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!

I Am Legend


I Am Legend

Will Smith is tired of taking career advice from zombies.

(2007) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Charlie Tahan, Darrell Foster, April Grace, Dash Mihok, Joanna Numata, Samuel Glen, James McCauley, Marin Ireland, Pedro Mojica, Caitlin McHugh. Directed by Francis Lawrence

 

How does the world end? With a mighty cataclysmic event, a catastrophe natural or man-made such as an asteroid, a nuclear holocaust? Or will it be with the sounds of illness, a disease that wipes us out and leaves the planet to reclaim its cities until every trace we ever existed is gone?

Robert Neville (Smith) lives in Manhattan. He’s a scientist – or was. You see, Manhattan isn’t exactly the center of the world anymore. It’s deserted, inhabited by beasts escaped from the Central Park Zoo, Neville and his German Shepherd Sam.

The population of the world has been wiped out. They were trying to cure cancer and instead unleashed a virus that turned most of the population into mindless, hairless albinos with fangs and an insatiable hunger for human flesh. His home is like a fortress with a portable generator, steel doors on the windows and bright lamps that keep the zombies away (like vampires, they are allergic to sunlight that burns them into ashes when exposed).

He also has a lab in his basement complete with captured zombies to experiment on, trying to create an anti-virus that might cure the virus that came from the cure to…oh it makes my head spin. However one wonders if he’s the last man on earth and he’s already immune what he needs a cure for.

Into his life comes Anna (Braga) and young Ethan (Tahan), two survivors drawn to him by his regular radio broadcasts. At first he is happy to see any human beings at all but soon his situation is complicated, particularly since he’s getting close to a cure – but so too are the zombies getting close to finding a way into his fortress.

This is based on the classic Richard Matheson novel of the same name which has also spawned two other movie versions – The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in the 50s and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in the 70s. In both cases the plague victims turned into vampire-like creatures which is what the book had originally (in the book Neville armed himself with garlic cloves and Holy Water and did battle with crosses and stakes), but I think the fast-moving hairless zombies are a bit of an improvement.

Some critics have given the movie lumps for the zombies which are a mixture of CGI and make-up effects. In all honesty I have to disagree; the monsters are scary enough to give me the shudders even though I’ve seen the movie several times.

If you ever doubted that Will Smith is one of the most charismatic movie stars of our generation, look no further than here. Even in a dark, serious role he is still immensely likable and commands your attention. The flashback scenes with his wife (Richardson) and daughter (Willow Smith, his real life daughter) are extremely affecting. This is really his show; it’s just him and the dog for a large amount of the film and so a bankable star is absolutely crucial to making this movie work. That it does is all about The Fresh Prince.

It’s not just him of course; the special effects are pretty cool and the scenes in which Manhattan is evacuated is about as spectacular as it gets. Those scenes work so much better on the big theater screen but hopefully you can see it on something a bit larger than your iPhone.

There are some pretty serious lapses in logic here. For example, they clearly show the bridges and entrances to Manhattan being blown up but yet Anna and Ethan somehow make their way there. A single line of dialogue – “one of the tunnels was still open” could have resolved it, or “We found a boat that was still floating” but just having them appear is an insult to the intelligence of the audience.

I wasn’t overly fond of the ending which was somewhat more hopeful than the book was but making a great ending for a movie seems to be a lost art these days. Truly I dislike happy endings for their own sake; some movies really demand something bleaker and this one is one of those. On the extended cuts of the film, there is an alternate ending that is I think better than the one they used but it still could have used some work.

The movie is pretty solid and doesn’t really pull off the novel as well as it could have. Those who don’t find Will Smith their cup of tea should be advised that you are going to get an excess of him onscreen, although not in his wisecracking Fresh Prince persona which he’s used in a lot of movies over the years. For those who are his fans, this is a must-see. For those who like sci-fi spectaculars, this is also something that should be on your radar. For those who loved the Matheson book…well, it’s closer than the other two movies but still not nearly as effective. Everyone else, check it out if you think it might appeal to you but it’s probably not worth going out of your way to find.

WHY RENT THIS: Much more intense than the previous versions of the film. Stark and well-made, the sight of New York being reclaimed by nature is pretty sweet. Smith is as always an engaging hero.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is unsatisfying, there are some incredible gaps in logic and the first part of the movie drags.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence and the action can be intense; the plague victims are pretty scary.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In various parts of the film, billboards and DVD packages for proposed Warner Brothers/DC Comics films can be seen, most of which never got made (at least to date).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-Disc DVD Special Edition includes an extended version of the film (along with the theatrical release version), four animated comics and DVD-ROM material including a 21-minute long featurette on real-life deadly diseases. There is a 3-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition which takes the DVD-ROM material and makes it accessible. There are also deleted scenes and an audio commentary available on the 3-Disc edition that isn’t on the 2-Disc version. For those who just want the original movie, you can probably find the single disc release out there dirt cheap.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $585.4M on a $150M production budget; this was a definite hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Beach

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Flight

The Box


The Box

Frank Langella really needs to buy himself a better razor.

(Warner Brothers) Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, Celia Weston, Deborah Rush, Lisa K. Wyatt, Mark Cartier, Keith Robertson, Michelle Durrett. Directed by Richard Kelly

Our lives are often a test, one in which we are called to make choices between short-term self-interest and the long-term benefit of the entire species. It is a test we continue to take over and over again, not always successfully.

