The Legend of Hell House

Ghost bomb!
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1973
Director: 
John Hough
Starring: 
Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt
The Setup: 
Group of paranormal investigators stay in “the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses.”
Discussion: 

A reader wrote to agree that the Jan de Bont remake of The Haunting is terrible, and in doing so pointed out the existence of this film, which is kind of a variation on the story. This is based on a novel by horror/sci-fi maestro Richard Matheson, of I Am Legend and Incredible Shrinking Man fame [among numerous others], and although my cursory explorations didn’t turn up anything solid, it seems that he appropriated the basic setup of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which was turned into the excellent The Haunting [1963] as well as the horrid The Haunting [1999], then went off in his own direction, which apparently included a lot more sex and madness than made it here to the screen. This film is one of the few with a screenplay by Matheson himself, and is directed by John Hough, who brought us Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, as well as both original Witch Mountain films and the lame Watcher in the Woods. It stars Pamela Franklin, who left an indelible impression in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and went on to a lot of TV and schlock movies such as Satan’s School for Girls and The Food of the Gods. We’ve also got Roddy McDowall, who needs no introduction, Clive Revill, who was the voice of the Emperor in Empire Strikes Back and continues to act to this day, and Gayle Hunicutt, who sounds really familiar, although I don’t recognize anything else she was in.

So we open with a message from Tom Corbett, parapsychological expert, who says that although this film is fiction, the parapsychologial phenomena “could well be true.” I guess. But then, by this criteria, Jaws 4 “could well be true” too. Anyway, Revill is Lionel Barrett, Physicist, who is charged with gathering a team of the psychically-sensitive and spending a week in Hell House—the reason why he is charged with this escapes me. The house used to belong to this dude Belasco, who was a kinky bastard, engaging in sadism, bestiality, vampirism and embroidery, among other things, and now the house is said to be jam-packed with whacked-out spiritual energy. On Barrett’s team is Florence Tanner, that’s Pamela, who he doesn’t want, given her reputation as a wingnut, and McDowall as Ben Fisher, the only known survivor of Hell House. Barrett’s wife Ann also insists on coming, a decision she may soon grow to regret.

So they get to the house, and we have the first of our NUMEROUS titles telling us the day and the exact time, which add nothing to the experience of the film and soon grow irritating. What, am I supposed to be making up a little follow-along schedule? Anyway, they creep around the house and Tanner is soon claiming to be in contact with Daniel Belasco, the big dude’s son, who no one knew existed. She is also proving herself to be a snotty, self-righteous pain in the ass of the highest order, a position she will try [and succeed] in re-establishing over and over throughout the course of the film. This woman is a PILL. They try to do “a sitting,” where ectoplasmic strands appear out of Tanner’s fingers. The next morning there is a big attack at breakfast, in which Barrett almost loses his face to the ol’ spiked serving tray [what, you don’t have a spiked serving tray?]. He accuses Tanner of targeting him with her energies [he just doesn’t like her one bit], causing her to throw the next in her endless series of haughty fits, then to go engage in some sort of spiteful secret spirit-sleuthing. In the first of these, she finds a secret chamber in the basement with a decomposed body locked up, which she thinks is Daniel, the sad ghost she thinks she’s in contact with. So they bury the body, and think they’ve done with their problems, since now he’s laid to rest. I never understood this whole convention of ghost stories. What does a ghost care about what happened to its body? Ultimately it’s a Christian thing, saying that if you don’t receive a proper burial your spirit will end up wandering the Earth until it’s buried. Anyway, problem solved, right? You believe that, don’t you?

By now you have no doubt noticed that this is the kind of movie in which: 1) you WILL see shots of a black cat skulking around the property, 2) you’ll be confronted by a lot of showy in-your-face camera shots created with every manner of lens available, and 3) there is no waiting for, and no shortage of, ghostly phenomena. You can’t go three minutes without objects flying or otherworldly voices or someone acting possessed or a cat attacking or whatnot. At least it keeps things moving, and distracts, for a while at least, from the fact that large portions of it are just not adding up.

