The Legend of Hell House 1973 ****

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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.

The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957 ****

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Sci-fi gets a bad name; good sci-fi blows the mind; The Incredible Shrinking Man’s title suggests schlock, but Jack Arnold’s film is anything but. With a Richard Matheson script, it traces the law of diminishing returns as it applies in literal terms to Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams), a businessman who is enveloped in a radioactive cloud while on vacation. He begins to shrink, his clothes don’t fit but his wife Louise agrees to stick with him. He loses his job, his brother sells his story to the press, he becomes friends with a local dwarf; radioactivity seems like a one-way trip to Skid Row. But things get worse when Carey moves into a dolls house, and is terrorised by a cat and eventually a spider, which he battles after falling into the basement. The Incredible Shrinking Man was the kind of film the BBC would cheerfully show as family viewing after the 6pm news and local round up, back in the late 70’s, when anything sci-fi was thought to have audience appeal. Many tiny minds must have been expanded by the decidedly adult ending, in which Carey’s strength is reduced to a sub-atomic level, but he retains his consciousness and somehow accepts his place in the universe in a way that might have pleased Albert Camus. Simple storytelling, vivid effects and a disturbing premise which is followed through to the bitter end; Arnold and Matheson are cult figures now, and The Incredible Shrinking Man is reason enough for their canonisation.

Somewhere In Time 1980 ***

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A notably entry in the minor sub-genre of time travelling romance, Somewhere in Time is written by Richard Matheson and displays his usual respect for genre tropes. Christopher Reeve is writer Richard who becomes fascinated with a picture in an old hotel; he travels back in time via self-hypnosis to romance Elise (Jane Seymour) in 1912, and set in motion an impossible romance. Somewhere between Chris Marker’s sublime La Jetee and The Time Traveller’s Wife, Jeannot Szwarzc’s film in an unashamed weepie, well played and with a sumptuous John Barry score. William H Macy makes his debut here.

Trilogy of Terror 1975 ***

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Dan Curtis contributed a notable entry to the TV movie stakes with Trilogy of Terror, a straightforward portmanteau film that rises to a memorable climax that’s taken a place in pop culture history. Karen Black excels as a series of women in jeopardy in tales written by William F Nolan and Richard Matheson; the first, Amelia, sees her play a self-conscious teacher who is taken advantage of by an unscrupulous student, and plots her revenge. The second raises the stakes with Black portraying both Millicent and Therese, sisters with very different personalities who hide a dark secret. Both stories are well paced and performed, but it’s the final story, in which Julie (Black) engages in a battle of wits against an African tribal doll, that steals the show. Black’s opening monologue on the phone to her mother sets a creeping unease, and some clever creative decisions make the doll’s threat surprisingly tangible; the final shot is the stuff of nightmares and still casts a genuine chill in this accomplished and influential horror film.