THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE Blu-ray Review
A decade before The Legend Of Hell House was released in theaters, there was a haunted house film directed by Robert Wise called The Haunting and on the surface these films have a great deal in common but even though Richard Matheson played down much of the explicit material when adapting his novel Hell House into film, what makes this haunted house film stand apart from Wise’s entry is the psychological aspects implemented through the interactions of the house guests and this psychological warfare compliments the brooding atmosphere like cheese and fine wine.
Filmmaker John Hough was no stranger to creepy atmosphere, having previously directed the Hammer production Twins of Evil and this film really showed him wanting to weave more heavy subtext into the narrative. Physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) is hired to investigate the Belasco House, a place originally owned by Emeric Belasco, a perverted sadistic millionaire, who’s victims of foul play apparently haunt the grounds that played host to twisted acts of sex and violence. Emeric Belasco’s wicked acts were loosely inspired by stories involving occultist Aleister Crowley and the more the film reveals about his history, the more the dark imagination grabs hold of the viewer as the paranormal assaults unfold throughout the estate.
Barrett is joined by his wife, Edith (Gayle Hunnicutt), a mental medium and Spiritualist minister named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and a physical medium who was the sole survivor of an earlier investigation, Benjamin Franklin Fischer portrayed by Roddy McDowall in a wonderful performance that’s equally subdues, comical and intense which would be echoed to great effect later in his career as Peter Vincent in Fright Night. Lionel is a rationalist and is skeptical and cruel towards Tanner’s spiritual beliefs, he believes that all of the strange occurrences in the house can be summed up to unfocused electromagnetic energy, he brought along a machine of his own invention to rid the house of any paranormal threats or malevolent forces.
The erotic nature of Lionel’s wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) in the source material is understated through the literature that surrounds the character in the film. Early in the film, Ann Barrett is seen holding a novel called “Sentimental Education” by 19th century French author Gustave Flaubert, which is about passion and desire, this later becomes a revelation when coming across the old books lined up in the cabinet. The sexual tension that forms between Mrs. Barrett’s possessed body and Fischer is unsettling and the ramifications of considering the possibilities of where her desires are being channeled from, evokes a vision of something Clive Barker would later channel in his common themes of demonic sadomasochism.
The showdown in the chapel is atmospheric and vulgar, not quite as intense as the hit demonic possession film that won over American audiences the same year but still memorable in it’s own right. When the chapel wall shatters and reveals the hidden door, suspense and awe escalates to a cataclysmic scale and is executed with minimal visual chicanery, solely relying on the momentum of atmosphere building to that moment and dim lit space that jolts your anticipation when the corridor makes it’s presence known, it’s the overwhelming sense of wonder that transports the voyeur into a hypnotic frenzy and that method is much more satisfying than sensory overload to the point of desensitization.
Scream Factory does a fantastic transfer on this release, the foreboding cinematography really gets a chance to shine. Even the dimly lit interior shots pop out in vivid detail and the sound quality compliments the surreal tone that works best for the overall experience with this film. The extras aren’t overloaded but generous, as the disc includes commentary with actress Pamela Franklin and an in depth 28 minute interview with director John Hough examining his work on the production. Overall this release is a satisfactory addition to the Scream Factory library and a worthy addition to your collection.