“It’s the Mt. Everest of haunted houses.”
^ This was the apt description of the old “Belasko house,” given by Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), physicist and lead investigator of the bricked up, abandoned mansion informally known as “hell house.” And 1973’s “Legend of Hell House” is, for me, the ‘Mt. Everest’ of haunted house movies as well. There’ve been other contenders for the title; 1963’s “The Haunting” (directed by Robert Wise), and 1980’s “The Changeling” (starring “Exorcist III”’s George C. Scott) and even the campy-but-fun “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) to name a few. “Legend” effortlessly holds its own among these formidable competitors.
“Legend” is all about mood, suspense with a few genuinely neck-hair raising moments thrown in as well. However don’t expect a film with today’s jump-scares, gross-out moments or rapid-fire editing. “Legend” takes its time and creates a feeling that goes through your body like the cold chill of a ghost passing through a darkened room. The pacing of this movie is on a par with another horror classic from 1973, “The Exorcist” (though without that movie’s catatonia-inducing trauma). Both films work very well at maintaining a consistent mood of unease, eeriness and dread. Come to think of it, 1973 was a hell of a year for horror (it was also the year that saw “The Wicker Man”).
Having just re-watched it only last night, I’m still pleased by “Legend”’s sheer effectiveness.
******** SPOILERS! ********
Eccentric, sickly old moneybags Mr. Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) is nearing death, and decides to plunk down a third of his money towards finding out whether life after death is truly factual. He puts together a team of investigators to spend a week investigating the Belasko house; the “one place on Earth where survival (after death) has yet to be refuted.” The team consists of physicist Lionel Barrett, his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicut), youthful mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and burnt-out physical medium Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall); Fischer is the sole survivor of the last attempt to study the house 20 years before. Together, they will use their respective talents and abilities to plumb the mysteries of the house (both spiritual and scientific).
Each investigator has their own motives; Lionel Barrett is an agnostic who believes the house is nothing more than a giant battery of mindless negative energy that can be polarized, neutralized and electronically ‘exorcised.’ Florence Tanner is the devout spiritualist who sees the house as a fascinating opportunity to solve the mystery of what really happened there (up to and including finding a ‘missing son’ named Daniel). Ben Fischer is closed off; he wants to just bank the money and leave. As a young man Ben barely escaped the house with his life, and now returns as a bitter, middle-aged cynic who knows the score; you do not fight this house. Ben plans to just do his time, cash his check, and then tell old man Deutsch whatever paranormal psychobabble he wants (or needs) to hear. After a number of unnerving investigative attempts (both spiritual and scientific), the house begins to fight back. Florence and Lionel are eventually killed. An emboldened Ben and traumatized widow Ann are left to solve the mystery. It turns out that Belasko’s spirit survives. In fact, it is the only surviving spirit in the house, but that spirit is so strong and pervasive that it misled the team at every turn; trying to protect Belasko’s preserved corpse (Michael Gough) shielded in lead panels behind a chapel wall. The lead-lined walls kept his spirit ‘safe’ from Barrett’s electromagnetic ghost-busting machine, and from Tanner’s restlessly prying mind. With the shielded chapel walls opened, Ben turns on Lionel’s electromagnetic exorcising machine, and he and Ann leave ‘hell house.’
Reasons why I heartily champion this movie:
* The writing.
Late legendary author/screenwriter Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend” “Duel” “Stir Of Echoes”) adapted his own source novel (“Hell House”), wisely changing the locale from Maine to England. England’s gloomier skies and older architecture are simply perfect for this movie.
Though having (finally) read the Matheson book about 15 years ago, I was surprised at the overall fidelity of the adaptation. Save for a few cut moments and rearranged bits of dialogue, it’s almost a 1:1 for the book. Though an interesting change was de-aging Florence Tanner from the book’s accomplished middle-aged psychic to a wunderkind twenty-something. It may have been an attempt to add a bit of sex appeal (her character is conveniently mauled and/or spectrally assaulted only around bedtime, when she is in her nightgown) but thanks to Pamela Franklin’s considerable talent, it works.
Which leads me to…
* The casting.
The aforementioned Franklin, the restrained-but-fraying Clive Revill (later the voice of “The Emperor” in the original version of “The Empire Strikes Back”), the alternately randy and traumatized Gayle Hunnicut and (saving the best for last) the late, great Roddy McDowall; who gives this movie his all.
Some might accuse McDowall of overacting a bit in this film. I don’t. I think he sells it with all of the strength and vigor that it needs. Bear in mind that this was 1973, not 2017. There were no CGI FX or digital trickery to play with. The entire movie rests mainly on practical FX (shaking cups/saucers on tables, gusts of ghostly wind upon cobwebs, etc) and on the strength of its actors. And McDowall, particularly in the chapel-set climax, really puts his back into it. When his face face tightens and turns beet red during a trance (in an attempt to telekinetically force open the chapel open), you can literally hear his sinus cavities straining (!).
McDowall was always game for nearly any project. I was, and always will be, a tremendous fan of his. Many of his movies and TV shows (Night Gallery/Planet of the Apes) not only defined much of my childhood, but his performances made those movies/TV shows far more memorable than they would’ve been otherwise.
