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!

The Men Who Stare at Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats

That goat shouldn't have eaten George Clooney's script.

(Overture) George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen Root, Rebecca Mader, Glenn Morshower, Nick Offerman, Tim Griffin, Jacob Browne, Todd La Tourette. Directed by Grant Heslov

The human mind is in many ways the truly final frontier. We know so little about it, yet our minds our capable of amazing things. Were we able to harness these abilities we could literally do anything we can imagine.

Bob Wilton (McGregor) is lacking somewhat in the cojones department. A journalist, he takes a job at a small town newspaper, marries his college sweetheart (Mader) and interviews quack psychics (Root) who claim they were part of a military program to develop psychic super soldiers, whose mental powers would allow the military to spy on “the enemy” psychically.

Shortly after this, Bob’s life goes to hell in a handbasket. His wife leaves him for his editor (La Tourette) and Bob falls apart. He decides to prove his manhood to his wife to go to Iraq to cover the war as a truly macho war correspondent but true to form he can’t get clearance to cover anything in the war zone, so he sits in a hotel in Kuwait, enviously watching the other journalists swap stories from the front lines while they totally ignore the inexperienced Bob.

This is when he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a ramrod-straight retired soldier whose name Bob remembers from his interview with the psychic, who mentioned Lyn admiringly as “the best psi in the outfit.” He is reluctant to talk to Bob at all but when he sees something that Bob was doodling in his notebook, he does an about face and becomes willing to have Bob accompany him into Iraq on a “black ops” mission.

It turns out that Lyn has recently been re-activated to go on a mysterious mission into Iraq. When they drive into Iraq, Lyn practices his psychic skills to “keep sharp” by cloudbursting. He becomes so distracted by this he runs right into the only boulder in hundreds of miles of sand.

The two seem to be rescued by a passing truck but it turns out to be militants who capture Lyn and Bob. Lyn tells Bob a little more about the history of his outfit, “Project Jedi” (a not-so-subtle jibe at McGregor’s previous role as Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the man who created it, Lt. Col. Bill Django (Bridges), a free-spirited sort who embraced the new age and proto-hippie movements in California in the ‘70s a little too closely after a near-brush with death in Vietnam. When he returns to the Army, he does so with claims that he can create soldiers who can walk through walls, find missing persons through psychic means, and influence the minds of others. He captures the imagination of a somewhat unrealistic General (Lang) who is concerned that the Soviets are conducting a similar program.

The self-described Jedi Knights undergo unorthodox training methods, experiment liberally with psychotropic drugs and have mixed success in the psychic warfare department. Lyn has the most promise and becomes Django’s apprentice while another soldier named Larry Hooper (Spacey) seethes with jealousy, wanting to be the pre-eminent psychic on the planet. He takes matters into his own hands and when a young recruit dies during an experiment that Hooper clandestinely conducts using the methods of the notorious MK Ultra project, Hooper manages to shift the blame to Django who is shown the door, discharged and disgraced.

The two escape the militants along with an Iraqi civilian (Zuaiter) but run into a firefight between competing security contractors. As the pair travels further and further into the heart of enemy territory, Bob begins to suspect that he is not hearing the whole truth – and that Lyn might just be insane.

This is based on what is reputedly a non-fiction book written by an actual British journalist and makes no bones that not everything in the story is 100% factual. In fact, the opening screen tells you that much with a graphic that reads “more of this is true than you might believe.” Let’s just say that my cynic-meter was registering some pretty high numbers despite the disclaimer.

In the hands of someone like the Coen Brothers, this might have been a terrific movie. Unfortunately, first-time director Heslov (Clooney’s long-time production partner) seems to be trying too hard to make this funny and quirky all at once. The quirk far outweighs the funny percentage-wise, never a good thing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some nice moments here. Some of the scenes in which the would-be Jedi Warriors attempt to use their psychic powers unsuccessfully are nicely done, as is some of the satire, particularly Robert Patrick’s turn as a security contractor. It’s too bad that those moments aren’t more plentiful.

The cast is pretty solid, with Clooney and McGregor doing good, solid jobs in the leads, while Bridges and Spacey are dependable as always. Bridges in particular seems to be channeling his character from The Big Lebowski which isn’t as bad as it sounds since that character was so memorable (I don’t name him because I refuse to – as everyone from AOL and MiniPlanet knows I am the Dude).

There is an awful lot of drug humor here and those who are offended by such things might want to skip on by this one. I haven’t read the book this was based on but based on the subject matter I do think there was a good movie to be had. Sadly, this wasn’t it.

REASONS TO GO: Clooney and McGregor are appealing leads while Bridges and Spacey always do good work. Some genuinely funny scenes stand out here.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too quirky for its own good, the movie tries too hard to be funky and funny. The drug humor may offend some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some brief nudity (some of which is Clooney’s for all you ladies out there), some scenes of violence, a lot of drug use and some rough language. A lot of “somes” equals leave the kids at home for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes in Kuwait and Iraq were actually filmed in New Mexico.

HOME OR THEATER: Strictly for home viewing. There are lots of movies far worthier than this one in the multiplex right now, so you have plenty of cinematic options.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Star Trek