Jimmy idolizes bootlegger Matt, and when he refuses to implicate his friend, he is sent to reform school. He befriends Shorty, a boy with a heart condition, and escapes to let the world know about the brutal conditions.
Although the title would suggest a horror movie or suspense thriller having to do with the supernatural, 'Hell's House' is actually a long-forgotten Pre-Code drama with a predilection for the melodramatic in the vein of a morality play. It's not necessarily an agenda-driven propaganda piece similar to, say, 'Reefer Madness' — though, at times, certain plot points come dangerously close, making it all the easier to brush off. But the movie definitely has a motive behind its upsetting tale of one naïve boy's incarceration in a juvenile corrections facility. Think more along the lines of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the political uproar the classic novel inspired, and you have a clearer idea of the filmmaker's intent.
Independently produced by B. F. Zeidman ('Nothing But Trouble,' 'Air Raid Wardens') and directed by Howard Higgin, the plot is essentially an attempt to bring into question the ethics of a penal system directed at troubled boys. The conditions are, of course, exposed as cruel and unjust, even from the standpoint of your typical adult prison: boys are actually sentenced to hard labor, made to stand or sit starring at a white line near the ceiling for two hours or more and are referred to by number rather than by name. To add more loathing to the maltreatment of these kids, we have a scene where one boy with a heart condition, Shorty (Frank Coghlan Jr.), is sent to solitary confinement for wanting to mail to a letter for a friend.
Without giving away too much, let us say the punishment doesn't fit the ultimate price paid, but it's a necessary component to a story that sheds light on reform schools which treat kids like violent criminals. The tale of social woe is told from the perspective of the aforementioned naïve boy named Jimmy Mason (Junior Durkin). Recently orphaned and inexperienced to the corrupt, crooked sins of the city, the stupidly loyal country lad takes the fall for Matt Kelly (Pat O'Brien), a posh braggart believed to be a friend, during a police raid. Legendary screen siren Bette Davis enters the picture as Kelly's girlfriend Peggy Gardner, but her role feels like a last minute addition, essentially there to press on Kelly's guilt.
Sadly, even with Ms. Davis's presence, the film doesn't really amount to much, especially being product of its time with very specific cultural and socio-political concerns. On loan to Zeidman by Universal Studios, Davis isn't given a whole lot to work with, appearing in the movie for roughly a quarter of the runtime, yet she's the only decent performance in the entire show. O'Brien hams it up, full of arrogance and swagger but little to no believability as a criminal turned softy. Durkin, best known for his role as Huckleberry Finn in two adaptations of Twain's books, is a bit rough around the edges, but he displayed plenty of potential and seemed promising before a car accident three years later cut his career short.
Although the plot has its heart in the right place, possibly hoping to inspire change, 'Hell's House' suffers greatly from an overall sense of cheapness — meaning it feels every bit like a low-budget B-picture with a strong morality-play edge. I'm not sure better production values and a stronger cast would provide much of an improvement, however, because no matter how you cut it, the film is not wildly entertaining or gallingly scandalous. In the end, the forgotten 1932 melodrama makes a better study for the career of Bette Davis and as an intriguing propaganda piece from the Pre-Code Hollywood era.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Hell's House' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase, the Region Free, BD25 disc goes straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
At the start of 'Hell's House,' white-on-black text explains this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was made from a 35mm print donated to the Library of Congress by the Bette Davis estate. It goes on to explain that the print has not aged well, with the worst visible damage apparent during the first quarter of the movie. Indeed, the video does look pretty bad at the start, suffering from some mild decomposition, severe scratches and even skipping a couple frames here and there. As usual, a good amount of dirt and white specks litter the screen along with a thin layer of natural grain. Contrast is very well-balanced and comfortably bright, and black levels appear excellent for the most part.
Presented as is, the 1.33:1 image is appreciably detailed with fantastic looking scenes sprinkled throughout. Conversely, there are several soft and blurry moments as well mixed in with the transfer's better parts. Also, on the left side of the screen, the edge of the negative is noticeable on various occasions, almost exposing the perforations. All things considered, however, the high-def presentation is not too terrible for an 80-year-old film.
It appears the audio also suffers from the poor conditions and aging of the source, particularly in the dialogue department. Presented in uncompressed PCM mono, voices tend to come in and out and at various pitches. Although character interactions are generally intelligible, there are moments when the volume suddenly drops and the conversations feel distant. Not sure if it’s the result of a bad recording at the time of the original production or if it's related to the print's poor state of repair. Vocals are also accompanied by a noticeable hiss and noise. Even though the lossless mix has a great sense of presence in the center with good bass, the mid-range feels limited and generic. All in all, the high-rez track is pretty average.
A long-forgotten Pre-Code melodrama about the maltreatment of young boys in reform schools, 'Hell's House' is a propaganda piece with its heart in the right place but it does little to become memorable entertainment. Starring the indelible legendary screen siren Bette Davis, the film ultimately works best as a study of Davis's career and as a product of the Pre-Code Hollywood era. The Blu-ray arrives with a troubled but passable audio and video presentation. However, the lack of supplements makes the overall package a rental at best.