That Old Haunted House: The Legend of Hell House (1973)
by Steve Habrat
If Robert Wise’s The Haunting is too tame for you, you’re in luck because there just happens to be a haunted house film that has plenty of gore and ghostly sex to please the edgier horror fan. That film happens to be John Hough’s 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, a film that is quite similar to The Haunting in the plot department but separates itself through the use of color and racy subject matter. While I personally do not find the film as creepy as Wise’s masterpiece, The Legend of Hell House has a suspenseful first act, one with slowly manifesting ectoplasm, supernatural intercourse, and tumbling chandeliers (those are the worst) but then collapses in its second act with corpses in hidden rooms and a seriously scrappy black cat (those are pretty bad too). Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, the man who brought us the classic vampire tale I Am Legend, The Legend of Hell House is never as understated and as slow building as The Haunting and it comes up short because of it. It can’t wait to show off a few special effects and throw a few of the snippy actors and actresses through the air. At least the film packs a hell of a séance sequence doused in vibrant red lighting and stunning exterior shots that conceal the house behind rolling walls of fog. It’s scenes like this that inject quite a bit of atmosphere and allow the film to receive higher marks.
The Legend of Hell House introduces us to physicist Lionel Barrett (Played by Clive Revill), who is sent to the legendary Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” to research the paranormal activity that is said to go on in the house. The Belasco House was originally owned by Emeric Belasco (Played by Michael Gough), a sadistic millionaire giant who enjoyed toying with the occult and may have even murdered people within the walls of the home. It is said that Emeric mysteriously disappeared after a brutal massacre at the lavish compound and was never heard from again. Barrett sets out for the home with his wife, Ann (Played by Gayle Hunnicutt), medium Florence Tanner (Played by Pamela Franklin), and Ben Fischer (Played by Roddy McDowall), another jumpy medium who has investigated the Belasco House before with another paranormal research team and was the only survivor of the previous investigation. As they explore the house, Lionel reveals to the team that he has created a machine that is able to rid the house of any nasty paranormal activity. Things become complicated when Florence becomes convinced that Emeric Belasco is not the one haunting the house but is actually his son, Daniel. As the group attempts to communicate with Daniel, madness begins to plague the group, possession is a daily occurrence, and repulsive horrors turn up behind doors that have been sealed many years.
Embracing more the macabre freedom that was surging through the veins of the horror film, The Legend of Hell House doesn’t settle on just telling us about the morbid back-story of the Belasco House. It dares to show us a little bit of the sleaze that took place and even enjoys some bloodletting from time to time. We hear about vampirism, orgies, alcoholism, mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism, just to name a few. Sounds like a kicking party, right? This is a film with plenty of sexuality boiling to the surface as characters plead with other characters for sex while even the shadowy spirits are getting busy. Most of it is unintentionally hilarious, especially when one character offers herself up sexually to a ghost (I dare you to watch that scene with a straight face). Despite some of the silliness, the film never seems to loose its grip on the gothic mood that creeps about it. The outside of the house is downright terrifying and certainly a home I would never dream of going in. The cherry on top is the black cat that waits in the fog outside, the ultimate Halloween touch. The interior of the home is crammed with shadows and hidden rooms that spit out decaying corpses and discolored skeletons. It’s all earth tones, which give the whole place a rotten feel, appropriate for what took place inside.
The Legend of Hell House does feature some pretty good performances, especially from Roddy McDowall as the spooked medium who refuses to help out. Only there for the large some of cash he was promised, McDowall’s Fischer is an irritating and prickly geek with oversized glasses who has to man up in the final moments of the film. I would never expect his character to suddenly become as brave as he does but that is part of the fun of his character. Revill plays Lionel much like every other head of a paranormal research team. He is deadly serious and always just a tad bit dry as he drones on about scientific theories. His wife Ann, however, suffers from a severe case of ennui and sexual repression, something the spirits of the Belasco House prey upon instantly. Wait for the scene where she tries to seduce Fischer. Rounding out the main players is Franklin as Florence, who seems vaguely similar to The Haunting’s Eleanor but also drastically different. She appears to be connected to the house and also a bit reluctant to leave. She is really put through the ringer as a nasty demonic kitty claws at her bare skin and a ghostly presence wishes to get busy with her. Franklin does get the film’s creepiest moment, a séance sequence that is lit entirely by harsh red lights. And keep a look out for Michael Gough as a very still Emeric Belasco.
