Welcome to my house. I’m delighted you could come. I’m certain you will find your stay here most illuminating. Think of me as your unseen servant, and believe that during your stay here I shall be with you in spirit. May you find the answer that you seek. It is here, I promise you.
Four people — physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), the telekinetic Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowell), and mentalist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) — travel to the Belasco mansion (dubbed the “Hell House”) for four days of scientific and psychic examination of the supposedly haunted manor. Things begin to go terribly awry when a spirit manifests itself to Florence, terrorizes the visitors, and threatens to kill them all.
In the case of Legend of Hell House, I’m going to claim ignorance. I know little of British horror films, save some knowledge of the Hammer pictures, which this film is not. My attraction to the film was its screenwriter, Richard Matheson. His name may not be well known, but he’s written many fantastic movies and novels (and often, the screenplays based on his novels, as with Hell House). His first screen credit is the classic science fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man. He wrote for the original Twilight Zone series, as well as one episode in the first season of Star Trek. He wrote many screenplays for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, including several Edgar Allen Poe adaptations like The Fall Of The House Of Usher. His novel “I Am Legend” has been adapted to the screen three times, most notably as the 1971 Charlton Heston film The Omega Man. (Plans for another version have been stuck in development hell for years, usually with Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to star.) Most recently, the movies What Dreams May Come and Stir Of Echoes were adapted from his novels. Oh, and he’s the father of Chris Matheson, who wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its sequel.
The appeal of Legend of Hell House lies in its stylish direction, opulent sets, and Matheson’s tense (though confusing) story. Director John Hough has had a less than stellar career, though it’s hard to fault him for that after witnessing Hell House. Hough makes interesting and effective use of “deep focus,” keeping subjects in the foreground and background focused in the viewer’s attention. Often, the subjects are the four principal characters, though the house is equally prominent in our attention. This use of deep focus brings us closer to the characters, though its unnatural connection between them throws off our sense of geography and disorients us. Like many other haunted house films both classic (House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting, 13 Ghosts) and modern (the remakes of the aforementioned films), the sets comprising the haunted locations become a character in themselves. Here, the sets don’t have the living qualities of the other films I mentioned parenthetically, but their atmosphere still adds to the film’s style and also acts as a fifth character. The story itself intrigues me, interested as I am in both the scientific and the “supernatural.” The characters are not mere ciphers, drawn along by the plot. They are not your stereotypical horror/sci-fi cliché. Barrett, the physicist, is there to prove scientifically the existence or nonexistence of ghosts. However, he doesn’t merely spout off scientific jargon or refuse to believe that what he sees cannot be explained by something beyond the physical. Take that, Agent Scully! Florence, the mentalist, is a rare bird in supernatural films — a psychic who believes in God. Roddy McDowell’s character I don’t know what to make of. He spends much of the film keeping to himself, only to awaken in the final act to come to action against the house.
Fox’s DVD of Hell House comes at a bargain price of $19.98, and the discerning purchaser should expect nothing other than a bargain disc. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer has an incredibly high average bitrate of 8.67 Mb/sec; despite limited extra features, the dual-layer disc manages to account for 7.28GB of its possible 7.95GB capacity. Color levels and saturation are excellent. The film can be hard-edged at times — not exactly like overdone edge enhancement, but close. The print is rife with dust, grain, and other blemishes. Make no mistake, this is a film from the early 1970s, and it shows it. Audio is available in a 4.0 surround mix as well as its original mono. The surround track is very forward-centric, and while it provides greater clarity due to its higher bitrate, it is nearly indistinguishable from the mono track. The extras are limited to a theater gallery, with Hell House’s trailer in 1.85:1 anamorphic, as well as trailers for Batman: The Movie, Bedazzled, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Big Trouble In Little China. Not only do all these movie titles start with the letter “B,” but their trailers are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic (except for Batman: The Movie, which is full-frame).
Where to begin? The DVD itself seems a logical place. I have to respect Fox for using the extra space on the DVD for a higher video bitrate, but I think the good folks at DVCC could have better spent their time trying to clean up the source elements. As it stands, the high bitrate only serves to give a better digital transfer; to paraphrase the marketing blurb on the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” discs, the imperfections of the original analog source material have been analyzed and painstakingly reproduced as digital imperfections. I know the cover shot toward the top of your screen is small and indistinct, but perhaps you can tell that it’s not a very good cover. Looking at it sitting here on my desk, it looks like the cover of a cheap direct-to-video horror flick from Trimark or some other low-rent studio. That’s not the sort of treatment I’d expect for a classic, atmospheric British horror film.
Speaking of atmospheric, that’s about all The Legend of Hell House has going for it. It is very dark and moody, and I like its claustrophobic mood. However, it creeps along too slowly, with too much space between its chills and too little explanation of the phenomena — at least explanation that isn’t enigmatic and obscure. Too often, I felt like I had missed something, and perhaps I did. The characters may not have been your prototypical horror clichés, but they lacked charisma, even for British characters. Roddy McDowell, fresh off his stint in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the final original Apes film, alternates between quiet somnolence and blaring overacting. I don’t want to be crude (at least while reviewing this film), but Clive Revill looks like he has a stick crammed up his arse throughout the film. That’s not the most endearing character trait for the protagonist of a film.
It might be best left said that The Legend of Hell House was not my cup of Earl Grey. Perhaps I’m just too accustomed to modern horror films with their blatant scares to be engaged by something that is more cerebral. For those of you looking for a different horror film experience, it might make a good rental, though the poor technical presentation and lack of extras I think makes it a purchase recommended to fans only.