Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

          Although he spent most of the ’70s writing for TV, sci-fi legend Richard Matheson acquitted himself nicely with the big-screen endeavor The Legend of Hell House, a smart blend of “old dark house” hokum and then-modern concepts about using scientific gadgets to record paranormal phenomena. The plot is standard nonsense about a team of experts confined in a haunted house for a set period of time, but that’s inconsequential because as with any proper scary movie, the main appeal is the vibe of the thing.
          The movie kicks off when an eccentric millionaire hires a respected scientist, Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), to debunk or prove claims that a gloomy British mansion is haunted. The mansion, known as the Belasco House, was the site of assorted grisly murders and torture scenes, so rumor has it the spirits of victims still roam the halls. Barrett agrees to move into Belasco House and run assorted scientific and non-scientific tests, with the aid of his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and two psychics, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall) and Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin).
          Things get weird quickly, as the various investigators start feeling the effects of malevolent spirits, and the film presents a wide variety of phenomena: In addition to the usual bits like characters falling into reveries of otherworldly possession and objects moving seemingly of their own volition, there are kinky scenes of the female characters giving themselves over to unexpected sexual urges apparently triggered by the power of the house. Particularly when the investigators start discovering hard evidence of the horrible things that once happened in the mansion, The Legend of Hell House gets creepier still because it mixes the plausible and the supernatural to create an anything’s-possible mystique.
          Matheson, scripting from his own novel, and director John Hough break the picture into tidy chapters (it’s the sort of movie where every few minutes there’s a hard cut to an establishing shot with “Tuesday” or “Thursday” superimposed onto the frame), and the storytellers leave many creepy events unexplained so the characters (and the audience) get roped into the idea that something freaky is happening.
          McDowall gives an effectively twitchy performance as the most colorful of the paranormal investigators, his jangled nerves surfacing as a sort of tweaked charm, and the picture’s focus on modern trappings makes it feel different from standard haunted-house fare. Of special note among those modern trappings is the disturbing electronic score, created by the wonderfully named “Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of Electrophon Ltd.” And while it’s true that the plot crumbles under scrutiny—if the house is so damn haunted, leave!—criticizing an enjoyable creepshow for logical gaps seems unsportsmanlike.

The Legend of Hell House: GROOVY

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