Another solid mention has to go to Gayle Hunnicut as Ann Barrett, the loving, supportive wife of physicist Lionel. On the surface it’s a thankless role; the spouse/girlfriend, etc. But for the scenes where Ann is possessed by the house? She cuts loose. Her possessed ‘sleepwalking’ scenes, where she sexually taunts McDowall’s Ben Fischer, deserve a round of applause; they could’ve easily been laughable if played by a lesser actress.
* The soundtrack.
More a series of organ & electronic tonalities than a traditional score, the music of “Legend” (credited to Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson & Dudley Simpson) really plays on your nerves. During the scene transitions, you hear a ghostly series of electronically produced tones that sound exactly what it feels like when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There was also an odd choice of primitive-sounding drums that echo rapid heartbeats as the team rendezvous at the house earlier in the film. Certain other cues resemble shrieks, and a electronically higher-pitched organ in the climax is just pure nervous energy. The tones accents moments without necessarily overpowering them.
* The cinematography.
Under direction from John Hough, the film was shot by future “Return of the Jedi” cinematographer Alan Hume; who uses more ingenious methods in this open-yet-claustrophobic film than he ever did (or could) with “Return.” Most of the movie, save for a handful of exterior shots, is confined to the interiors of the (admittedly large) house; we the audience are as ‘trapped’ as the characters.
The shadows in the Belasko house are sometimes photographed like a series of moving Rembrandt paintings. Hume’s color palette, save for occasional splashes of deep red within the guest rooms and seances, consists mainly of muted earth tones (even in the clothing), which keeps the focus on the characters and their humanity. Unusual and unnerving closeups are used, as well as split-dilopters and other techniques to further enhance that confined feeling. There is one slightly comical ‘Batman-twirl’ moment as Tanner is confusedly running down a hallway, but otherwise the conservative camerawork is nearly documentarian in its restraint. I only have the DVD version (and not the recently released blu ray), but it more than suffices.
* The seance scenes.
I’m not a believer in the afterlife, or even the paranormal. But those seance scenes, (particularly the first one), are wonderfully unnerving. The dim lighting, the eerie electronic music, and Franklin’s pitched-down voice as she begins to channel (what she believes to be) the spirit of “Daniel” Belasko all combine to seriously raise one’s neck hairs. There’s also the ‘poltergeist attack’ on Dr. Barrett later on, when he is nearly skewered, cut and burned to death by a raging fireplace. All done practically, by the way. No CGI, no opticals. And having seen it again only last night? It still very much works.
* The shadow of the corpse/dead-cat in the shower.
Need I say more? Just the shadow of an unseen corpse in the shower sets your nerves into overdrive, let alone the bloody damn cat corpse found inside.
* Belasko’s spirit screwing with everybody.
Little things, such as the recording of his voice when the team enters the house and turns on the electricity, or when his ghost mimics Lionel’s voice to make sure his widow finds her husband’s fresh corpse (it’s barely audible; which makes it that much more creepy). Belasko even creates a dead son to play on Florence’s sympathies and later on to rape her (yes, there is ghost rape in this movie, and it’s disturbing as hell). You could easily buy into the real Emerick Belasko being a complete sociopathic bastard; with the all of the nasty habits that Ben enumerates (including cannibalism & necrophilia) when asked by Ann “what made the house so evil?” In a word? Belasko.
It’s also a wonderful conceit (both in the movie and the book) that Belasko’s malevolence and need for hiding is rooted largely in his own vanity. I won’t spoil the exact reason why here, but it’s very unexpected, to say the least…
And a few things that may not work as well with the lights on…
* Two dead bodies…yet neither survivor chooses to leave.
In 1982, comedian Eddie Murphy posed the question; “Why don’t white people just get the f#@k out when there’s a ghost in the house?” The movie on Murphy’s mind then was 1982’s “Poltergeist,” but he could’ve just as easily been discussing this movie as well. Granted the investigative team was being handsomely compensated for the time and skills (150 grand each; big money in 1973), but even after two (out of only four) members of the expedition die, the survivors choose to stay and ‘solve the mystery’ instead; literally walking over the corpses of a dead spouse and a dead colleague to do so (!!). To call that a somewhat unrealistic reaction is an understatement.
* The cat attack.
When Florence is attacked by the black cat possessed by Belasko’s spirit, there are moments when the cat on her back looks a wee bit laughable. Luckily, the scene is filmed with a lamp rolling on the floor, so the cat’s visibility is somewhat limited, but it comes dangerously close to looking like SNL’s “Toonces the Driving Cat.”
And those are my only genuine nits with the movie.
But to be fair, modern audiences (or even impatient oldsters) might grow impatient with the movie’s deliberate pacing and lack of action. In fact, I laughingly recall my (then) young niece watching it on VHS back in the ‘80s and wondering why the house didn’t blow up at the end. However, at a running time of only 95 minutes it’s not as if you’re sitting through a double feature of “Avatar” and “Titanic.”
Luckily I was born of a generation that still went to cinemas without internet-accessing phones in our pockets, so it was perfectly okay to exchange a couple of hours of our time to lose ourselves in a good, suspenseful story. We didn’t need haunted houses to explode before the end credits (with all apologies to “Poltergeist” and to my niece…).
But on the off-chance that someone reading this blog has no trouble taking the time to invest in a good old-fashioned, handsomely-made ghost story? You may be pleasantly surprised at how effective this 44 year old, deeply underrated movie can be.
“Legend of Hell House” makes for great Halloween-season viewing.
And did I ever mention that Halloween is still (even at age 50) my absolute favorite time of the year?