Cult Movie: The Legend Of Hell House a masterclass in mood over mayhem

Pamela Franklin in The Legend Of Hell House
Ralph McLean

AS ANY lover of traditional haunted house movies will tell you, the secret to a good one is all about the atmosphere it creates in your mind rather than the chaos it creates on the screen.

The Haunting, director Robert Wise's 1963 chill fest, is always held up as the greatest example of that old “less is more” maxim and rightly so. It's a dread-soaked masterclass in mood over mayhem and it rightly set the benchmark for all haunted house offerings that have followed in its creaky footsteps since.

The Legend Of Hell House from 1973 might not quite match up to it for sheer menace or jump-out-of-your-seat moments of genuine terror but it's not far behind in the scare stakes.

Directed by John Hough and written by Twilight Zone veteran and I Am Legend scribe Richard Matheson, it's a superbly scary and tense joyride into the supernatural.

Based in a tumble down mansion called Hell House, “the Mount Everest of haunted houses” as one character memorably calls it at one point, it's the slow-burning tale of four people who gather there to either prove the existence of ghosts or debunk the whole idea as utter claptrap.

There's the non-believing stern scientist Dr Barrett (Clive Revell), his repressed wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), a wide-eyed spiritualist called Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and a psychic medium by the name of Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell).

The house has lain empty for 20 years but it's bloody past under the ownership of devil worshiper and all round bad egg Emeric Belasco has made it a red rag for all kinds of evil spiritual manifestations that swiftly come to the fore when the four house guests gather in the run-up to Christmas.

Predictably all four guests fall foul of the weird, unearthly vibe that oozes around the building but Hough handles the rising tension with real skill, only letting the blood and guts stuff out to sate the horror fans in occasional short bursts.

He would go on to direct such cult curios as Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Escape To Witch Mountain but this is his finest hour and a half by far.

There's also a spooked-out electronic score from former BBC Radiophonic workshop pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson to enjoy. If enjoy is the right word for such a screeching sonic assault.

All the cast are excellent as the hysteria rises and sexual shackles are thrown off in the night. Roddy McDowell, forever a cult hero for his time in Planet Of The Apes and Fright Night, wins the award for full-blown mania, however, as everything unravels in the frankly outrageous finale.

If anything, the final five minutes do their best to deflate the previous good tension-building work that had gone before but as a quality example of ghost storytelling on the big screen, The Legend Of Hell House remains a genuinely creepy and undeniably uneasy viewing experience,

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