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!

Magic in the Moonlight


Emma Stone is shocked to discover she's co-starring with an Oscar winner.

Emma Stone is shocked to discover she’s co-starring with an Oscar winner.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, George Shamos, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Ute Lemper, Didier Muller, Peter Wollasch, Antonia Clarke, Natasha Andrews, Valerie Beaulieu, Lionel Abelanski. Directed by Woody Allen

The world is fairly evenly divided between the romantic and the pragmatic. Pragmatists believe that everything is explainable and that there is little to no mystery left in the world. Romantics believe that there is much more to life than what the senses perceive and that there are things in the world that can only be described as magic.

Stanley (Firth) certainly counts himself among the pragmatic although, perhaps oddly, he makes his living as a magician, masquerading as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo. While he would say that he does so to maintain his privacy as well as the illusion of mystery, it seems somewhat hypocritical at the very least and cynical for certain. In 1928, however, this isn’t really an issue.

Stanley is the sort that can alienate the nicest of people in a matter of seconds. Pompous, arrogant and smug, he is completely certain that he is right in all things and the smartest person in the room. The trouble is, he usually is. He is engaged to Olivia (McCormack), a fellow intellectual pragmatic and a fine looking woman as well. They are very well-matched on the surface and Stanley feels a good deal of affection towards his bride-to-be. At the end of his world tour, he intends to vacation in the Galapagos with her.

 

However at the close of his Berlin show he is met by his old friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (McBurney) who comes to him with a challenge. A woman by the name of Sophie Baker (Stone) purporting to be a psychic has attached herself to the Catledge family of Pittsburgh who happen to be friends of his. Their callow son Brice (Linklater) has become smitten with the girl, having already proposed marriage. Mother Grace (Weaver) is obsessed with making contact with her lately departed industrialist husband.

Stanley, a notable debunker of charlatans, leaps at the chance. Burkan drives him to their home in the South of France with a brief stop to lunch with Stanley’s dear Aunt Vanessa (Atkins) who practically raised him and instilled in him the practicality that makes up his personality, although she despairs at his prickliness that makes him something of a social hand grenade.

Nobody knows who Stanley is once they arrive at the Catledge villa; he introduces himself as an importer of Brazilian coffee beans. He meets Sophie and her suspicious mother (Harden) and proceeds to let slip his disbelief in the occult. However at a séance, he is unable to detect how she makes a candle levitate nor does she seem to be the source of the rapping noises that are overheard. The great debunker has to admit he’s perplexed.

 

He grows further so when she seems to know things she couldn’t possibly know – even Aunt Vanessa is taken with the charming young lass. The more he begins to doubt his own convictions, the more alive Stanley feels – and the more he begins to fall for the beautiful young girl. However, he can’t keep that nagging feeling out of his head that there is no such thing as magic. It’s a war in his soul for which it seems there can be no compromise.

Allen has been in a bit of a career renaissance in his 70s with nine films released including two of his most acclaimed and commercially successful – Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. I will admit that I had fallen out of love with Allen not long after Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo – it seemed to me that most of his movies between then and now were passionless and seemed to be the work of someone who was working to stay busy. However Midnight in Paris did change my mind and I have again begun to look forward to his new movies – not that all of them have been great. Still I had high hopes for this one.

It is charming to be sure, a throwback to an early era – not just the era of the flapper when this is set, but also to the comedies of the ’70s which this is more akin to which were in turn inspired by comedies of the 30s and 40s. Call this a throwback of a throwback if you will.

 

Firth proves himself a phenomenal performer, once again showing that he may be the best male actor of this decade. His Stanley takes the guise of an inscrutable Oriental because Stanley himself is inscrutable; for all his bluster and bravado he is unable to express his emotions any better than those he despises can express their intellect. Stanley is clearly not a likable fellow yet Firth makes us like him in spite of his faults and by the time the movie ends, Stanley has made an organic and believable change. It’s not just good writing that accomplishes this – Firth makes it real.

Most of the rest of the cast does the kind of solid work you’d expect from a cast with this kind of pedigree – not to mention from a Woody Allen movie. Allen has always been able to get good performances from his actors.

I’ll have to admit that the second act seems a bit rushed and that the movie ends up a little bit more neatly tied up in a bow than I might have expected. I supposed when you’re 79 years old and you’re still churning out a movie every year (and sometimes more) without fail, you can be forgiven for taking a few short cuts.

 

Nonetheless this is solidly entertaining and charming. I have to admit that I do love movies set in this era and I love those kind of 70s-era all-star events that made the Agatha Christie movies so entertaining. While not a murder mystery per se, it has some elements you’d find in a movie by the mistress of the murder mystery. If Allen continues to make movies of this quality, I for one won’t be disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Colin Firth is really, really good. Overall charming and recalls not only the Roaring ’20s but also the ’70s as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is rushed a little bit. A few shortcuts are taken.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some innuendo and period smoking (which is apparently a big no-no for the MPAA these days).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth movie made while Woody Allen was in his 70s. Should he release a movie next year, it will be his tenth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Gatsby

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Giver

Easy Virtue


Easy Virtue

Colin Firth and Jessica Biel trip the light fantastic.

