Reviewed by Melissa Garza
“I was the only one to make it out of here alive and sane in 1953, and I will be the only one to make it out of here alive and sane this time.” – Benjamin (Roddy McDowall)
Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), a very arrogant physicist is hired to find out if the legendary Hell House is truly haunted or if all the tales surrounding it, is merely rumor. Together with his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), a psychic Florence (Pamela Franklin), and Benjamin (Roddy McDowall) the lone survivor of the last expedition, they set up camp.
Benjamin warns everyone that the house is evil. Though he was the only one who remained sane in the last venture, he is not nearly over the experience. The spirit of the former owner, Mr. Belasco who partook in debauchery, vampirism, bestiality, and other unmentionable behavior while alive, is now at an unrest within the confines of the old house. Florence takes the matter seriously and feels the presence almost immediately. The spirit speaks through her and takes over her body. Ann has similar experiences. In a state in-between awake an asleep she wanders to Benjamin, disrobes and attempts to seduce him. Ben being a fine and moral man does not take advantage. Instead, he slaps her which brings her back to reality. After the second incident, Ben warns Lionel to take Ann and leave, but Lionel refuses.
The situation worsens as doors open, and lashings appear on the back of Florence. Lionel, unable to believe the extent of the haunting deduces that Florence’s psychic ability has brought about much of ghostly aberrations. Throughout the ordeal, Ben tries in vain to reason with the rest of the group. He begs them to leave and tells them that there is no way to defeat the house.
Notably, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) debuted a mere six months before the classic THE EXORCIST (1973). Though the productions are much different, and THE EXORCIST is far scarier, there are certain similarities. First, and foremost both rely heavily on character development and dialogue. They focus on involving the audience with the characters in such a way that they become invested in the outcome. Secondly, both utilize one of the creepiest tools to cause chills. The demonic, dark, scratchy voice, though utilized more in THE EXORCIST, is quite effective in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE as well. In fact, one has to wonder why films shy away from using this. That strange and awful tone is one thing that never loses the ability to frighten. It’s dark and unworldly and therefore easily creates a pit in one’s stomach. Even in less than stellar films like KILLER PARTY (1986) it successfully created a last minute tone to that made the viewer uneasy. It is definitely something that should be revisited, and if anyone ever dare remake THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE they must not omit that out of the feature.
Overall, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is a great production. When considering the competition of the seventies, it may not rank among the best that decade had to offer, but it is still worlds better than the most recent entries. The cast did an exceptional job. Each character stood out and was significant to the plot.
Even among other fantastic actors, Roddy McDowall stole the show. He has never failed to invoke emotion in any one of his performances. The manner in which he delivered his lines was so powerful that it always commanded attention. It is easy to forget that there are other happenings in certain scenes while he is on. “THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE may be the best example of his work. As a major player and the one character who relayed the history behind the legend, he was able to stand out even more. Whether assured and trying to convince the others or unsure and in the midst of wonder, McDowall shined as Benjamin. He communicated each thought that plagued the character with or without words. When there was dialogue to speak, McDowall didn’t merely say his lines but he sold them. As over-the-top and dramatic as some of the lines admittedly were, he never wavered. He made one believe the stories he told, by the mere conviction that he spoke with. When watching him, one can find themselves easily wondering: Where are the actors of this caliber, today?
If only for his performance, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE would be worth watching. Thankfully there is more. The remaining cast does extremely well and the story itself is unique enough to keep one interested. When watching specific shots and scenes, it is easy to think that the EVIL DEAD (1981) borrowed some ideas.
The finale is a little odd even for the 1970s, but still it works and fits well with the tone of the previous hour and a half.
Overall, it’s an underrated classic that works on nearly every level.
Scared Stiff Rating: 7/10