The Legend of Hell House 1973 ****

legend

When it comes to haunted house movies, the influences on The Shining should not be overlooked. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting is one, Richard Matheson’s book Hell House, filmed here with a more elaborate title, is another. John Hough’s film is often forgotten in the annals of great horror, perhaps because of its PG certificate, yet it’s an intense and original take on the genre that serves up a veritable banquet of scares.
The scenario is familiar; a group of intrepid ghost hunters, scientists, mediums, arrive at Belasquo House, dubbed ‘the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses’. Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell) is the only survivor of a previous attempt to understand the house’s secrets, and he’s joined by physicist Lionel Barratt (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), plus spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin). Belasquo is long dead, or at least misplaced since he allegedly poisoned a group of visitors who ate at his manor. Séances are planned and executed, while a computer big enough to store a rugby team inside arrives, and a book of auto-erotica is found and perused; this isn’t a lowest-common denominator stalk and slash at all.
A property ‘haunted by multiple personalities’ certainly brings to mind the varied an unexplained inhabitants of the Overlook hotel, although there’s a quaint British-ness about some of the proceedings here; the presence of Peter Bowles and discussion about whether the house as a ‘full larder’ firmly identify what kind of vibe the house has. There’s also a strong sexual undercurrent that belies the family certificate; presumably the lack of gore persuaded the censor to turn a blind eye to the nudity. The investigation into violent psychic activity reaches a fairly vice-like crescendo, even if the dialogue occasions becomes over ripe; ‘The cat?’ “Yes, it was possessed by Daniel Belasquo!”
The screenplay, direction and performances are all top notch, but the icing on the cake is the foreboding electronic soundtrack by pioneer Delia Derbyshire, which adds an unsettling edge to the film. Something of a neglected classic, The Legend of Hell House is one of the few great horror film that you’re probably not seen yet.