While there are plenty of flashy moments strewn about The Legend of Hell House, it does take a page out of The Haunting’s playbook and does spend a good chunk of time allowing its character to really develop. They argue and fight much like they did in The Haunting but they are never allowed the depth that Wise’s characters were. There is no question that Edgar Wright’s fake trailer Don’t, which appeared in 2007’s Grindhouse, was inspired by the film. All it will take is a quick glimpse of the outside of the Belasco House and you will see what I am talking about. The second half of The Legend of Hell House is what really derails the film. The last act twist is sort of silly and doesn’t shock us nearly as much as it wants to. Despite how cheesy it may get, you can’t take your eyes of McDowall and his suddenly tough medium who was such a pain in the ass before. Overall, The Legend of Hell House is a fun little erotic spin on The Haunting and visually it is something to behold. The heavier use of special effects have caused the film to age poorly but as a lesser-known horror film of the 1970s, it actually manages to be a fun little ghost party. There is no doubt that you can do better but for those on the search for something they haven’t seen before on Halloween night, The Legend of Hell House may be just what the goth doctor ordered.
The Legend of Hell House is available on DVD.
The Shining (1980)
by Steve Habrat
You never forget seeing The Shining for the first time. You never shake the images of a pair of young girls coaxing Danny to “come play” with them. Or how about Jack crashing a ghost party and plotting with a dead waiter on how to dispose of his shining son? One of my favorites is the looping shot of a sea of blood pouring out of an elevator door that slowly opens. The walls and halls will run red with blood, murder, insanity, and terror. And “Heeeerrrreeees JOHNNY”? In many ways, The Shining is the definitive haunted house film, one that Stephen King criticized for not following his famed story line for line. Under the obsessive and perfectionist direction of one of the greatest directors to ever make films, Stanley Kubrick constructs and delivers a labyrinth of bone-rattling images and a slow burn narrative that will stay with you even if it does not follow the horror author’s epic tale. It will freeze your blood.
The greatness of The Shining is often overshadowed by the iconic performance from Jack Nicholson, who checks in to the Overlook Hotel as Jack Torrence, who on the surface appears to be a content family man, a teacher and writer who is exhaustively searching for inspiration on a new project. He applies to be the caretaker for the said hotel, tickled by the idea of complete seclusion. Churning below the surface is a raging alcoholic who has hurt his young song Danny (Played by Danny Lloyd) in the past after a night of heavy drinking. Jack’s loyal, cooing wife Wendy (Played by Shelley Duvall) also accompanies Jack to the hotel, rendered breathless by the natural beauty of the structure, which is also said to be built on an Indian burial ground. In the job interview, Jack is informed that there have been ghostly encounters in the lush hotel and a few years previous, another caretaker seemed to snap from cabin fever and went on a killing rampage, chopping up his two young daughters and his wife, then proceeding to stick a shotgun in his mouth and blow his own head off. Jack waves off the story, but soon after arriving, Danny has a telepathic conversation with the head chef of the Overlook, Dick Hallorann (Played by Scatman Crothers). Dick explains to Danny the significance of this gift, called “shining” and explains to him that he is also sensitive to the paranormal. As the family stays the harsh winter in the hotel, Jack begins to slowly loose his grip on reality and he begins to embrace the anger that lurks inside of him. The ghostly apparitions also start making themselves known, terrorizing Danny at every turn. As the winter storm howls outside, Wendy begins devising a plan to get Danny and herself to safety, away from dangerous Jack who seems to want to join insidious ghosts who reside at the Overlook.
