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LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt
Director: John Hough
Audio: English 4.0 surround, English 2.0 mono, French 2.0 mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: 20th-Century Fox
Features: Trailers
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: September 4, 2001

"What did he do to make this house so evil, Mr. Fischer?"

"Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.  Shall I go on?"

"How did it end?"

"If it had ended, we would not be here."

Film *** 1/2

I love a good scary movie, and the "haunted house" sub-genre has always been my favorite sort of horror film.  Done correctly and with style, these films can be as frightening as the Robert Wise classic The Haunting or the recent Nicole Kidman film The Others.  But done with the usual Hollywood flair, utter garbage like 13 Ghosts or CGI-disasters such as the remake of The Haunting are the typical results.  Fortunately, The Legend of Hell House (1973) is done very correctly and remains to this day one of the most unsettling haunted house films ever.

Adapted from the novel Hell House (whose author Richard Matheson also wrote the screenplay), this British film presents a minimalist's approach to the ghost story.  We never actually see any ghosts, yet we are constantly aware of their presence.  Psychological horror, rather than special effects, maintain this illusion.  If memory serves, the actual house chosen for exterior shots was reputed to be haunted, a fact which no doubt contributed immeasurably to the overall atmosphere of the film.

Indeed, the house's first appearance in the film is an utterly chilling one.  At first, we see nothing but a heavy persistent fog.  So little light penetrates it that no shadows are cast.  The air is grey and stale, hardly stirring.  Slowly, we perceive bars of an iron gate.  As we approach, the gates swing open silently, accompanied only by a menacing beating on the soundtrack.  Beyond the gates, through the dense fog, a dark silhouette appears.  It looms above us, sharp spires and narrow towers extending skywards, a visage so large that its edges are swallowed into the surrounding greyness.  It is the Belasco House, the film's Hell House.

Any sane guest, upon receiving such an invitation would wisely turn about and depart most rapidly.  But Belasco House has been purchased by an eccentric British millionaire who seeks the answer to one question - is there life after death?  He believes the answer lies in Belasco House, and to that end, he has employed three persons to establish an answer...within the week.  The first person is Barrett (Revill), a confident parapsychologist, who is accompanied by his wife.  The second is Florence Tanner (Franklin), a young mental medium.  The last is Fischer (McDowell), a physical medium who is the only survivor of the previous but disastrous effort many years prior to solve the mysteries of Belasco House.  These four characters are Belasco House's guests for the next five days, for better or worse.

This being a haunted house film, we know they are not alone.  The film employs unusual camera angles and lens to create a sense of uneasiness, suggesting an unseen presence that silently observes the unwanted houseguests.  The hauntings are slyly implied rather than graphically displayed, without the prevalent blood and gore of modern horror films.  Old phonographs play by themselves.  Shadows dance along darkened walls.  Chandeliers swing as though swayed by unseen hands.  Through clever sound editing and eerie cinematography, the film maintains an ever-increasing sense of dread and tension.  By resisting the temptation to display too much, the film encourages the audience's mind and imagination to supply the terror.  It is a time-proven, old-school method, and it is chillingly effective in this film.

Sometimes, as the saying goes, the old ways are still the best ways.  In this case, The Legend of Hell House easily tops its modern, CGI-crazed cousins from Hollywood.

Video ***

The print used for this DVD is a decent one with a mildly coarse grain.  There are some indications of the film's age but only a minimal amount of dust and scratch marks.  The solid video bit rate often approaches 10Mbps, so the quality of the transfer is quite good, even if the image does appear somewhat soft at times.  The film's spectrum of colors is well preserved, from the foreboding creepiness of Belasco House's washed-out, grey exteriors to the vivid red color scheme that accompanies Pamela Franklin's scenes.

Audio ***

This DVD presents a resounding re-affirmation of the familiar expression "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."  There is a new 4.0 surround mix that is delivered with a solid audio bit rate of 448kbps, but don't bother with it.  Dialogue in the new mix has a strange isolated quality, while background noises are too mute and distant.  I cannot emphasize how much this film depends upon sound to create its horrific ambience; the new mix upsets this delicate balance.  In my initial viewing, I kept wondering if something was wrong with my amp/receiver.  Nothing was wrong, so I switched over to the original English mono track, and the difference was startling.  Dialogue is suddenly strong and forceful, and the background ambience is alive with twirling gusts of winds, creaking floor panels, and shadowy whispers.  And that nightmarish music, those menacing drums!  The score alone is one of the most nightmarish I've ever heard.  Now that's the film I remembered and loved!  Bottom line - the original mono track is utterly superior to the 4.0 mix and should be the audio of choice when watching this film.

Features: *

Just a trailer for this film and some other random movies.  Nothing terribly exciting.

Summary:

Seeking an old-school horror film that really delivers the goods?  Look no further!  Belasco House awaits you!  But be forewarned - The Legend of Hell House is a seriously scary film, so do not watch it alone at night if you are prone to nightmares!