Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), published in the December 2015 edition of THE HWA NEWSLETTER, the Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
Not only is December a great time to watch a haunted house movie, but the plot of today’s movie THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) actually takes place in December. How cool is that? Okay, so I’m easily amused.
I actually saw THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE when it was first released at the drivein as part of a double feature with THE OTHER (1972). I was nine yearsold when my parents took my younger brother and me to see this double bill, and while I slept through THE OTHER, I remember enjoying HELL HOUSE. So, there was certainly some nostalgia watching this one again recently on Netflix Streaming, especially since I hadn’t seen it in years.
Its tale of an investigative team probing a haunted house, trying to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, reminds me an awful lot of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and the movie THE HAUNTING (1963) which is based on the Shirley Jackson story. But it’s actually based on the novel Hell House by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie.
In THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) a physicist, leads the examination into Hell House. His team includes his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), a psychic Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and a physical medium, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has the distinction of being the only survivor from a previous investigation into the house.
So, do ghosts exist or not? Dr. Barrett seems hell bent on proving once and for all that they do not exist, but the spirit that occupies Hell House has other ideas.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is ghostly fun from start to finish. It’s full of spooky atmosphere and contains plenty of creepy scenes.
Director John Hough, fresh off his horror hit for Hammer Films, the vampire film TWINS OF EVIL (1971) starring Peter Cushing, pretty much strikes gold again. Both of these films are excellent horror movies. Hough would go on to direct the Walt Disney classic ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975), as well as its sequel RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1978) starring Christopher Lee. Hough would also direct Peter Cushing’s final movie, BIGGLES: ADVENTURES IN TIME (1986).
Roddy McDowall leads a fine cast. McDowall is excellent here as Benjamin Fischer, the man with the most insight into Hell House since he had been there before. I was already a Roddy McDowall fan when I saw this at the movies in 1973 because of the PLANET OF THE APES films. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE was probably the first movie where I actually got to see his face!
So that’s what Cornelius looks like!
Clive Revill is authoritative as physicist and lead investigator Dr. Barrett, and Gayle Hunnicutt is memorable as his wife Ann. Pamela Franklin makes for a beautiful and oftentimes vulnerable psychic Florence Tanner. Even Michael Gough shows up as a corpse, which is a nice way of keeping this Hammer favorite from his signature overacting!
All four of the main characters go through changes since they are all affected one way or another by the spirit occupying Hell House. McDowall’s character probably fares the best, as he seems to
be best equipped to fend off the ghost.
Clive Revill’s Dr. Barrett, on the other hand, the supposed the leader of the team, is influenced by
the Hell House spirit pretty much from the getgo, as he quickly becomes irritable, angry, and worst of all confused. Sure, these could just be personality flaws, but more likely, they’re the work of the ghost.
Barrett’s wife Ann becomes sexually aroused and continually makes advances towards Ben Fischer, while psychic Florence senses who the ghost is but no one on her team seems to believe her, probably because she too exhibits odd behavior.
Is this assembled team just a group of oddballs? Or are they all influenced and infected by the supernatural presence residing at Hell House? You know the answer to that question, and that’s what makes THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE so much fun.
The prevailing feeling throughout THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is one of uncertainty and doubt. The supernatural entity makes its presence known immediately, and the characters all become affected quickly, even if they don’t realize it.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is an excellent horror movie and is yet another quality horror film from the 1970s, a decade which is chock full of horror classics. Sure, there are the big budget classics like THE EXORCIST (1973), JAWS (1975), THE OMEN (1976) and ALIEN (1979), but it’s also the decade of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) and HALLOWEEN (1978). It’s also the decade of films
like THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976), THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977), and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977), low budget films that didn’t become huge hits but provided quality horror entertainment all the same. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE falls into this latter category.
As we look back today at the 1970s, a decade famous for its bad hairstyles and disco music, it’s quite clear that for horror movie fans, it’s one of the best decades ever. There are a lot of really good horror movies made in the 1970s.
If there’s one weakness regarding THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE it’s the film’s plot. Its haunted house tale is nothing I haven’t seen before, and even though the film has fun with it, and it all works, at the end of the day, it’s still just another haunted house story with all the similar
What makes THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE stand out among other films of its type is a talented cast, strong direction, and a decent script by Richard Matheson.
As you make the rounds this holiday season, visiting family and fiends er, friends, don’t forget to stop by HELL HOUSE. There’s someone there who’s dying to see you.