The Test of Time: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: Josh Hough
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, and Clive Revill

With James Wan and Leigh Whannell currently owning the copyright to all ghost movies (INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 scares theaters this week), it seems like a dandy time to revisit another ghost story from the folks who do it best…the Brits. Yes, there’s something uniquely interesting about Gothic horror done with British actors. That accent always gives anything instant credibility…whether it’s bullshit or not. This week we go back four decades to one of the few haunted house movies that hasn’t been remade (yet). But does it stand up against the Test of Time? 

Under the examination: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE.

Looks like Gandalf is back there waiting for some legs.

THE STORY: It’s like a paranormal Avengers…except they work for cash money. A wealthy guy hires a super team to investigate a place so bad that it’s known as Hell House (previously owned by an evil man named Belasco) to prove that life does exist after death. The team includes physicist Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill), his hot wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), a cute young psychic named Florence (Pamela Franklin), and the only survivor from the last investigation, a parapsychologist named Cornelius…eh wait, Ben Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall). Once there, Florence is convinced ghosts are hanging around as weird things start to happen. Dr. Barrett brings a 70’s style Ghostbuster machine to drain the bad mojo from the place, but can they all survive long enough to give it a try?

My, what strange scratches you have there. 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Earlier I mentioned that James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who after bringing torture porn horror to the masses, took a few steps back and reintroduced simplified horror with THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS. Sure, they still use blood and gore for effect, but it’s great that they’re essentially bringing back the style and pacing of the 1970’s (well…to a point). I understand that times have changed, but I really love that style and it’s done to perfection in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, a gothic haunted house story where no one rushes (not even the ghosts) to get anywhere. Why? Because director Josh Hough relies on atmosphere to produce the desire effects: black cats, lots of fog, dark sets, creaky doors. This movie has it all. Hell, it even skips most of that useless character backstory stuff to allow the house to remain the focus. 

Fingernail smoke is the worst. 

The result is one of the best examples of British horror outside of Hammer studios. But while Hammer productions always looked somewhat cheap, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE reflects an authentic gothic tone with solid suspense and lots of creepy, simple effects. We’ve all seen hundreds of flicks with slowly opening doors or something under bedsheets or mysterious whispering voices that would make any sane dude go nutty. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE uses those elements right to produce that desired effect. It might be light on gore, but the movie still contains everything a horror fan could want: murder, cannibalism, perverse sex, drugs, booze, orgies. Though we only actually see some of those things (like Dr. Barrett’s wife who can’t help herself but to keep getting turned on), somehow the implication that so much debauchery took place under one roof adds everything. It’s the thought, the distant memory that creates terror.

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE gets an instant boost of credibility thanks to a screenplay by horror legend Richard Matheson (based on his own novel) who smartly added time stamps to scenes to help make everything seem more believable…which makes sense considering we’re following the journey of Barrett, who doesn’t believe in the whole thing. He’s the scientist, and if this is a study, simple things like “December 24th 10:58 p.m.” do help. In fact, that’s more believable than today’s clichéd use of the “record” view of a camcorder.  

That's a serious closeup.

Even if the characters fill the necessary clichéd slots for a haunted house movie (the skeptic, the believer, the fornicator, the wildcard), the entire cast is dynamite even if most folks probably only recognize the name Roddy McDowell. Even then, most only know him from the many, many, many, many PLANET OF THE APES. But he’s a great actor, capable of going way over the top. Here, he plays Fischer very subtly, but then again, if he’s the lone survivor of the last venture into Hell House, who could blame the guy for not showing a lot of personality. (Actually, McDowall and Revill I remember from being COLUMBO villains). 

All that blood and yet her dress remains picture perfect.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: If people have issues, I’d wager it comes from two places: 1) Seen it done before 2) Character motivation. While I love the old school style of THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, it’s difficult for it to not suffer from a bad case of been there, seen that. Shit, how many haunted house movies have there been with the same basic idea as this one? Too many. Not that it is THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE’s fault, but it’s hard not to go through the motions at times. 

As for character motivations, I bring up the topic only if you really wanted to dissect this movie, finding flaws for each character. Like why exactly does Dr. Barrett bring his wife to such a dangerous assignment? Or if Fischer survived once, shouldn’t he have had more to say about the past than just knowing stuff about the place? Or why does the rich old guy even want out of this? Some of it is explained, but very vaguely. But I’m not going to waste time on all that because the vagueness is what I dig about the film. 

THE VERDICT: If you dig haunted house movies and you’ve never seen THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, watch it. If you like British haunted house movies, watch it immediately. It’s that simple.




This is a poster.

Source: Arrow in the Head

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