The Legend of Hell House


What a lovely evening for a haunting.

What a lovely evening for a haunting.

(1973) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox) Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough. Directed by John Hough

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we can explain and things we can’t. Some of it is simply our knowledge hasn’t expanded enough to come up with a rational explanation; it’s just a matter of our knowledge catching up with the phenomenon. In other cases, it is simply so far out of the realm of our understanding that we may never be able to figure it out.

What happens after we die, for example. There are those who believe that our consciousness simply ends, evaporates as our body shuts down. We enter an endless sleep, oblivion. Others say there is a heaven and a hell and that what we do in this life determines where we go in the next. There are still others who believe that we die and are reborn in an endless cycle of attempting to achieve enlightenment. And there are those who say that most of us just hang around here as spiritual beings.

There are skeptics though. The Belasco House in England is considered the “Mt. Everest” of haunted houses; in fact, the last team to seriously study the goings on in the house died terribly with only one survivor left to tell the tale.

The Belasco House was once the residence of one Emrick Belasco (Gough), a physically imposing sort who threw lavish parties in the 1920s. For the last of them, he shuttered all the windows and barred all the doors; in the morning, every guest was dead and Emrick Belasco was nowhere to be found. Soon afterwards, the house got its evil reputation.

Now, yet another mysterious millionaire (Culver) has enlisted noted physicist Dr. Barrett (Revill) to do a scientific study on the phenomena going on in the house. He’s bringing with him a spiritual medium named Florence Tanner (Franklin), reportedly one of the best there is. He’s also bringing with him his own wife Ann (Hunnicutt) and the only survivor of the previous expedition, Ben Fischer (McDowell), a powerful psychic in his own right. Now he’s a broken man, terrified of this place but motivated by the reward if he should be successful at surviving another attempt. He has erected psychic walls to protect himself but those are under constant assault once they arrive at the foreboding mansion.

At first there isn’t a lot going on, just some disquieting feelings which are mainly exacerbated by Ben’s resigned paranoia. Dr. Barrett, a pragmatic man, doesn’t believe in religion or supernatural phenomena although he is soon presented with events even he can’t explain away – furniture moving of its own accord, the manifestation of ectoplasm during a séance, and the erotic possession of his wife. Dr. Barrett scoffs at Tanner’s religious faith and the two get into heated arguments. His explanation is that there is unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house which he has built a machine to eradicate.

Tanner for her part believes that the house isn’t haunted by multiple spirits as has long been supposed but in fact by just one – Belasco’s tormented son Daniel. She sets out to prove it, opening her to unprecedented danger and putting the entire team at risk. Not everyone will walk out of Belasco House intact.

This is based on a Richard Matheson novel, and Matheson himself wrote the screenplay. Matheson is best known for his work on The Twilight Zone and for writing the books that such films as I Am Legend are based on. That book was set in New England but the action was moved to England so that the production could happen there. Therefore we get a happy fusion of New England gothic horror and old England supernatural horror. The two make an excellent mix.

There isn’t much graphic nudity despite the era in which nudity was far more common than it is now; the sexuality here is of a much more subtle, erotic nature. The subtext of fear of female sexuality comes out strongly as the two men in the movie seemingly reject the erotic advances of the women. It is the women who display the aggressive sexuality here. Something to think about as women’s liberation was making itself known at the time.

Strong performances abound here from all four of the four leads, all four veteran performers by that time. McDowell was strong here as the twitchy, nervous and clearly terrified Ben Fischer but it is he who has the final confrontation with the presence infesting the house and it is he who stands up to it. I’ve always been a fan of the actor ever since I was a kid and saw him in such movies as Planet of the Apes, Class of 84, The Last of Sheila and Fright Night. It was in this one that I found him to be at his best, albeit in a sanitized suitable for television viewing. And for those who have read the book by the way, they’ll know that the sex and violence is far more extreme on the printed page. Hough and Matheson were going for a far more atmospheric production and they certainly succeeded.