When watching a film by Kubrick, it’s easy to recognize that Kubrick himself is in complete control of what we are seeing. Every shot has been labored over and has been methodically illustrated, seeing only what we are meant to see, and it signifies something, sometimes that thing is only known by Kubrick himself. Sometimes the shot seems to be a psychological photograph; sometimes it’s dabbling with the surreal. Whatever the shot is, it is always orderly. There never seems to be input from any other individual. It’s strictly Kubrick’s mind at play. The surreal order is creepy in itself, suggesting normalcy, but it’s the ghostly visions that pack the icy punch. They are the grotesque, unseen side to order. Take the scene in room 237, where a nude woman emerges from the bathtub and embraces Jack. The bathroom posses a clean, grounded look, only strange because of it’s uncanny color scheme. She waltzes toward him and kisses the deranged Jack. When he glances at the mirror, he sees the beautiful woman is actually a rotting corpse of an old woman cackling at Jack’s horror. Kubrick suggests here and throughout The Shining that normalcy is always mirrored by unpredictable horror. There are two sides to everything. What we perceive as common and what stares back unseen.
What we are really here for is the terror, and yes, we could deconstruct Kubrick’s nightmare all day, debating what everything means. The film will cause a few sleepless nights the way Kubrick springs terrifying visions on the viewer. Sometimes, he only shows us a terrified face, eyes bulging, rolling back in the head, accompanied by blasting rattles and shrieking musical blasts. It’s jump scares without being cheap. We don’t expect it, but Kubrick isn’t interested in simply startling us. While watching a documentary on the making of the recent horror film Insidious, James Wan discusses his use of jump scares in his film, arguing that while the film is heavily reliant on this technique to frighten, the way he applies it is always followed through. There is no gotcha moment or hollow spook. A ghostly visit, a strange specter, or any other apparition that creeps us out always accompanies the blast of music. There is never the fake scare where someone’s boyfriend jumps from behind a corner, doorway, etc. Part of me thinks he lifted this technique from Kubrick, who always blindsides us with an unnerving image. Two little girls block Danny from riding his big wheel through the twisting halls of the Overlook. There is a sudden flash of the girls dead in the same hallway with blood splattered all over the walls. You can’t argue that Kubrick surprised and then followed through.
The Shining is also bloodcurdling because of Nicholson’s ranting, flailing performance. He’s all unhinged grins and bogus reassurance that he doesn’t want to hurt Wendy; he just wants to bash her brains in! Talk about making every hair on your body stand at attention. He lumbers through the hallways, dragging an axe and hacking at doors to locate and chop up Wendy. Danny, in a trance-like state wields a knife and writes REDRUM on doorways. The fright comes from every angle as Wendy desperately attempts to hold everything together. Pretend everything is normal! But how can you when your son croaks, “REDRUM” and shows you a glimmering blade? The film climaxes in an iced over chase through a fogged hedge maze that, once again, mirrors the characters journey through the Overlook structure. It’s a maze of panic, madness, and bereavement.
The Shining makes exquisite use of its secluded location, promising no way out for the characters that inhabit it. The twist ending also promises to give the viewer the willies while turning the wheels of the brain. It’s an obsessive nightmare that is perfect to watch on Halloween. It has it all: deranged killers, ghosts, ghouls, corpses, and more. It’s Kubrick’s funhouse after all, and boy can he construct a house of horrors. He proved that he could do every genre and do it professionally and with confident expertise. A classic of the genre, massively influential, and a must-see for Nicholson’s performance, The Shining is a true, visionary work of art. It stands as a psychological puzzle that may never be solved and that is rewarding on multiple viewings. It reveals more and more each time you sit through it. That is filmmaking at its finest. Ranking as one of the scariest movies I have ever seen, The Shining is as warped and chic as horror gets. Grade: A+
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The Shining (198o)
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