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DVD Review

DVD cover

The Legend of Hell House (1974)


Starring: Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles and Michael Gough
Distributor: Spirit Entertainment
RRP: £15.99
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 27 May 2013

A rich elderly eccentric pays a great deal of money to a parapsychologist called Dr. Barrett to bring him irrefutable evidence of the afterlife within a week. Barrett and his wife Ann are sent to Hell House, a large mansion said to be the Mount Everest of haunted houses. Here they meet the other half of the team, Florence Tanner, a physical psychic medium, and Ben Fischer, the sole survivor of the previous team of psychic researchers to have visited the house some years back. The violent presence in the house is said to be due to the original owner’s lifestyle of depraved acts of debauchery, torture and other various vices. While the skeptical Barrett uses his equipment to take scientific readings, Florence Tanner is convinced the soul of the owner’s son is trapped in the house and pleading for release. But when they find his body and lay it to rest in the grounds the catalogue of frightening and dangerous events increases. Is the owner himself responsible? And will any of them make it out alive...?

I watched this DVD only a day or two after hearing about the death of Richard Matheson, aged 87. So, let’s start by saying a few words about his excellent and prolific output. Matheson was an accomplished writer of many novels and short stories, mostly in the genres of science fiction or horror – although he occasionally ventured into other fields such as mystery, western and romance. He also penned several scripts for TV (most notably for The Twilight Zone) and movies, in several instances writing screenplays based on his own work, as he did for The Legend of Hell House, from his novel Hell House. It would take too long to name all his novels, and it certainly wouldn’t do the great man justice here, but these are a few of his greats: I Am Legend (written in 1954), filmed three times (The Last Man Alive, with Vincent Price; The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston; and I Am Legend, with Will Smith). There was Duel (filmed by Steven Spielberg as his directorial debut); A Stir of Echoes (adapted as a film starring Kevin Bacon); The Shrinking Man (turned into the monochrome classic The Incredible Shrinking Man); Bid Time Return (also made into a film, Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve); What Dreams May Come... The list goes on. Stephen King has said he was inspired by the man. A true genius in his craft. R.I.P. Richard Matheson.

I reviewed the last DVD release of this film back in 2002 (where does the time go?). It stands the test of time pretty well, as it was released in 1973, long before the days of CGI, and so all of the effects are done for real. The Legend of Hell House is not one of Richard Matheson’s strongest stories, but it does make a pretty effective ghost story and will therefore appeal to the lovers of that genre.

There are some strong performances, particularly from Roddy McDowall, whose presence for much of the film is of a character blocking out what is occurring around him so that his role is rather understated whilst being wary and almost resigned to what will ultimately happen. However, in the last third he suddenly becomes his normal animated self as he attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery. That fact that the characters are so diverse is part of what makes this so compelling. Barrett is so serious and no-nonsense, blaming the others for anything which goes wrong. His wife Ann (played by the lovely Gayle Hunnicutt) is a stalwart support for him, but you detect a sense of loneliness and even despair, which is why she is so easily possessed into a seductress. Florence Tanner (played by Pamela Franklin) is heavily used for the first half of the movie but, although thinking she is helping at the time, is ultimately more of a victim, undergoing several attacks by the house.

Whilst watching, the film initially appears fragmented, coming across as a number of confusing set pieces. However, this works to its advantage, with the final reveal bringing all the unanswered questions together to give the same answer. It’s nice to see a cameo from Michael Gough at the end, although I don’t believe he gets a credit for his troubles.

So, overall The Legend of Hell House is a competent showcase for 1970s supernatural horror, with everyone at the top of their game. It would have been nice though to have had some documentary extras added to this re-release, perhaps presented by a familiar face passionate about the era.


Ty Power

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