The Legend Of Hell House (1973) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January and the “31 Days of British Horror” in March , Jules is at it again in May, treating us to the continuation of his chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicut
Director: John Hough

“This house…it knows we’re here.”

When it comes to haunted house movies, it’s hard to see past 1963’s classic The Haunting as the greatest of them all, but if any film is going to run it close, or even perhaps top it, it’s The Legend Of Hell House.

I Am Legend author Richard Matheson adapted his own novel for the screenplay of this and while he admittedly toned down the sexual element of the source material quite considerably, he delivered a taut, intense and often quite terrifying experience all the same.

An eccentric millionaire hires physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett to investigate the possibility of survival after death in what he describes as “the one place where it has yet to be refuted” – Belasco House aka Hell House.

Previously the home of Emeric Belasco, a towering pervert, sadist and probable murderer, the huge mansion has lain empty since a massacre occurred, but is now said to be cursed with the spirits of the victims who lost their lives in the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.”

Barret arrives with the belief that ye so-called spirits are nothing but unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house, so has brought a machine he has developed which he believes will rid the house of it.

Accompanied by his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicut), mental medium Florence (Pamela Franklin) and the only survivor of an investigation conducted 20 years before, physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), Barrett is about to discover that Belasco House isn’t as easily explainable as he thought…

The best haunted house stories know that less is most definitely more and The Legend Of Hell House knows that better than most. Right from the off, it establishes a brooding, oppressive atmosphere and doesn’t let up until the final credits.

A huge part of that is Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson’s intense and typically ahead of its time electronic score, with the Doctor Who and White Noise pair delivering a backing that’s pretty much what the heartbeat of pure evil would sound like.

Another massive factor in the disturbing atmosphere is the subtle and visually stunning cinematography by Alan Hume, who shoots from a host of interesting angles that emphasise the constant feeling of being watched, that the house is alive, ably supported by Robert Jones’ art direction who has given the house some of the most stunning set design you’ll ever see in a film of this type.

It’s the ideas at play that really make The Legend Of Hell House so special though. As Fischer darkly describes the corrupting psychic influences on the house: “Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalisim, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies”, it seems to be a place that the dead can’t escape from and one that’s impossible not to be affected by.

Ann Barrett’s sexual frustration is used against her, drawing out her desires against her will, while Florence is used in even worse ways, the vengeful presence at work channeling itself through her both to physically affect the environment around her and to use her as a vessel to communicate with the others, even brutally ravaging her after she has innocently given herself up for the best of reasons. Pamela Franklin is marvellous here, at times fragile and childlike, others strong and capable, depending on where Florence’s mental state is at the time.

Unsurprisingly it’s Roddy McDowall who shares most of the heavy lifting with Franklin, though Fischer’s (understandable) reticence to stick his neck out means it’s only in the final act or so that he really gets to cut loose.

The Legend Of Hell House is a truly disturbing ghost story, at once timeless, but very, very modern (for the time) too. It came out the same year as The Exorcist and compared to that may feel old fashioned, but while Friedkin’s film left absolutely nothing to the imagination, director John Hough let’s his story unfurl with only a few obvious bells and whistles and instead builds a truly disturbing, cerebral and thought-provoking film. A masterpiece.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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