Despite the fact that it was released over 40 years ago, John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House still remains one of the greatest and most effective haunted house films ever committed to celluloid. Based on Richard Matheson's screen adaptation of his own novel, Hough’s production offers very little in the way of explicit violence and gore. Instead, the British filmmaker smartly relies on minor in-camera special effects, a pulsating sense of atmosphere and dread, as well as a stellar cast of players to bring his terrifying vision to life, making The Legend of Hell House a timeless horror classic that’s still terrifying to watch.
In The Legend of Hell House, a team of parapsychologists and scientific investigators descend upon Hell House (the “Mount Everest of Haunted Houses”) to determine whether or not there is life after death and if the now abandoned home serves as the playground for evil spirits who roam its often vacant hallways in search of new victims. Leading the study is a physicist named Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) who is joined by his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), a mental medium named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin)and Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), another psychic and the only person to have ever stepped foot inside Hell House and lived to tell the tale. Once the team arrives and settles into their isolated new digs, the evil contained within the walls of the haunted abode begin to prey on the group’s vulnerabilities, breaking them all down both physically and mentally and causing distrust and confusion amongst them.
A powerful and almost perversely hypnotic descent into terror and madness, Hough uses his bare-bones approach to great advantage. Instead of throwing cheap scares at us, Hough focuses his efforts on creating a palpable tension between his characters through his exploration (and exploitation) of the human id as the film’s supernatural foe seems more intent on causing debauchery amongst the investigators than he does on committing actual murders. Hough also lets Matheson’s subversive material in The Legend of Hell House cleverly play with audiences’ imaginations, preying on their worst fears, and ultimately making for a truly unforgettable cinematic experience overall.
The Scream Factory Blu-ray presentation for The Legend of Hell House is breathtaking. Last time I watched this movie, it was on TV one afternoon and the HD transfer of the film was almost startlingly vibrant, giving the timeless haunted house tale a long overdue make-over with great results. The disc for The Legend of Hell House also contains several fantastic special features including an engaging and thorough interview with Hough who discusses his approach to Matheson’s material and some of the experiences he had while filming the project in the UK in 1972. Pamela Franklin is also featured on a lovely audio commentary for The Legend of Hell House as well which gives fans a bit more insight into what the actors experienced while working on the set and collaborating with Hough. Franklin, who endured most of the special effects work of the film, gives us some insight into how those scenes in The Legend of Hell House were achieved, especially in a time where relying on CGI was impossible. For fans who enjoy immersing themselves in the behind-the-scenes happenings on classic horror movies, there’s some really good stuff waiting for you on the Legend of Hell House Blu and I’d highly recommend taking some time to check out these special features in particular.
Truth be told, I find very few supernaturally-themed horror movies all that enjoyable (or even scary) these days, but The Legend of Hell House really crept up under my skin and stuck with me for days after revisiting it recently on Blu-ray, which says a lot about how sometimes less really is more. A wonderfully made horror classic that feels like it could have been plucked right out of the Hammer Films catalog, The Legend of Hell House is an absolutely worthy addition to any genre fan’s Blu-ray collection and is easily more enjoyable than any supernatural films we’ve seen on the big screen as of late.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5