Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blu-ray Review: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) [Scream Factory]

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
 95

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The Movie


I'll be the first to admit, my knowledge of early 1970s horror films is not very vast. Sure, I've seen some of the larger classics like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and I've seen a lot of Italian horror stuff and exploitation films from the decade, but there is way more that I haven't seen than those I have. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is one of those titles.

HELL HOUSE is a movie that I've always been aware of. In fact, I don't think that I'll ever forget seeing that old CBS/FOX VHS tape in the video store as a kid. That image, with the candle stick shoved bloodily into the throat of a person lying on a dust-covered floor, is the kind of thing that makes an impression on you. However, now that I have seen the film, I have to admit that I'm rather surprised FOX used that image to sell a PG-rated film. I guess it just shows the difference in what studios and the MPAA deemed "acceptable" for the general public during that time. You see, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is far from a gore-fest, but I have to admit that it's definitely more graphic in parts than I expected. 

The set-up for the story is a simple one, and the official synopsis of the film sums it up nicely:
It sits here, shrouded in mist and mystery, a nesting place for living evil and terror from the dead. It's Hell House. Roddy McDowall heads the cast of this exciting chiller about four psychic investigators and the dark, brooding mansion they call "the Mt. Everest of haunted houses." It's already destroyed one team of researchers. Now this brave quartet ventures in for another try at unraveling its secrets. But before they succeed, they must suffer through madness, murder and everything else that the spirits who dwell here have in store for them. Yet learning the truth just might drive them all insane. An ingeniously devised ghost story, The Legend Of Hell House will thrill and delight veteran horror fans from the first creaking door to the very last slithering shadow.
Given that most films of its type typically use the less-is-more approach, it's kind of refreshing that HELL HOUSE isn't afraid to throw its paranormal happenings directly in your face. Tables and furniture shake and violently bang around rooms, possessed mediums shout in demonic voices, and moments of surprising violence are peppered throughout the movie's runtime.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't some over-the-top jump-scare film. It still has the dark, shadowy feel of the gothic ghost stories from its time, but it stands apart from the pack by melding those quiet, haunting moments with the more visceral material described above. HELL HOUSE is evil, and there's no denying that after watching the movie.

Director John Hough - who went on to direct a lot of the darker kid-friendly horror flicks like WATCHER IN THE WOODS - does a wonderful job bringing the late Richard Matheson's script (based on his own novel) to life. In the hands of another director, the film might have a tendency to go off the rails, but Hough keeps things grounded, balancing the scares with some fantastic visuals. Alan Hume's cinematography manages to juxtapose the bright and vibrant moments with the dark and shadowy horror that lies within the house, and Editor Geoffrey Foot's pacing keeps things moving right along.

The cast is also terrific, and that's hugely important in a film like this, where there are ostensibly only four or five characters involved for most of the running time. Roddy McDowall, of course, is probably the most recognizable, but Pamela Franklin steals the show here as the medium who takes much of the abuse from the demonic entity. Other notable character actors who do a great job here are Clive Reville (who's probably voiced a ton of video game and animated film characters that you know), Peter Bowles, and an uncredited Michael Hough (yes, Alfred from Tim Burton's Batman films).

I'm a sucker for a good ghost story, and while THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE isn't quite one of those, it is certainly a haunting film. By today's standards, it might seem a bit tame, but there's still enough creep-factor here to keep modern audiences uneasy throughout, and there is at least one scene that's downright scary as hell. By the end of the film, you feel a bit abused yourself from the roller coaster ride of the action beats, and that's kind of the point of these haunted house flicks isn't it? In that respect, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE gets high marks, and while it might not be considered a "Horror Classic" by some, it definitely deserves to be seen by more. For this reason, I am glad that Scream Factory has preserved it for a bit longer by releasing it on Blu-ray and making it accessible to legions of fans who (like myself) may have passed it over initially.


Movie Score

4/5

The Blu-ray

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE comes home on Blu-ray in a single disc package with the original key art, and as always, Scream Factory has given us an alternate reversible cover.

Video Quality (4/5)

HELL HOUSE's 1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks very good. Considering the age of the film, this is a solid effort with no noticeable DNR overuse or other digital blemishes. The film's grain structure remains nicely intact, but is not overbearing in the least. Another great job from Scream Factory.

Audio Quality (4/5)

Scream Factory brings THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE to Blu-ray with a nice DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. The levels are nice and even, and while the low end isn't booming, it does a great job of punctuating the film's louder moments. I know I've said it before, but I really love that Scream Factory always does their best to give us the original sound mixes; rather than trying to "upgrade" to some unnecessary 5.1 mix that would likely alter the track for the worse.

Extra Features (3/5)

Truthfully, there aren't copious amounts of extras on THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. In fact, what we get here isn't even as good as Scream's LEVIATHAN disc from last week. However, it's hard to fault the company for it, given that the film is 40 years old at this point.
  • (New) Audio Commentary With Actress Pamela Franklin 
  • (New) Interview With Director John Hough 
  • Theatrical Trailer

Final Thoughts


I had never seen THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, before watching this new Blu-ray. While it's not quite as frightening as I'm sure it was to audiences in 1973, it is still an effective movie with a lot of great gothic atmosphere and some nice creeping dread. Scream Factory's new Blu-ray looks and sounds great, and while there are only a couple of extras included, what is there is worth digging into. Personally, I'm very happy that Scream Factory isn't only digging in to titles like THE HOWLING and the HALLOWEEN series. It's these older films that many horror fans (like me) may have missed that get me excited, and I hope they keep them coming in the months and years ahead.

Recommended!

Blu-ray Score

4/5




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