A team consisting of a physicist, his wife, a young female psychic and the only survivor of the previous visit are sent to the notorious Hell House to prove/disprove survival after death. Previous visitors have either been killed or gone mad, and it is up to the team to survive a full week in isolation, and solve the mystery of the Hell House.
I'll always be a huge fan of haunted house movies. There's something about this genre that genuinely excites me whether it be its thrills, scares, or campiness. I enjoy it all. And perhaps I tend to gravitate towards these movies, because it seems plausible in a sense that living in my own home, I have definitely noticed strange occurrences, or at least I thought I did. A light switch turning on, a creak in the walls, the ice machine making ice, a picture frame falling on the the floor - all of which are very spooky when it's dark outside and you're home alone. And even if it's for a split second, my mind might wander into the "Is my house haunted by evil ghosts?" territory.
Sure, there are logical explanations for everything, but there's that small sense of wonder that maybe there is an afterlife where ghosts haunt people. Many people today still make a living in the paranormal industry, trying to make contact with spirits or "cleansing a house" of ghosts. Hell, there are even numerous reality shows where people go to supposed haunted locations and try to film these hauntings. But perhaps one of the best stories and films about a haunted house is 1973's 'The Legend of Hell House'. This movie is an adaptation from a novel called 'Hell House', written by the impressive and late Richard Matheson, who was responsible for giving us the stories of 'I Am Legend', 'What Dreams May Come', and 'Stir of Echoes' to name a few.
You could even compare this film with the 1963 movie 'The Haunting' by Robert Wise, based on the Shirley Jackson book 'The Haunting of Hill House' in which both films have a group of people comprised of scientists and paranormal mediums trying to figure out of a certain place is haunted. But where 'The Haunting' leaves you guessing, 'The Legend of Hell House' picks up and shows you flat out what it's trying to accomplish. And for being a horror film that came out 41 years ago, this little British horror film still packs some good scares.
The film opens up with a man named Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) who is asked by Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver), a very wealthy, but very sick elderly man to prove that there is life after death. Mr.Deutsch has offered Dr. Barrett a lot of money to spend a little bit of time in a large gothic mansion, which he thinks is haunted. This house is known as the Belasco house, and supposedly a man named Belasco lived there and murdered a lot of people many years ago. Dr. Barrett actually says that this is the "Mount Everest of Haunted Houses", and of course he accepts this job. He brings his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) with him in hopes that their failing marriage can spark a new flame.
In addition to his wife, a woman named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a psychic medium as well as a man named Fischer (Roddy McDowall), a physical scientist, come along to research the haunted Belasco house. However, Fischer has been there before, and was the sole survivor the last time he tried to investigate. Almost immediately when the four people enter the house, things start going awry. From objects levitating in mid-air and being hurled at the house guests, to some sort of invisible entity having its way with some of the female guests in the bedroom, most everyone is quickly convinced that something strange is happening. But of course, there is always someone who thinks that these paranormal occurrences are some part of elaborate trick, set up by Deutsch. Even with big scientific machines that can somehow vanquish the evil spirits, whom people think are either Belasco or Belasco's son Daniel, these violent occurrences keep happening. Needless to say, the scares don't stop, even in the end.
Director John Hough has had an interesting career. In addition to directing this horror film, he made the intense car chase film 'Dirty Mary Crazy Larry', then went on to make two Disney movies, 'Escape to Witch Mountain' and 'The Watcher in the Woods'. But back in the early 70s, he was into horror. Before he made 'The Legend of Hell House', he made 'Twins of Evil'. Hough also used his camera to make us feel claustrophobic in this house, where we couldn't escape.
Matheson incorporated the best parts of his novel into his own screenplay for the film, with each character coming to the table or bed with deep seeded issues, but redeeming qualities. The actors for the most part do an impressive job, keeping us on the edge of our seats through this chilling movie. This is one of the better haunted house movies on shelves today, as it is devoid of any cheesy one liners or over-the-top premise. It's coherent, concise, and knows what it wants to be. It still musters up some good scares to make you second guess if that muffled sound you heard down the hall is just the house shifting or an evil entity trying to kill you.
'The Legend of Hell House' comes with a 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This 41-year old movie looks surprisingly good, considering the low budget and the working elements of the picture. Scream Factory, a branch of Shout! Factory, has done an impressive job restoring and remastering this horror film. The detail is rather sharp during the closeups throughout the film, which showcase the individual sweat beads and hairs on the actors' faces really well. Their wrinkles and makeup blemishes also turn out nicely. Their costumes reveal fine textures and stitching, and even in wider shots, the props and gothic fixtures in the mansion look detailed for the most part.
However, during wider shots, the image goes a bit softer. There is quite a bit of grain during the darker sequences, but in the well lit scenes, there is an organic looking layer of grain, keeping the filmic look in tact. Colors for the most part are well balanced and saturated, however some of the colors seem to have faded a bit over time and look a bit muffled and rusty. Skin tones look natural and the black levels are deep and inky for the most part. There is a bit of video noise in the darker scenes, but other than that, this video presentation is quite nice.
This release comes with a DTS-HD 2.0 mono audio track. I really wish they had a 5.1 option as well, because if I'm watching a movie about a haunted house, I want my surrounds to work too and make me feel that my house is haunted by the loud and eerie sounds. It's difficult to accomplish that with a 2.0 mono track. That being said, dialogue is always clear and easy to follow. Sound effects are loud, but seem to only be just that. Loud. There isn't any layering or directionality with this mix. Sure, the loud effects will startle you, but it sounds a little fake, and takes you out of the moment from time to time.
The engrossing score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson is an odd one, but it works here and always adds to the tone and emotion that this film conveys. The fidelity is good, but not excellent, and the dynamic range is decent, but not as wide as I wanted it to be. I really wanted to feel fully immersed with this audio mix, being it's a haunted house film and all, but that's not happening here. However, this 2.0 track does its best with no transfer issues to speak of.
Audio Commentary - Actress Pamela Franklin is the sole person on this commentary. On the back of the Blu-ray it says there is an interview with Pamela, but I'm guessing this is it, since this sounds like an audio interview that was edited for a commentary. She doesn't start speaking until she comes on screen, so you'll have to wait a few minutes for it to start, and don't expect a scene by scene commentary, but rather her talking about making the film, some of the fun stories she had while making it, working with her co-stars, and info about her other films. If you're a fan of the movie, this is actually a pretty good commentary.
The Story of Hell House: An Interview with Director John Hough (HD, 29 mins.) - Here is a great interview with the director of the film as he goes over how he shot it, the set designs, the on location shoots, his actors, the themes, working with Richard Matheson, and some of the visual effects of the film. This is definitely worth watching.
Radio Spots (2 mins.) - A couple of audio radio promos for the film.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 mins.) - The trailer for the film.
Photo Gallery (HD, 3 mins.) - A slideshow of images from the film.
Haunted house films have always been a favorite genre of mine. The idea of something trying to kill you where you live and sleep is terrifying to me. And without the expensive CG effects of today's films, Richard Matheson's screenplay and John Hough's incredible eye for directing, made 'The Legend of Hell House' quite scary for 1973. And the good thing is, it's still scary today, some 41 years later. With good performances, a good script, and great practical effects, this horror film still packs a decent punch. The video and audio are both good, but after 41 years the film has lost some of its gravitas. There are two worthwhile extras out of the five that are listed as well. If you're a fan of horror films, especially haunted house movies, then by all means add this one to your collection. It's a definite upgrade from previous releases and packs enough scares to warrant a place on your shelf. Highly recommended.