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Worth A Look40.91%
Average: 9.09%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 9.09%

1 review, 16 user ratings

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Legend of Hell House, The
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by Brian McKay

"The Mount Everest of Haunted House Stories?"
4 stars

Based on Richard Matheson's 1971 novel "Hell House", this film shows how a creepy and effective story can be told with a single setting, a cast of no more than half a dozen characters, and a minimum of special effects. It is an art that I thought had been forever lost in Hollywood, until "The Others" was released earlier this year. If I have any complaint about this film at all, it is that the graphic nature of the novel was toned down somewhat for a 1970's PG rating (PG-13 by todays standard). However, this is a minor detraction that in no way diminishes the potency of the tale.

"Hell House" (not to be confused with a Christian haunted-house "attraction" by the same name which pops up every Halloween) is the nickname given to the Belasco Mansion. Built in 1918, the house was inhabited by one Emeric Belasco, who invited guests to come and partake of all manner of orgiastic debaucheries (rape, torture, murder, etc.) that would have made the residents of Pompeii blush. Hell House was Belasco's petri dish, a place where he could observe human nature at its worst as his guests explored every form of savage lasciviousness. The party continued until the late 1920's, when the bodies of the guests were discovered and removed, Belasco himself never being found among them or heard from again. His only legacy is the house itself, which now has a reputation as "The Mount Everest of Haunted Houses".

Enter Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt). Barrett, a physicist and parasychologist, is hired on by an eccentric old millionaire to lead a team into the house and "prove or disprove" its haunted reputation. His fee is 100,000 pounds, if he can provide results within a week upon arrival. Two renowned psychics, a young woman named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and her older and much more reserved colleague, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowell), will be accompanying Barrett and his wife on the investigation, although against Barrett's wishes.

I said that the film had a small cast, and except for the millionaire and his assistant, the only characters we ever see are these four. This works well to the films advantage, setting up a claustrophobic environment within the dark, creepy mansion whose windows have been bricked up ("to keep anyone from seeing in . . . or out"). Soon after their arrival, the characters begin to clash over ideologies, specifically Dr. Barrett, who believes that the forces in Hell House are not backed by intelligence and can be explained and dispelled in a scientific manner, and Miss Tanner, who is convinced that the mansion is actively haunted by dozens of "surviving personalities", Belasco chief among them. Meanwhile, a sexually frustrated Ann begins to lose her inhibitions after being exposed to the house's influence, and attempts to seduce Benjamin Fischer. The only one who seems to be free of the house's power is Fischer, who is shielding himself mentally from it. Fischer has learned his lesson the hard way, being the only team member from a previous expedition to study the house who was able to emerge "alive and sane" from its depths 20 years earlier. Fischer is there to collect a check and get the fuck out, and makes no bones about it.

As if the interpersonal conflicts aren't enough, they are soon bombarded with a variety of paranormal activity, from flying furniture to things that go bump in the night to outright possession. Barrett argues that they are instigated by Tanner, who is using her psychic abilities to manipulate these events. Tanner is adamant that it is the spirits of Hell House who are responsible. Fischer tries to tell them that they are both idiots and should just lay low until the end of the week and get paid. Anne keeps trying to find someone, ANYone, who will fuck her (considering how hot she is, you wouldn't think this was a problem). Things quickly become dangerous in Hell House, and it's not hard to guess that not everyone will be walking away at the end of the week.

Although lacking the most graphic elements of it's source material, "The Legend of Hell House" is a smart supernatural thriller that takes itself seriously and demands your respect. While a few scenes are over the top, the pacing is tight and deliberate, the acting is top-notch (especially from Pamela Franklin, who lamentably did not appear in much else afterward), and the screenplay, written by Matheson himself, effectively retains the spirit of the novel. Parts of it may seem cliche'd, but this is attributable to the fact that it has been imitated, usually in an inferior manner, so many times since over the years. "Hell House" was scary as shit when I saw it as a child, and now, nearly 30 years later, I am pleased to see that it has held up surprisingly well. What may seem cliche' now was a trend-setter for haunted house stories in it's day, and should be respected as such. The exploration of the scientific versus spiritualist approach is a fascinating one, and while it has been duplicated to a lesser extent in later films like "Poltergeist", there is no clear winner declared at the end of "Hell House". Each side holds a key to the truth, and is represented as having merit.

"Hell House" is not only a satisfying romp through a haunted mansion, but an interesting exposition on paranormal psychology and investigation, at least from a 1970's viewpoint (although I don't believe all that much has changed since). This is definitely a must-see for any serious fan of the supernatural/horror film genre, and usually frequents the annual "Top Ten scary movie" lists that come out every Halloween - Rightfully so.

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originally posted: 11/03/01 19:30:22
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User Comments

10/11/13 Michael Bruneio Scared hell out of me as both a child and an adult. One of the best! 5 stars
4/11/11 brian Reviewer is wrong, but if I hadn't seen superior "The Haunting" first I might have agreed. 3 stars
11/15/10 Chad Dillon Cooper One of the best "haunted house" films, along with "the haunting" 1963. 5 stars
11/26/09 art I FOOLISHLY SAW THIS ON NBC"S SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD,it put me to sleep! 1 stars
9/22/07 David Fowler In the top 5 of it's genre. McDowall is truly magnificent! 5 stars
7/29/05 John certainly has some chilling moments but resolution leaves a lot to be desired 4 stars
10/14/04 Chris Nichols One of the only films to still give me chills 5 stars
9/06/04 r2040 that was some scary shit! 5 stars
5/12/04 tatum Great, puts "The Haunting" remake and "Red Rose" to shame 5 stars
10/09/03 I liked this film. I haven't seen it 20 years or so,but I still remember it. It is spooky. 4 stars
12/05/02 Roddy fangirl Roddy is as cute as ever, no wonder the women in the movie want to screw him. ;) 5 stars
4/12/02 Lionel Barrett A very accurate depiction of the old axiom that the evil men do lives after them! 5 stars
12/12/01 simon jackson finger licking titing 5 stars
6/26/01 Lars Pettersson A fantastic chiller that really delivers the goods. A near-classic in this genre ! 4 stars
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  02-Mar-1973 (PG)



Directed by
  John Hough

Written by
  Richard Matheson

  Peter Bowles
  Roland Culver
  Pamela Franklin
  Michael Hough
  Roddy McDowall

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