Monday, January 12, 2009
#52: The Legend of Hell House (John Hough, 1973)
What can I say about The Legend of Hell House? It doesn't lend itself to long pontifications or Mystery Science-style mockery (for the most part). It's simply a well-made, enjoyable British haunted house movie with all the right cliches and none of the wrong ones. The only real break with genre convention is when we find out why the house is haunted. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but it's a pretty ridiculous reason. However, in the context of the pettiness and weakness of human nature, if houses could really be haunted in the really real reality of real life, houses would be haunted for stupid and petty reasons like our little ghost buddy's in this film.
The story begins with an eccentric millionaire's recent acquisition of the Belasco house, "the Mount Everest of haunted houses." This house isn't just haunted. It's haunted the fuck up TNT extreme. A houseful of decadent, debauched visitors, excepting the mysteriously absent Mr. Belasco, were found dead there many moons ago, and the place has been haunted ever since. Twenty years prior to our story's beginning, a team of paranormal investigators entered the house. Only one survived. Our eccentric millionaire wants to get to the bottom of the hauntings once and for all, so he assembles a trio of experts: a scientist (Clive Revill), a mental medium (Pamela Franklin), and a physical medium (Roddy McDowall). The latter just so happens to be the sole survivor from the previous ill-fated expedition. This trio has been given a week to figure out why the house is haunted and un-haunt it, for a massive sum of money. Revill unwisely brings his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt). Will the scientist and the psychics squabble about who's right, or will they get along and unghost the ghost house?
Ending aside, The Legend of Hell House doesn't bring anything new to the haunted house genre, but, like I said earlier, there are good cliches and bad ones. Bad cliches are perpetuated by cynics and idiots to get your money. Good cliches are like folk tales passed on from generation to generation. This movie has the feel of a couple of friends telling each other a ghost story around a fireplace. Director John Hough, who also made the Peter Fonda car-chase movie Dirty Marry Crazy Larry, provides reliable thrills and a spooky atmosphere. We get fog, an awesome house with lots of chandeliers and stairs and a boarded-up chapel, poltergeist phenomena, possession, crazy killer black cats, loud ghost voices, whispery ghost voices, sleepwalking, giant crosses, Franklin allowing a ghost to get his bone on, and isolated claustrophobic drinking of hard liquor and perusal of Belasco's erotic library. Oh yeah, and convulsions.
The actors mostly underplay, except for some mighty freakouts in the denouement, and they all have interesting faces and know how to move through a frame. McDowall's character is particularly interesting. He's a fragile little man with huge glasses that always seem to be reflecting the light and ultra-magnifying his eyes. He has little interest in ridding the house of ghosts, and his plan is just to keep quiet, lay low, collect his money in a week, and get thousands of miles the hell away from the place. McDowall plays the guy as an almost ghostly presence, who occasionally makes a sarcastic or elliptical comment but mostly looks frightened and still. Until the end when he goes apeshit mcnuts, acting-wise!
I liked this movie quite a bit. It's not The Haunting (1963), but, much like a sandwich made from leftover meatloaf, it's solid comfort food.