Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"The Legend of Hell House" (1973) d/ John Hough

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In the late sixties and early seventies,  lots of folks were tuned in on the far out, such as witchcraft, ghosts, the occult, and paranormal investigation. Tonight's movie, for example, is a classic haunted house movie, full of creepy atmosphere, shadows and whispers turning to screams at midnight, and spectral, otherworldly presences up to no good, indeed,  in the gothic locale of Blenheim Palace, with familiar genre faces like Roddy MacDowall and Pamela Franklin among the ranks of the mortals setting out to endure a week inside the estate investigating the malevolent spirits who call it home. What really elevates this one above it's standard plot, besides several gripping performances from the cast,  is an engaging screenplay full of tense moments by the one and only Richard Matheson, based upon his own novel, Hell House.

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Keep your hundred grand, I'd live here for free.
Mr. Deutsch hires a team of experts to spend an entire week inside the fog-enshrouded Belasco House, which has come to be known as "Hell House", and "the Mt. Everest of haunted houses", thanks to the previous failed attempts to do the same that resulted in death, disfigurement, and loss of sanity in all takers save for one: Ben Fischer (Roddy MacDowall), a physical medium who's willing to give it another try for the hundred thousand dollars that Deutsch promises anyone who survives. Also along for the ride are a young spiritual medium named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and a haughty disbeliever of a psychologist named Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill), who plans to use the seven day experience to disprove the existence of life after death with a bulky machine that will negate rogue electromagnetic energy, which he surmises is the true culprit behind the house's phenomena, and finally, his sexually frustrated wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), who's thumbing a ride to planet Orgasmo.

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Somebody pack Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) a bibbity, he's having a rough week.
Instantly, Florence believes she's made contact with the restless spirit of Belasco's illegitimate son, Daniel, and the medium is used during readings to manifest physical phenomena like objects moving on their own and as a lightning rod for materializing ethereal presences that float in the air around her hands and face. Fischer, who's seen it all before, remains tight lipped save for several desperate warnings to everybody to vacate the premises at once, while they're still able, as evidenced by the skeptical Barrett's getting beat down with every dangerous object in the room as it hurls at him, unexplainedly. While Mrs. B repeatedly throws herself at Ben, her husband hurls accusations at Florence, while malevolently misleading poltergeists serve her up the roughest invisi-rape this side of The Entity, while hurling huge, deadly crucifixes down upon her. After Barrett runs his machine, Ben declares the house is clean, but the psychologist succumbs directly to another psychic attack, leaving only the medium and the new widow to solve the mystery of the homicidal home before they're added to its legendary body count...

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"...and the music was soothing, and they all started grooving...yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!"
Whether you're talking about genre classics like William Castle's House on Haunted Hill(1959), The Haunting (1963), or tonight's entry, or even later things like Rose Red (2002) or John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987), the haunted house premise remains pretty interchangeable. Experts risk life and limb to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts for a great reward. Like I mentioned earlier, it's Matheson's meaty dialog as acted out here by the late great MacDowall, who purveyed fear in his eyes like few actors before or since, in my opinion, and even Franklin, who's always had a beautiful scream for horror movies, I think, that really sets the production apart from the rest. Director Hough, no stranger to the genre himself (Twins of Evil, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Watcher in the Woods, The Incubus, to name just a few),  handles the eerie material well, as always. Hell House earns Three Wops, and comes very highly recommended. See it if you dare...

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"I'm so excited that I'm experiencing great difficulty in trying to hide it," notes Emeric Belasco (Michael Gough).
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