Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Country: UK

This somewhat solemn and humourless departure into the splintered realm of the paranormal has stood the test of time exceptionally well. In recent years a lot of haunted house films have been all noise and no intelligence. Just because technology in sound design has reached an apex, that doesn’t mean one should feel duty bound to bombard the audience with an aural discharge that borders on an assault. When modern sound design goes hand in hand with CGI the results are cinematic artificiality on a par with 3D. The Legend of Hell House is a comforting return to an age when creativity was genuinely required in the sound department and where a real set could conjure an atmosphere unlike anything we see today. The blueprint is obviously Robert Wise’s film adaptation of The Haunting (1963). A film that rightfully holds a very prominent place in any discussion of ghostly goings on (or not goings on as the case may be) and although Hell House doesn’t quite reach the brilliance of that earlier film it still achieves a respectability within the form. Richard Matheson’s source material places a greater emphasis on deviant sexuality and past perversion, and plays up in a more aggressive manner the age old dichotomy between rational scientific thought and the irrationality of the psychic world. Matheson’s screenplay tones the novel down, but not to an extent that damages the film.

What is most noticeable now to a modern viewer is the lack of spectacle here. It has an understated and minimal quality which is to be truly admired. With the release of The Exorcist (1973) in the same year this style of filmmaking within the horror genre would increasingly seem outmoded and tame - but there is no doubt in my mind which of the two films is more watchable and enjoyable now - and it isn’t William Friedkin’s masturbatory tribute to the European new wave directors he so desperately wanted to be linked too. Instead the filmmakers here seem intent on creating subtle scares mostly through performance, reducing the physicality that would come to dominate the genre. It doesn’t succeed at all on an intellectual level, but then neither does it insult the audience with petty and ponderous moralising. The film relies almost entirely on the actors and their commitment to the material. As a result of this the special effects are weak and clichéd (airborne crockery, creaking door hinges, slamming doors, ghostly footsteps etc). No doubt budgetary constraints were a concern, but the key aspect of the film they get spot on - the casting.

Even the usually manic over-acting of Roddy McDowall is kept in check for the first half of the film. He plays the only survivor of a previous expedition within the terrifying walls of Hell House. His psychic link increases as the film progresses and his agitated mannerisms and quirky performance techniques begin to emerge at a time when the film is just starting to drag its heels. The film benefits tremendously from its single setting, and in its gallery of characters, all of whom have agendas and vulnerabilities. The house itself is a masterpiece of the baroque, with its elaborate and ornate interior decoration, winding stair cases, candelabra and cloistered passageways. The regular establishing shots of the exterior of the house suffused in an ever present mist gives a real sense of isolation. Unfortunately though this also means there is a fair amount of sitting around and talking, and on occasion the film feels laboured and static.

A lack of special effects doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of technical accomplishment - because in its own way this film is just as technically accomplished as anything else being released at the time. The art direction by Robert Jones deserves a special mention, and conveys through the decadence of the design the history of debauchery central to the haunting. The cinematography by Alan Hume is workmanlike, but on occasion highly inventive. A number of low angle shots, photographic distortion and a restricted frame all add to the subtle and encroaching atmosphere. But as alluded to earlier this film is all about its sound design. The efforts of Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (most famous for its synthesised contributions to Doctor Who in the 1970’s and 80’s) really brings the film to spooky life. Much of the tension and apprehension is created by the weird sounds they conjure up. The director John Hough, who also helmed Hammer’s stylish and enjoyable Twins of Evil (1971), keeps control of a film that could have easily spiralled into chaos. His direction is unobtrusive and continues a trend throughout the film of a downplaying in aesthetics. The only thing that irritated me was the profusion of on screen captions telling us the date and time. The reason for all of the paranormal hullabaloo is incredibly daft and somewhat mars the overall effect. Despite this The Legend of Hell House is a memorable effort by all concerned.


  1. I enjoyed this one, Im a fan of haunted house films, I thought exactly what you did. Its subtle and effective. Its never really over the top. As you mentioned, the sound effects helps make things spookier.

    Id like to give this one a re-watch, Roddy McDowell is always a plus on any movie. I mean, freaking Fright Night!? Cant believe they are turning Peter Vincent The Great, Vampire, Killer, into a Vegas Showman for that remake..but my hopes are up!

  2. Oooh, and another thing, Twins of Evil rocks in my book. Its one of the most enjoyable Hammer HOrror films...heavy on the atmosphere, just like LEgend of Hell House, that shot of the house with the fog you posted...and the black cat, perfect, horror movie goodness!

  3. "The Legend of Hell House" has always been in my top ten favourite horror films of all time. I saw it when I was too young to even know that "The Haunting" even existed. I probably only watched it originally because Roddy McDowell was Galen and I liked him. I can find a lot of flaws in it now but it was piss-your-pants scary once upon a time. :)

  4. I totally agree that Legend of Hell House stands up much better today than The Exorcist. And Roddy McDowell was always fun.

  5. Interesting, and apt, comparison to THE EXORCIST. The last time I watched it, it struck me as perhaps the most *pretentious* horror movie I've seen. Good call-out on Friedkin! Don't know how I missed that before, but ugh. I recall liking HELL HOUSE well enough, nothing really blew me away; my copy of Matheson's novel sits unread on my shelf. Sounds like a much pulpier version of HILL HOUSE.

  6. Thanks for the comments one and all - always appreciated.

    @ Film Connoisseur - I read somewhere that British actor David Tennant (Most famous for playing Doctor Who) has secured the role of Peter Vincent. I think they have to change the character because Roddy nailed it so damn well. I love TWINS OF EVIL too.

    I'm sure you could tell from the review that THE EXORCIST or more specifically William Friedkin is a figure of revulsion for me. I've never been a big fan of filmmakers who try every trick in the book to be considered an auteur. His films have a manic desperation about them, he wanted to be the star, and for a while he was. Now look at him - the only reason he gets films made is because he's married to the head of a studio. That said I do think THE FRENCH CONNECTION and CRUISING are important films - THE EXORCIST is unimportant.

  7. Thank you very much on the capacity of your information Very cool blog,

  8. steve prefontaine6 December 2011 at 00:29

    For the first 65 minutes this is the best haunted house movie ever made but it falls apart so badly in the last 25 minutes that it almost makes you forget how superb the first 65 minutes was, i just watch the first hour now and never bother to watch the last half hour any more. I have to disagree about the captions, for me they make the film the perfect one to watch over the Christmas period because they`re supposed to be at the house in the week leading up to Christmas and the cosyness of being in that house with those characters over the Christmas period is total perfection.

  9. Cheers for the comment Steve! It does lose its way in the final third. I've always thought the reason behind the spectral activity undermines the build up...put simply, its just daft!


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