Richard Matheson's screen adaptation of his novel, Hell House, translates onto the big screen in what is one of the best haunted house flicks of all time (along with Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING). The PG-rated British production has little gore and resourceful special effects, and after viewing it you'll discover that sometimes less really is more, and it still holds up quite well after more than 40 years.
Emeric Belasco was a sort of bohemian who had a huge mansion built to harbor his depraved way of life. After his death, the embarrassed family closed the house up and tried to pretend that it and Emeric never existed, and it's now deemed "Hell House" due to its evil nature ("the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses"). Even though the house has been abandoned for years, a dying industrialist hires a team to enter and study it around Christmas time. Along for the ride are Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES), a scientist specializing in the paranormal and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt, EYE OF THE CAT), mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin, AND SOON THE DARKNESS) and Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES), a physical medium who barely escaped Hell House during a visit there 20 years earlier.
When asked what Belasco did to make the house so evil, Fischer replies, "Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies." This is a great basis as to why the house is surrounded by such powerful evil spirits, and they waste no time preying on the vulnerability of the four guests. Franklin (a former child actress from THE INNOCENTS and Hammer’s THE NANNY) portrays Tanner as a sensitive, strong-willed, deeply religious young woman who defends the paranormal as a manifestation of God's will on Earth. Because the character is sympathetic to the spirit of the house, she also becomes its defenseless victim, constantly being physically and psychologically tortured by Belasco's ghost (at one point in the form of a vicious black cat). In addition, her opposing relationship with Dr. Barrett illustrates a tense rivalry between hard science and Tanner and Fischer's more natural, humanistic approach to what's going on.
With great atmosphere and a cast of only four principal players, this is a fine example of well-executed horror done with the bare essentials. Matheson toned down some of the material from his book (especially the sexual content) when writing his screenplay, likely to prevent the film from getting an R rating (he also had to change the original setting from New England to the U.K.). The cast is excellent, and although McDowall tends to be hammy at times, it's still a worthy credit to his fantasy résumé. British horror icon Michael Gough (HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, HORROR HOSPITAL) appears unbilled in a strange and memorable bit as Belasco and his distinct voice can be heard early on in the film on a record playing on a old phonograph. This film was the first production from James Nicholson's Academy Films after he left American International Pictures (he died in '72), and it's superbly directed by John Hough (TWINS OF EVIL), so it definitely comes from the school of Hammer/AIP (in fact, early on it was in development at AIP). Albert Fennell (of “The Avengers” fame) was one of the producers and Bert Batt (the screenwriter of Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED) was the assistant director. Without the benefit of CGI (and it’s still far better than the flood or recent Hollywood haunted house thrillers), the special effects are cleverly executed and still have the ability to scare.
First released on DVD in 2001 by the film's worldwide distributor Fox and more recently given the Blu-ray treatment in Germany, Scream Factory gives us LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE in 1080p high definition preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. For a film that always looked flat and on the cold side, the image still gets a nice boost in HD over the previous DVD release, as textures are rendered nicely, black levels look deep and the contrasts have decent range. Colors are nicely saturated (if not overly bold) and flesh tones look pleasing enough. The transfer has excellent detail overall, with occasional filmic grain and some minor specs on the source elements. The English audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and sounds more than adequate, having significant punch in the appropriate parts, and English (SDH) subtitles are also included.
Pamela Franklin is on hand for a fun audio commentary (an uncredited faint voice is heard asking her questions from time to time), stating how she loved acting in horror films (but not so much watching them). She has nice things to say about director Hough and her three co-stars (though she got on best with Clive Revill as McDowall and Hunnicutt kept more to themselves) and jumps on such topics as the film’s hands-on special effects (and the time it took to shoot them), that the film was shot in sequence as much as possible the effects, and that it was her idea to wear the crucifix around her neck. Franklin also talks about her character and that she didn’t do any advance prep work for the part, and that the shoot was a very tiring experience. After touching upon some of her other film roles and co-stars, the commentary ends at the 1:23:17 mark. The Story of Hell House (28:19) is a thorough interview with director Hough who talks about how THE HAUNTING was influential on this film, and that atmosphere was an important ingredient. Hough exclaims how he loved Matheson’s book, that he went about making the film with a “what you don’t see is more scary” mindset, and he discusses the techniques he used and the advantage of working in a studio as opposed to location shooting (he also reveals the scenes he’s most proud of, and that he had a "perfect" cast that got along superbly). HELL HOUSE had a big impact on Hough’s career (getting the attention of executives at Disney) and it's still his favorite of his own directorial efforts. Also included are the original trailer, three radio spots, a still gallery and trailers for other titles available from Scream Factory (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR). (George R. Reis)
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