building of tension before culminating in a frenzied climax. Four people enter a home that is unquestionably teeming with paranormal activity and the spirits within endlessly torment them until the very end. Ably directed by John Hough, who has helmed many cult favorites during his career, the film stands as a strong example of using fear of the unknown (and unseen) to bolster scares without relying on graphic imagery.
The picture opens with the following text:
“Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.” – Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty
Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), a prominent physicist, has been tasked by an aging millionaire to investigate the Belasco House, site of a massacre many years ago. The massive mansion was constructed by Emeric “The Roaring Giant” Belasco, a six-foot-five mountain of a man who disappeared shortly after the killings in his home. It is said the house is haunted by the spirits of those who died there. Previous expeditions to prove the existence of the supernatural ended poorly, with nearly every person who set foot inside dying under mysterious circumstances. Barrett brings along his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt); a psychic medium, Florence (Pamela Franklin); and a physical medium, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowell), the one survivor of the research team that was killed in the home. Barrett is convinced the phenomena seen inside can be explained away as unfocused electromagnetic energy, and he’s brought along a giant machine (which looks like an old prop from “Star Trek”) that can reverse the energy fields.
Ridding the home of its evil won’t be that easy, however, as the four soon find out. Almost immediately, the place is abuzz with activity, which Barrett thinks is nothing more than Tanner using her abilities to manifest phenomena. Fischer is simply along for the pay day, keeping up his mental walls so as not to allow the house any influence over his mind. The others aren’t so detuned, and Barrett’s wife finds herself continually under a hypnotic spell that causes her to unleash her restrained sexuality. Tanner, too, is heavily influenced by the spirit of whoever resides here. She is continually attacked both mentally and physically, the latter of which comes in the form of a sleek black cat that is unrelenting in its attacks. Fischer finally lowers his mental block and lets his mind focus on the home’s energy, which lets the group uncover some of its hidden secrets. But, ultimately, Barrett thinks only his machine can clear the evil out and end all of this madness. He may be right; however, arriving at such a conclusion requires confronting the evil forces head-on from their origin point in the heart of the house, the chapel.
The Legend of Hell House might seem tame by today’s standards, especially when you consider it lacks anything visceral. They still get away with quite a bit for a “PG” rating, including some decent side boob action, a few strong sexual moments and some mild, bloody imagery. Where the film succeeds is by presenting a constant stream of nefarious activity that occurs almost as soon as our team of four enters. The scares aren’t major, but there’s an eerie undercurrent that’s slightly unsettling because of that intangible, unknown entity causing chaos. Is there only one malevolent spirit? Several? Barrett and his team are under constant attack, both from outside and from within their own group. What’s more, Barrett is able to play the skeptic despite an abundance of clearly inhuman activity because he attributes all of it to electromagnetic energy, claims Tanner and Fischer find dubious.
The acting here is very… British; and by that, I mean kind of stuffy. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that McDowell is the strongest player here, though I wish the script had exploited the angle of him being the sole survivor of previous investigations much more. Fischer seems to be the only logical person on this mission, knowing full well what awaits them in that place. He must be very hard-up for cash considering he voluntarily re-enters the place where his colleagues died in the name of scoring some extra scratch. Old millionaires must pay very handsomely.
Hough’s film plays, in many ways, like a Hammer picture, which makes perfect sense considering he spent a good deal of time directing at the venerable studio. The Legend of Hell House presents a solid ghost story along with a dreary, austere atmosphere. Again, the scares found here may seem tame in comparison to today’s haunting films, but there’s an undeniable charm in the ‘70s aesthetic and gothic setting. If there’s one complaint, it would be there are way too many title cards. On the last day in the home, the date and time must flash on screen a dozen times. If there’s a second complaint, it would be that the ending sort of fizzles out unexpectedly, especially considering the gravity of the secrets that are uncovered. When people ask me to recommend a good, scary horror film that they haven’t seen this has long been one of my go-to picks. Revisiting it now, some of the scares aren’t quite as impactful as I had remembered, though that doesn’t make the experience of watching it any less enjoyable.
For a film that’s over 40 years old, The Legend of Hell House sports a 1.60:1 image that is fairly strong for a low-budget affair. Film grain is very evident throughout, mostly lending the cinematic aesthetic it should, but occasionally it turns to noise and the image quality suffers. This mostly happens during some interior shots. The print itself looks to have been well-preserved, with only minor flecks & dirt apparent. Hough uses extreme close-ups quite often, which not only adds to the sense of claustrophobia even in a huge mansion, but the image detail gets to shine through more than ever. When the camera is shooting medium or wide, though, the picture is softer than a moldy piece of fruit. Black levels hold strong, with only a couple instances of looking hazy. Colors look a tad on the faded side; nothing much pops here. Contrast is stable, but under the weight of shadows image details are swallowed up. This is the kind of transfer that punches up every aspect of the picture as much as it can, even if the results aren’t eye-popping. It would require extensive restoration work to look much better.
There’s not much to be said about the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track. It’s clean, free of hisses & pops and carries the dialogue with good fidelity. The real standout here is the electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. It’s an atypical score that delivers an aura of foreboding, full of low-end instrumentation (think contrabassoon) and bursts of energy when the house comes alive. With so many labels churning out film soundtracks these days, someone should get on giving this its first proper commercial release. It’s absolutely fantastic. Subtitles are included in English.
Actress Pamela Franklin is the lone participant on the audio commentary track, which may just be a repurposed interview cut to use as a commentary. When selected, the disc starts off around five minutes into the movie, when Franklin’s character first appears. She’s pretty lively and quick with the anecdotes, but there are also many gaps of silence. This might’ve been better presented as a sit-down interview. The best extra included here is the Interview with director John Hough (1080p), which features the veteran director candidly talking about his style of shooting pictures, efforts to build suspense, the film’s energy, and he mentions they even had psychic advisors on set to make sure events were being presented correctly. He’s had a long, strong career and hearing him speak about his craft is a joy. The film’s theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, and a handful of radio spots conclude the supplements.
4 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5