SPOILERS > > >
Then Mrs. Barrett gets possessed, and when she gets possessed, she gets HORNY. She targets Fisher, but he knows she’s not herself, so he demurs. This happens twice. Then Barrett takes delivery of a giant dishwasher that he keeps right in the middle of the living room. Then Tanner, who is always enduring some sort of trauma or other, gets spirit-raped [I should make a short list of spirit-rape movies] and in the morning seems a bit possessed herself, alternating between speaking in a cold male voice and being herself, shouting “He’s inside me!” Then, for the umpteenth time, they insist that she leave the house and, for the umpteenth time, she finds a reason she must stay. This time she won’t leave before she finds out what the big dishwasher is, and Barrett—who is affected by the spirits into becoming an even more arrogant prick—says with certainty that the spirits have filled the house with electromagnetic energy, and that the whole house is “a big battery,” and that if they just harness it, we’ll have decades of renewable, sustainable fuel. Actually he doesn’t say that last part, but he DOES say the battery thing. So turns out the thingy isn’t a dishwasher at all, but will emit electromagnetic energy at the reverse polarity of the house’s, thus cancelling out the spirits and rendering the house clean. It’s like one of those anti-insect foggers, a “ghost bomb,” and just like one of those, they even leave the house briefly while it’s going on. But before that happens, the machine causes Tanner to freak [seriously, what DOESN’T cause this woman to freak?] and she tries to smash it. In spite of this, and her other repeated outbursts and attempts at sabotage that I have spared you repetition of, I don’t see why she isn’t tied up by now. Anyway, in the morning she runs and tells Daniel that he’d better hoof it, as the ghost bomb’s gonna be poppin’, and all the thanks she gets is to be crushed by a crucifix. Some spirits are so ungrateful!

So they set the bomb and walk aroud outside for a while. Eerie smoke issues from the house. Barrett will not hear another word but that it worked. Fisher is not so sure, but he walks around for a while, then proclaims with astonishment: "It worked! The house is clean!" Now, if you believe this, you've obviously never seen a movie before.

Well, you don't have to wait too long before the machine comes on by itself, Barrett exclaims "That's impossible!" and a component explodes in his eyes. A few minutes later, his wife finds him squished under a chandelier. She then FREAKS, and is comforted by Fisher. She says "Let's get out of here!" He says "No--I must stay!" She says "You can't!" He says "I must! If I don't go in there and confront this ghost once and for all, my life will have been a failure!" She says "You can't! You'll die!" He says "Then I shall die!" So he goes in the chapel [where the spirits chill] and she follows.

Now the big climax! The big TALKY climax! First Fisher senses that the house isn't filled with multiple ghosts, just Belasco! Then he goes on a whole babbling jag explaining the long family history, and by this time I must admit I just didn't give a shit. Then he begs Belasco to kill him--if he can--while standing directly beneath a chandelier. Yes--it's THAT kind of movie. And Christ, I didn't think they had any more hanging chandeliers left. They seem to get dropped at the rate of one per minute around here. Fisher gets some blowback from the ghost [as in he is literally blown back], but he persists, and seems to be conducting some spirit psychotherapy, going mano-a-mano with the spirit. This all requires poor McDowall to do a lot of talking and muttering to himself, and one whole sequence had him making these ludicrous over-the-top faces, one of which is seen below. I watched this in silent slow frame-advance, and I must say it was one of the funnier things I've seen in a while. I also thought you could present it that way as some sort of avant-garde video art piece. Anyway, Fisher mocks Belasco with schoolyard taunts, and finally defeats him by mocking him for being SHORT! You know, some ghosts can be so sensitive. And the next time you mock someone for being short, just remember that you might be causing a haunting in the future. Anyway, then a door opens and they find a secret chamber with the preserved corpse of Belasco inside, which causes the release of EVEN MORE family history, and by now I SO FUCKING DO NOT CARE. This is one of those movies that ends with ten minutes of explanation of everything that has happened, although the excitement is over and everyone's ready to move on. Then they just walk out of the house, the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was amusing for a while, especially to fans of The Haunting, novel and film, and it certainly has a lot more ghostly phenomena going on--things flying around, bedsheets moving, possessions, cat attacks, etc.--that you don't get bored. However, the very frequency of the attacks also means you don't concentrate in the way you do in something like The Haunting, and also grow fairly wearisome after a while, until finally one just shuts down and becomes listless. As I said, so much this, that and the other thing had happened that by the climax, when all the family history comes flooding out, I was long past caring and just wanted the thing to end.

Which is not to say it's not fun for at least a while. It takes a variation on the character dynamic from The Haunting, with a little variation that these are all kind of psychic superheroes. Tanner is super annoying, but such a consistent pain in the ass and in such an imperious way that she becomes a little funny. The rest of the characters are amusing too, and like I said, if you get bored, there's always another massive ghostly manifestation not more than five minutes away. So fine, amusing, but not rich, not resonant, not much more than a fun haunted house time-passer. Which has its place, of course.

Should you watch it: 

If you like haunted house films and don't like waiting for ghostly manifestations.