- Vancouver, British Columbia - For those of you Witch Mountain fans out there, it may be a pleasant surprise that John Hough directed both of the original Disney features: Escape To… and Return From… For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, they’re a series of movies about twins who are actually aliens and need to race around or something. But this isn’t about that franchise.
John Hough was an extremely popular director in the late 1970s through the 1980s, and although he doesn’t have a huge filmography, he certainly makes up for it by having a strangely eclectic one. It seems at times he was a favourite of Disney’s, but at other times he went into the macabre. The Legend of Hell House, based on the book, was one of the latter, from a very early point in his career.
The movie opens with a physicist, Lionel Barrett being hired by a millionaire to investigate conclusively whether or not there is life after death. Well, when I first saw this, I thought maybe it was MI6, but apparently it’s just some old guy with too much money. Anyway, the old rich guy has arranged for a team to be assembled to go to the Belasco House, where Emeric Belasco allegedly committed acts of astounding debauchery before murdering his family and vanishing. The team consists of Barrett, his wife, and two mediums: the mental medium and minister Florence Tanner (played by Pamela Franklin, who is far too adorable), and the physical medium and only survivor of the last attempt to investigate the house, Ben Fischer (played by Roddy McDowall, who is also far too adorable).
Fischer doesn’t want to be there, as he asserts the house mutilated and killed his team and almost claimed his life, but Barrett is certain he can use a massive supercomputer to flood the house with energy, dispelling the spiritual impression left by the evil deeds. Tanner meanwhile is convinced the ghost of the teenaged son is still hanging around, and she wants to make friends. And Mrs. Barrett drinks too much.
The plot is kind of silly when you type it out, so I have to give Hough major credit here. He strings the audience along very delicately, and the suspense is tangible. You’re never too sure what’ll happen next and you really feel for the characters and their motivations. That’s what many horror movies of the last decade or so lack; the characters are just there to be hacked off and the audience goes “Oooooooooo” at the gore, but you don’t actually care. In a film like this, it’s heart-wrenching to see them meet unfortunate ends (and no, I’m not going to tell you who).
There is some gore, but it’s used pretty sparingly. That being said, I wasn’t around in 1973, so I have no idea if it was shocking for the time. I think there is one scene though that doesn’t quite stand the test of time, and that’s when the possessed cat attacks Tanner. Hough is very careful with his cuts and camera angles, but these days it’s far too funny a concept to see this cat keep coming back at her while she screams and flails about. All you need to do is play some Yakkity Sax, and it's comic gold.
Apart from that one scene though, this is a pretty intense movie and one of the most effective scenes is near the end when Fischer confronts the evil presence of Belasco and is thrown around the room like a doll. But still the guy won’t give up in his attack against the evil. Also eerie is when Tanner thinks that if she gives herself sexually to the ghost of Daniel, the young Belasco, he can finally be put to peace. It’s a terrifying ordeal to watch, and part of what makes it so uncomfortable is seeing the conservative young woman really enjoy it.
Even more credit must be given to the composers of the score, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. For those of you avid Doctor Who fans, those two are responsible for the still-used Doctor Who theme and the sound of the TARDIS engines. And it’s pretty groovy hearing their work in something completely different. That being said, for those who watched very early Doctor Who, you might hear some similarities between the score for this movie and serials like “The Daleks.” That being said, it’s a very understated and subtle electronic score that permeates slowly and creates a feeling of dread. Very well done and very precisely used.
Now, what else does this film and Doctor Who have in common? Here’s a hint: it involves Batman. No joke: it’s Michael Gough, uncredited but very obviously playing the corpse of Emeric Belasco and providing a little haunting vocal work. Michael Gough is no stranger to horror films as well, having played the role of Arthur Holmwood in the 1958 Horror of Dracula, and many other Hammer Horror roles.
The Legend of Hell House is an excellent horror movie if you want to take a snapshot of what suspense movies of the early 1970s looked like. And although it might not have your girlfriend hiding her face in your shirt, it has some very genuinely frightening concepts and turns in the plot. This is more of a thinking man’s horror movie, but that being said, don’t think about it too hard. Some of the exposition can drag, some of the logic is a bit strained, and that computer is hilarious, but that doesn’t stop this from being an entertaining romp nonetheless. Check it out.
Rating: 4/5 Sour Grapes