Legend of Hell House, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe takes a relaxing weekend in a charming countryside estate...
It sits here, shrouded in mist and mystery, a nesting place for living evil and terror from the dead. It's Hell House. It's already destroyed one team of researchers. Now, a brave quartet of psychic investigators ventures in for another try at unraveling its secrets. But, before they succeed, they must suffer through madness, murder, and everything else that the spirits who dwell here have in store for them. Yet learning the truth just might drive them all insane. (From Scream Factory’s official Synopsis)
For years now, The Legend of Hell House has been overshadowed by just about every other major haunted house movie of the modern era. It’s not as groundbreaking as Robert Wise’s The Haunting (which may very well be the best haunted house movie ever made, 1963), nor is it as inexplicably popular as the Amityville Horror films. It hasn’t even really garnered the cult following and camp appeal of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959). But it did get regular play on television and was readily available on home video, so it does have a place in the cultural consciousness. It is certainly worthy of rediscovery for its simple charms, solid performances, and strong visual sense. It also represents a creative crossroads for a number of the era’s horror genre titans, including ties to American International Pictures (specifically that it was produced by James H. Nicholson without Samuel Z. Arkoff) and Hammer Studios.
The screenplay was written by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson, based on his own novel (titled Hell House). Matheson was one of the genre’s most prolific and influential screenwriters at the time, following some key Twilight Zone episodes, four popular Dan Curtis-directed TV movies ( The Night Stalker,1972; The Night Strangler, 1973; Dracula, 1974; Trilogy of Terror, 1975) and four of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations ( The House of Usher, 1960; The Pit and the Pendulum, 1961; Tales of Terror, 1962; The Raven, 1963). The Legend of Hell House shares basic DNA with The Haunting, which was based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Matheson takes Jackson’s parapsychologists and gives them more specific scientific purposes. The tone is weirdly detached throughout, thanks in part to the objective scientific stance the characters are attempting to take with their studies. The story is structured to skip through events like the pages in a journal and Matheson hasn’t given much thought to defining his characters – just the problems the house causes them. The results are mixed – sometimes it’s too cold to be interesting, while, other times, the open-ended qualities give the cast and director the artistic leeway they require. The science fiction spin also makes The Legend of Hell House a forerunner to Tobe Hooper’s massively popular Poltergeist (1982) and Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1981).
Despite Matheson’s well-earned pedigree, I think director John Hough is the key contributor to this genre stew. Hough was a consummate jack of all trades filmmaker throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. He bridged unlikely gaps between Hammer ( Twins of Evil, 1971) and Disney ( Escape to Witch Mountain, 1975; Return to Witch Mountain, 1978; Watcher in the Woods, 1980; Black Arrow, 1985), made one of the best car chase movies of all time ( Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, 1974), and directed John Cassavetes in the creepy, underrated, and surprisingly gory Incubus (1982). Hough brings his experience with Hammer house aesthetic to the table and tinges The Legend of Hell House with just enough garish and ostentatious elements to maintain interest throughout the dips in narrative momentum in Matheson’s screenplay. Besides indulging in the traditional gothic fogs and expressionistic shadows, Hough shoots dialogue sequences from a low angle, utilizes repeating crash zooms, and shoves the camera uncomfortably close to his actor’s faces to create an air of constant perversion and unease (this helps cover the obvious size constraints of the sets pretty well, too). He also handles his low-rent special effects with considerable grace, dynamic editing, and flashy camerawork (rubber cats and prop furniture being flung at actors rarely looks as genuinely threatening as they do here).
The Legend of Hell House is pretty easy to find on anamorphic DVD and has been regularly available in HD on cable television and Netflix streaming. There was also a German Blu-ray release from Koch Media with cover art claiming that it had been ‘remastered,’ but I have no access to that disc for comparison’s sake. The transfer adorning this 1.85:1, 1080p Scream Factory release was likely produced by Twentieth Century Fox and appears very similar to the one on Netflix right now. The results are impressive where it counts, but cannot be mistaken for a meticulous restoration. Grain is consistently heavy and the print is brimming with minor print damage, like scratches and dirt. Aside from a few of the busier, wide-angle shots, which are particularly grit-caked and dulled, these artefacts appear natural and don’t get in the way of sharper details and richer colours. Soft focus, fog, and shallow depth of field keeps most of the backdrops shrouded in blur, while foreground textures (especially those facial close-ups) are plenty complex. The colours scheme is limited mostly to a grey/green base and orange highlights (there are some rough delineations between these during brighter sequences), though some of the sets employ brilliant reds and purples that pop beautifully. Black levels are deep and hues are well-separated, despite the prevalent grain and softened focus.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is hit and miss. The mix is low-key enough that the lack of stereo spread doesn’t compact the effects and dialogue too much, but there’s still a fuzzy, flattening issue throughout any of the louder sequences. This is, again, to be expected from the material and probably not far off from what the film sounded like in theaters. The important stuff, including straight dialogue sequences and the big, brash scare cues, are plenty clear. It’s only the layers that prove problematic. The musical soundtrack was provided by Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, and Dudley Simpson (uncredited), all members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – the people most famously behind classic Dr. Who music. The score is a consistently heavy element, but has been mushed up a tad by low-end warble. This proves problematic for any of the percussion-heavy cues.
- Commentary with actress Pamela Franklin – The actress, who plays the young female psychic, Florence Tanner, does her best to fill the time with the assistance of a moderator, whose voice is usually inaudible. Her memory on the subject isn’t 100%, but she recalls quite a bit about the sets, locations, Hough’s direction, cinematography, and the moods of her cast mates (apparently, Roddy McDowall was somewhat cold, but she didn’t take it personally). There are some long silent spells, but Franklin tends to spring back following every (unheard) line of questioning).
- An interview with John Hough (28:20, HD) – This laidback chat with the director covers Matheson’s screenplay, having fun with camera tricks, working with his cast and crew, casting, trying to film actual paranormal events instead of using special effects, music, and Legend of Hell House’s place in getting him the Disney gigs.
- Photo gallery
- Radio spots
- Trailers for other Scream releases
A very ‘70s brand of ghost story has proliferated in mainstream theaters lately, thanks in large part to the efforts of director James Wan, who has focused on low-key spook tales following his entry onto the scene with the hyper-violent Saw films. Movies like Insidious and The Conjuring (which is even set in the ‘70s) owe just as much, if not more debt to John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House than they do to more popular movies, like The Amityville Horror (1979) and Burnt Offerings (1976). For this reason alone, I think that it’s about time horror fans started revisiting Hough’s slight, but entertaining little thriller. Scream Factory’s new disc doesn’t look or sound perfect, but is certainly an upgrade on anamorphic DVD versions. The extras are a nice addition as well.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 26th August 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Actress Commentary, nterview With Director John Hough, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Hough
Cast: Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough
Length: 95 minutes
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