.............................................................TRAPPED INSIDE A WORLD UNDER LEAGUES OF OCEAN........................................................

Saturday, October 20, 2012

movies: the legend of hell house (1973)

Richard Matheson's countless film and TV writing credits are often overshadowed by his most famous work, I Am Legend, from which three (to date) official adaptations have been made, with many other "last man on earth" films drawing direct inspiration from his original novel. But attention must be paid to the fantastic work he has contributed elsewhere in the cinematic realm, the absolute peak of which, for me, is 1973's The Legend of Hell House.

Directed by John Hough (who would later go on to direct Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, the "Witch Mountain" films, and the supremely creepy "children's" movie, The Watcher in the Woods), The Legend of Hell House begins with a group of four characters - mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and physical medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall) - converging on The Belasco House, aka Hell House, the "Mount Everest of haunted houses" we are informed by Lionel. They have been charged by the wealthy Mr. Deutsch with shutting the door once and for all on the haunting. Trouble is, this very same thing had been attempted before, 20 years earlier, and all involved were either killed or crippled and made insane. All but one, that is, McDowall's Benjamin Fischer, returning to the home not for any sense of closure, but simply to shut himself off from any psychic phenomena to which he may be susceptible, wait out the week, collect a paycheck, and bid goodbye to the house forever. The young Miss Tanner and Dr. Barrett have other plans though - Tanner wishes to commune with the spirits in the home through her psychic powers, and Barrett wishes to zap the home of its energies with his newfangled technology. Neither of them see their goals through to the end.

The film plays out in a tastefully restrained fashion a la The Haunting, and some opulent, creaky, cobwebby sets inside the home (as well as the home itself) provide much appreciated eye candy. Director Hough conjures a slow burn build to a simultaneously preposterous and chilling finale. Along the way there are ghostly whispered threats and pleas, a possessed cat, a ghost-rape/possession, an eerie seance, overtones of sexual repression/buried desire, and an uncovered rotting corpse. As the days go by, the screws are tightened, and minds begin to break.

Bizarre and often grotesque camera work from Alan Hume (who lensed From Beyond the Grave, among many others) is filled with exaggerated angles, jarring depths of field, and tight compositions, and augments the claustrophobic, disorienting atmosphere of uncertainty and dread. Executive produced by James H. Nicholson (of American International), The Legend of Hell House has a similar feeling to the films that came out of AIP's stable; brooding, gothic, ghostly, horrific more in their implication than what they actually showed, and with a wonderfully downbeat ending. You could do far worse than to pop in this classic ghost house thriller on a chilly autumn day like this.

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