THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE"
The horror genre tends to be cyclical in nature, with a certain type of story achieving popularity for a time before another type replaces it. Thanks to the success of Insidious and The Conjuring, old fashioned paranormal chillers are currently in vogue, so it's a good time for Scream Factory's Blu-Ray release of the 1973 fright flick The Legend of Hell House. Very much a precursor to those recent hits, this is a haunted house movie with a kinky twist.
Renowned physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) is hired by a millionaire to explore the Belasco house, a.k.a. “the Mount Everest of haunted houses.” It belonged to noted pervert and murderer Emeric Belasco, and is said to be possessed by the spirits of his victims, who died in demented ways. Accompanying Barrett is his wife Ann (Gail Hunnicutt) and two mediums, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall). No sooner do they arrive than strange things happen. Tanner begins getting strange scratches across her body, while Ann starts sexually acting out. Barrett sets up a machine that he thinks will rid the house of spirits. Fischer, on the other hand, thinks the situation may be more complicated than anyone realizes.
The Legend of Hell House has the creepy vibe that marked many horror films from the early '70s. A dense fog permeates every exterior shot, and the use of abrupt zooms, dutch angles, and practical special effects heighten the mood. Although tame by today's standards, the scare scenes are well done for the time, most notably a sequence in which an evil spirit practically demolishes the dining room where our four heroes are eating. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film, though, is that it has a lot of deviant undertones. There's a sexuality that runs beneath the story. Belasco was said to be a degenerate, and the nature of his sins comes out via the happenings in his home. Ann, in particular, is subject to erotic possession, while Tanner at one point gives herself over sexually to a ghost. Although it was made more than forty years ago, the subject matter remains provocative.
Of course, parts of The Legend of Hell House feel slow compared to the hyper horror movies we routinely get today. This is an atmospheric picture that takes its time building up to things. But that's okay. Even though haunted house chillers are popular again, they aren't made with the same era-specific technique. Much of the fun now comes from seeing something familiar crafted in a vintage way. There is also much pleasure to be found in Roddy McDowall's superb performance. He takes dialogue that would sound corny coming from many actors and imbues it with a spooky tone. All in all, The Legend of Hell House is a rather fascinating bit of horror history, one that's worth checking out, especially if you dig that '70s style.
The Legend of Hell House comes to Blu-Ray with some bonus features, including audio commentary from actress Pamela Franklin. Director John Hough gets a 28-minute interview in which he talks about this film and others he directed. You'll also find some cool period radio spots promoting the movie, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.
For more information on this Blu-Ray, please visit the Scream Factory website.
The Legend of Hell House is rated PG for language and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.
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