This is as atmospheric a horror film as you’re likely to ever see. From the muted electronic score to the fog-shrouded exterior shots, the movie chills you to the bone from the get go as indistinct figures walk from the car to the front door of the mansion. I think few films have used silence to their advantage as effectively as this one, as loud noises interrupt the quiet and put the viewer’s nerves on edge. This is gloom personified and for those who like their horror movies creepy and unsettling, they’ll be in heaven here.

This is a movie from a different era. Those who effects-laden need roller coaster rides with a digital signature, undoubtedly you’ll find this boring and tedious. The action doesn’t really gather steam until the final ten minutes and even then it is tame by modern standards. The attitudes towards women are also a bit on the Mad Men side, although none of the women here are victims really. Still, this is the kind of movie that will make you jump right out of your skin. It is one of my all-time favorite horror movies and you will either love it or hate it depending on how patient a movie viewer you are. You already know which side of that separation I stand on.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendously atmospheric and sexy. Fine performances by main leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some scenes of terror and supernatural violence, plenty of sexuality and some rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tales of Belasco’s debauchery and evil were loosely based on the notorious exploits of occultist Aleister Crowley.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a 30-minute interview with the director.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting (1999)
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Three!

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Thunderbolt and Lightfoot


Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood share a Zen moment.

Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood share a Zen moment.

(1974) Crime Comedy (United Artists) Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Gary Busey, Jack Dodson, Gene Elman, Burton Gilliam, Roy Jenson, Claudia Lennear, Bill McKinney, Vic Tayback, Dub Taylor, Gregory Walcott, Erica Hagen, Alvin Childress, Virginia Baker, Stuart Nisbet, Irene K. Cooper, Cliff Emmich, June Fairchild, Karen Lamm. Directed by Michael Cimino

Once a mainstay of Saturday afternoon television movie programming, this Clint Eastwood action thriller is notable for being Oscar nominated back in the day. All the digital splendor of a DVD doesn’t hide just how dated this movie is, though.

Notable as the first directorial effort of Michael (Heaven’s Gate) Cimino, the film concerns the pairing of a middle-aged, jaded bank robber now in hiding (Eastwood) and a young, impetuous and, er, highly vigorous young man named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges, who garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the role) who literally run into each other in a wheatfield while bullets whiz around them. That pretty much sets the tone for the movie.

They are being chased by Red Leary (Kennedy), a foul-tempered former member of the Thunderbolt gang (Thunderbolt is Eastwood’s character, by the way). Eventually, they all hook up and plan to duplicate the gang’s legendary heist of Montana Armored. But you just know that Lightfoot, so full of piss and vinegar, will get on stodgy old Red Leary’s nerves like stink on a two-dollar cigar, and that the fur will fly because of it.

The location in Great Falls, Montana, brings out the feeling of desolation and isolation that couldn’t be pulled off on a studio backlot. Cimino shows some decent writing skills with a few unexpected twists here and there, but mainly he borrows too heavily on a stylistic level from such movies as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider.

Eastwood is at the point of his career here where he was beginning to stretch his acting wings (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot immediately followed Play Misty For Me on Eastwood’s resume). Of course, the basics of his persona honed in so many badass Italian westerns are there, but the tough guy he plays here has a vulnerable, world-weary and dog-loyal soul beneath the veneer. Bridges was at the very start of his career which was somewhat checkered for awhile but has been awash with Oscar nominations and lately, Oscar wins. The supporting cast includes some of the era’s most solid character actors in Lewis, Tayback, Taylor and Dodson, while Bach is lustrous and Busey turns in one of his earlier performances.

Few movies age well, especially those that try to make a hipness quotient that generally eludes Hollywood movies. What’s hip in one era becomes hopelessly anachronistic in the next. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has some meat on its bones, but generally speaking, holds up about as well as The Partridge Family does. Those who love ’70s movies or are students of the era however might find this a hoot.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bridges and Eastwood. Very much a product of its times.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely dated and doesn’t hold up well. Derivative of other, superior works.

FAMILY MATTERS: A bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Eastwood’s son Kyle had his first movie role in this film at age 5; because he had one word of dialogue, he had to be paid union scale for actors with dialogue rather than extras, which meant he got $128 (scale at the time) for his work.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.7M on a $4M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Prisoners