The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Directed by John Hough

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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A millionaire desiring to know if there is life after death hires a group of people to investigate a haunted mansion, now called Hell House, that was formerly owned by a maniacal sadist named Emeric Belasco. The man's team includes a young and enthusiastic psychic, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a sceptical scientist, Mr. Barrett (Clive Revill), his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and the only survivor of the last attempt to investigate the house, Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall). Soon after arriving at their destination, these persons begin experiencing strange phenomena that grow increasingly more alarming and that hint that there might be some malevolent presence in the house that desires to do them harm, or even kill them.

John Hough's The Legend of Hell House is hardly a great work of art, but it is an eery and intriguing tale of the supernatural.

Perhaps the most effective elements of The Legend of Hell House are the director's presentations of the characters' personalities and of their interactions with one another. Florence is naïve and idealistic. Fischer is reserved and fearful of the dangers of his environment. Mr. Barrett is cynical and very professional, and his wife is both devoted to him and concerned about the others. The conflicts that arise between these individuals occur because of their different natures and so have a sense of veracity that greatly adds to the tension the director evokes.

What is more, these persons interact not only with one another, but also with the spirits inhabiting the house they are investigating. These remain unseen, and do not even speak, except insofar as Florence relates to the others what one of the spirits, that of Belasco's son, tells her. Nonetheless, this particular entity's dealings with Florence, his attacks on her person, his pleading with her, and even his convincing her to have such pity for him that she is willing to have sex with him, create a real sense of his presence. This, in turn, suffuses the movie with distinct otherworldliness.

These interactions are not the only device used to bring out strange feelings of anxiety or dread, however. Hough has his characters reveal enough of the history of Hell House to intrigue the viewer and make him aware of how this place's past is so sinister that it spills through time into the present.

Even the incorporation of some of the details of paranormal pseudo-science into the narrative enhances its authenticity. The reality of such elements is never made clear, but the characters' belief or disbelief in them is. The scenes in which they are put to use thus add to the sense of ghostly mystery with which the movie is saturated.

Sadly, in spite of its numerous appealing qualities, I have to concede that The Legend of Hell House never really rises above the ordinary. It is a well made horror film, but it is never truly terrifying. The director brings out a sort of creepiness, but he does not leave the viewer severely shaken.

Review by Keith Allen

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