(Sony Classics) Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall, Christian Brassington, Charlotte Riley, Jim McManus, Pip Torrens. Directed by Stephan Elliott

Part of the way we are brought up is to keep our problems and tragedies hidden. Therefore, even the lives that seem most perfect on the surface have some kind of ugliness hiding just below the façade.

John “Panda” Whittaker (Barnes), scion of a wealthy English family, is attending the 1924 Grand Prix at Monte Carlo where he witnesses the triumph of a beautiful blonde American, winning the race. He falls instantly in love and impulsively marries her. The hard part comes next; he has to bring Larita (Biel), his new bride, back to meet his family.

Like many wealthy English families, eccentricity runs through the family like rain through the gutters. Father (Firth) is a veteran of the Great War and who hasn’t been the same since he returned home, taking a slight detour through Europe to do so. Sister Hilda (Nixon) is a busybody who dwells on morbid news clippings and has a vindictive streak a mile wide. Sister Marion (Parkinson) is searching for a husband with a desperation that borders on hysteria and has her eye on Phillip Hurst (Brassington), the son of Lord Hurst (Torrens). Phillip, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with her. Finally, there’s Mother (Thomas), an icy woman with a sharp tongue and a heart of solid steel. She runs the family with an iron hand and even Father steps aside for her when she’s in one of her moods.

Larita couldn’t have come at a worse time. They are entering a busy social season, and the family estate is crumbling into disrepair. There is an odd disconnect with John’s father, which is becoming more and more pronounced. And she’s running into Mother at her most venomous.

Things aren’t going well but it’s not for Larita’s lack of trying. At first she tries to be friendly and respectful but Mother’s sharp barbs put an end to that. Eventually it settles into a bitter cold war with the two daughters taking Mother’s side and Father, who has a great admiration for all things American, on Larita’s. When her past threatens to catch up with her, the staid life of the manor threatens to explode.

This is based on a 1924 Noel Coward play. It has been made into a movie at least once, by none other than Alfred Hitchcock(!) back in 1928. This time, the director is Elliott, best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This is his first feature in nine years and he is aided by the auspices of Ealing Studios in England, one of the most famous in all the UK. They are well-known for their drawing room comedies of the sort that Coward excelled at, and this is right down their alley.

Of course, this isn’t the play that Coward wrote. Writers Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins have taken some liberties with the original material – Elliott himself admits on the commentary track that the script is about “30% Coward” – and it seemed to me that the movie was at its weakest when it departed from the original material.

Elliott at least brought together a magnificent cast, but the surprise is Biel. I’ve always thought her more of a pretty face than as a strong actress, but she does very well with the material she has to work with which makes me wonder that if she were getting more challenging roles she wouldn’t be getting more respect as an actress. I hope she is given some based on her performance here; she plays a woman who is somewhat trapped by the strictures of her time but has a great deal of inner strength and an independent spirit. She has survived some of the most awful events you can imagine and is still able to keep her heart open despite that. Not Oscar-winning material mind you, but a superior performance nonetheless.

And the cast she has behind her! Firth is an Oscar-nominated actor just beginning to get the kind of notice that an actor who has delivered consistently strong performances should be bestowed. He gives a layered performance as a man haunted by horrors thee and me could not even begin to conceive of and walks through life with the ghosts of those horrors haunting him. Not many could pull it off as effectively as Firth does here.

Finally there’s Thomas who plays the bitchy mom. This could easily be a part that spirals into shrillness but Thomas plays the mother with dignity and decorum. She’s as British as you can get and has a burden of her own that she bears, keeping hidden with the typical stiff upper lip of the wealthy class. In a time when image was everything, she is terrified of the façade crumbling and the real face of the family showing up. Thomas makes an unsympathetic character largely identifiable to most of us.

Noel Coward is definitely an acquired taste but it is one I have learned to appreciate. It’s nice to watch a comedy once in awhile that doesn’t have to do with high school students trying to get laid, or adult losers trying to get laid, or stoners trying to get stoned…and laid. Coward had a flair for the English language and as someone who uses it as a tool I can appreciate and admire his gift. This wasn’t his best play to begin with, and it has been adapted for the screen nearly beyond recognition, but 30% Noel Coward is better than 100% most anyone else.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a nice change of pace from modern comedies. Jessica Biel shows some acting chops. Fine supporting cast helps elevate the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Film strays from the original Noel Coward material quite a bit and is at its weakest when it does.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s a little bit sexy and there is smoking throughout as was common during the era; however it might be a bit more sophisticated than the average youngster would be into so make this part of your adult post-kids bedtime viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, all the musicians playing on the track are introduced as they would be from a bandstand during a live performance.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Stone Angel