The Legend of Hell House (1973)
The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Genre: Supernatural Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: June 15th, 1973 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: John Hough Actors: Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough




n December, physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) is paid 100,000 pounds to determine if life after death can be proven – using scientific methods (including recording equipment). And the only place worthy of such an assignment is the old Emeric Belasco house – dubbed Hell House – which has taken the lives of nearly all who have previously investigated its plethora of supernatural phenomena. Barrett will be joined by young, mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), as well as the only one of eight survivors of a previous attempt at the same task back in 1953: physical medium Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who essentially went mad afterward. Additionally, Barrett’s wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) accompanies them, despite her husband making his objections to her presence during this latest endeavor known.

“This house; it knows we’re here.” As a black cat crosses their path, with thick fog swirling around the boarded-up windows and entrance, the foursome wander indoors, immediately met with strange forces that suggest that Hell House is thoroughly haunted. Their equipment is already set up inside, and they’ll only have a few days to debunk – or prove – the legend of the deadly residence, as they’re scheduled to depart on Christmas eve … should anyone survive the experience.

“It’s the mount Everest of haunted houses.” Perfectly atmospheric and creepy, the environment is visually spectacular; the sets lend themselves nicely to the onslaught of supernatural marvels. But more than the cobwebbed decorations or the vast, darkened spaces of various rooms, it’s the performances that aid this thriller in its terrifying effectiveness. With such a tiny cast, each player has an opportunity to develop into a distinct persona – from the skeptic to the empath to the respectfully afraid (or merely cautious). And they take their roles quite seriously; there’s no comic relief – just carefully orchestrated torment.

“I don’t want to hurt you. But I must.” Times and dates flash onscreen as if a documentary, which add to the more typical seances (or sittings and trances), doors opening and closing as if by the wind, blankets moving of their own accord, heavy breathing sounds and voices, poltergeist activities, ectoplasmic samples, possession, hallucinations, and other standard elements of haunting (sharply complemented by artistic camera angles and movements and eerie lighting). Despite its obvious components of fantasy, everything is given specific definitions and causes, hoping to root them in realism (even the start of the film pushes the notion that these events – based on the book by Richard Matheson – could actually take place). In many ways, this picture aims to comprehensively chronicle every possible avenue of ghostly incident, utilizing the methodologies of rational researchers.

As with many of these types of people-staying-in-a-haunted-house-to-prove-it’s-not-haunted films, the characters don’t behave as if inexperienced novices. They generally believe in occult occurrences and certainly don’t scare easily. Perhaps it helps that there are biblical implications and optimistic hopes to help angry spirits. But exploring dungeon-like basements alone often seems a step too far. Plus, while Barrett clearly witnesses uncanny happenings, he remains incredulous to individual aspects; apparently, specters can throw physical tantrums, but couldn’t possibly influence people’s actions.

“You haven’t got a chance.” Though “The Legend of Hell House” isn’t as visually appalling as many of its brethren (it does have some sexual deviancy) – including, most notably, “The Exorcist” from the same year – it sticks to dependable formulas, creating decent thrills. It may not be the most creative version of this timeless concept, but it approaches the many conventions with welcome severity; the ghastly bits are quite good, while the conclusion becomes the most startlingly singular piece of the puzzle.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10