It is 1976, and the Mariner project is sending data back to NASA at their Langley research facility in Virginia (and if you’re not sure what state you’re in, the filmmakers helpfully tell you in big bold letters at the beginning of the film). Arthur Lewis (Marsden) is a scientist who worked on that project (he helped design the camera that sent back those shots from the surface of the Red Planet) who dreams of being an astronaut, dreams which are dashed when he receives a rejection letter from the powers-that-be.

His wife Norma (Diaz) is a teacher at a ritzy private school where their son Walter (Stone) also attends. Norma walks with a limp and has to take pain pills because of a doctor’s who left her foot under an x-ray machine until it charbroiled. She’s just been told that the school is eliminating employee discounts for student tuition, which means that the already-financially strapped family (since when does a rocket scientist not make enough to make ends meet?) will have to live even more within their means.

Enter the Mysterious Man, in this case Arlington Steward (Langella). With a severely disfigured face that looks like one of his zits might have had C4 in it as a teen, Steward bears a mysterious wooden box that contains nothing except a glass dome that can only be opened with a key, and a large red button. He gives Norma the key and explains, in clipped cultured tones, that pushing the button will accomplish two things. First, someone unknown to Norma and Arthur, somewhere in the world, will die as a result of them pushing the button. Second, they will be paid one million dollars, tax free, in large crisp hundred dollar bills. In order to demonstrate his sincerity, he gives Norma one of them “for her trouble.” The two of them have 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button – otherwise the offer is withdrawn and the box will be given to someone else.

The couple goes back and forth. Their conscience dictates that it is never all right to kill, even for a large sum of money but their immediate needs say that a million dollars can make their lives a hell of a lot less complicated. As the minutes tick down to the deadline, one of them will make an impulsive decision that will change their lives forever, put them all in mortal danger and introduce Arthur to a mysterious conspiracy between the NSA, NASA and other governmental organizations that may affect the future of the human race.

This is based on a short story by the great Richard Matheson (and was later developed into an episode for the 1986 version of “The Twilight Zone,” albeit with a different ending) who has given us stories that have become movies like I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere In Time and numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” to name a few. He is one of the most imaginative writers of the 20th century. Here what he has is a morality play that is as relevant now as it was the day it was written – the battle of short-term gain and long-term care. In other words, doing the right thing vs. doing the easy thing.

Director Kelly has an affinity for science fiction and, well, creepy stuff. He creates an atmosphere in which anyone at any time can be “an employee” as Steward terms it, his eyes and ears on the subjects of what he labels “a test.” I know I’m being a bit vague, but I don’t want to ruin any of the twists that give the movie some of its spice. One of the things I can talk about is that he nicely re-creates the era.

Langella is fabulous as the mysterious Arlington Steward. He is creepy and not quite normal but at the same time urbane, polite and charming. He tips his fedora at a jaunty angle and walks with the deliberate pace of a man who knows exactly where he needs to be and is quite sure he isn’t in a hurry to get there. Marsden also does a fine job in the lead role of the disappointed rocket scientist who goes from financial problems to fighting for his survival.

I’m not usually a big fan of Cameron Diaz – for some reason she seems a little neurotic to me usually – but she does a solid job here. There are some nice supporting roles here too, particularly the veteran character actor Rebhorn as Arthur’s boss.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is the score. Members of the Montreal-based rock band Arcade Fire are responsible for it and I was frankly quite disappointed. It’s intrusive, overbearing, somewhat cliché in places (I don’t know about you but I am quite tired of having an Important Event or a Big Scare announced with screeching strings) and comes damn close to ruining the movie. I would have preferred something toned down a bit; a bit more minimalist.

Kelly, who wrote the movie, chose to flesh out the script with a good deal of business involving the government agencies mentioned above as well as a series of nosebleeds, slack-jawed observers, a wind tunnel and mysterious gates that may very well lead to Eternal Damnation. These sideshows, while visually effective, tend to take the focus from what was the main crux of the original short story, to the detriment of the film. That’s a shame because it might have gotten a higher rating otherwise.

There are elements of science fiction, horror, political thriller and historical drama here, so you can’t say that you didn’t get your money’s worth. What you can say about The Box is that it’s got the best use of Sartre I’ve ever seen in a horror/science fiction/thriller/drama before. Hell is other people according to Sartre but in Richard Kelly’s vision, we are all caught in our own boxes that we are stuck in until we’re planted in a pine box, and what we make of it can be Hell – or it can be something else. It’s a test that the human race continues to take – and fail.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t go wrong with Richard Matheson. A modern morality play that is an essay on human nature that is even more true and contemporary now than it was when the original short story was written. Langella gives a marvelously creepy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: An overbearing score is intrusive and nearly ruins the film. Some of the action is a little bit over-the-top. It feels like the script was fleshed out with some unnecessary business.

FAMILY VALUES: Some horrific images and a few good startle scares are sure to give the little ones nightmares. Okay for teens though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Kelly is best known for directing the cult classic Donny Darko.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few grand effects shots and a couple of other sequences that would look better on the big screen but otherwise just as effective at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: He’s Just Not That Into You