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The Legend of Hell House

by Joe Dante Sep 09, 2014

Here’s another installment featuring Joe Dante’s reviews from his stint as a critic for Film Bulletin circa 1969-1974. Our thanks to Video Watchdog and Tim Lucas for his editorial embellishments!

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Well done haunted house chiller offers plenty for the shiver‑and‑shock fans. A fitting swan song for [AIP co-founder] Jim Nicholson, this could roll up good grosses in general, ballyhoo, drive‑in markets if Fox gives it an appropriately strong sell. Rating: PG.

“This house… it knows we’re here!” Of such ominous dialogue are classic style horror pictures made and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, while no classic, is spookily amusing, sometimes scary stuff with plenty of mass appeal for summer playdates. In fact, this maiden effort from the late James Nicholson’s Academy Pictures is slick and entertaining enough to register as one of the season’s better attractions, if 20th Century‑Fox capitalizes on its considerable ballyhoo potential.

A surefire premise and some artfully managed atmospherics characterize the well‑paced British‑made chiller, which includes several sudden‑shock moments to startle the fans and boasts a compact screenplay by Richard Matheson and stylish direction by John Hough. The only drawback is the disappointing ending, a letdown that reveals some seemingly tantalizing plot elements as mere loose ends. The small cast is a good one and Alan Hume’s camerawork is long on weird angles and distorting lenses.

Three psychic experts—physicist Clive Revill and mediums Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowall—are hired by wealthy Roland Culver to investigate Hell House, a splendid fog‑shrouded mansion once owned by a depraved libertine and considered “the Mount Everest of haunted houses.”

Revill brings along wife Gayle Hunnicutt to listen to the exposition and soon the seances and ectoplasmic manifestations are in full swing. Revill is attacked by a roomful of flying furniture, crockery and fire from the fireplace. Miss Franklin is mauled by unseen forces and a possessed black cat. Miss Hunnicutt turns seductress while sleep‑walking. Miss Franklin allows a ghost to make love to her, but regrets it when she is crushed by a huge crucifix in the chapel. Revill dies when his machine to exorcise ghostly influences blows up.

The surviving McDowall and Miss Hunnicutt find the secret behind a leadlined wall—surprise, it’s unbilled horror heavy Michael Gough, his corpse and its evil powers preserved through the years. He was very short, it seems, so he cut off his legs and replaced them with longer artificial ones. And ever since his ghost has been crushing, paralyzing or crippling anybody who can walk.

It’s a pretty stupid finish, but getting there is so much fun that audiences may not mind. Besides, it’s prefaced with an assurance that such things can indeed happen from no less an authority than Tom Corbett—not the space cadet, but the “clairvoyant and psychic consultant to European royalty.” 

1971. 20th Century‑Fox (Academy Pictures). Deluxe Color. 92 minutes. Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt. Produced by Albert Fennell and Norman T. Herman. Directed by John Hough.

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.

About Joe Dante

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