When I think of Christmas, the first place I would want to spend the week leading up to - as well as Christmas Eve - is a house where several people have either died or gone mad in over the years. Kind of sounds like many holiday family gatherings WITHOUT the haunted house.
"Let's draw straws to see who gets stuck with hanging up the outdoor Christmas lights"
The Legend of Hell House takes place during that week, but you wouldn't guess it's the Christmas season by the movie if it weren't for the on-screen titles announcing the date and time - it feels more like Halloween.
Following the typical haunted house storyline of placing a group of people - a physicist and his wife (Clive Revill and Gayle Hunnicutt), a young female medium (Pamela Franklin) and a medium who is also a previous (and lone) survivor of a past doomed expedition into the place (Roddy McDowall) - who set up shop in a alleged haunted house to solve its' mystery. Hired by an eccentric millionaire who is always shot in an uncomfortable, extreme close-up, they have a week to get in, figure out what is going on then get out in time to open their presents and drink Eggnog. He wants to prove the theory of existence after death - kind of difficult to do unless someone dies. This house has had plenty of death in it and stands as the only place where this theory has not yet been refuted.
That ominous angle and black cat don't scream STAY AWAY at all.
Right away you know the house is bad as the sky is permanently overcast (which would be common for late December anyway), it's shot at an imposing angle where it looms in the frame ominously, and a random black cat just likes to chill on the gate out front. Any self respecting medium about to enter an alleged haunted house would see the cat and get out of there as fast as they can - then again, they are getting $100,000 each for the week and let's face it, money talks volumes.
Let's just pretend we didn't hear that...
Going in, I was expecting a variation of the 1963 Robert Wise film The Haunting which is truly terrifying (the same cannot be said of the awful 1999 remake). However what I was greeted with was a different type of haunted house picture. This movie relies more on the performances of its cast rather than overdoing it with creepy sounds, slamming doors and physical effects. Sure all those elements are present, and a scene at a dinner table where the physicist's quick reflexes come in very handy is unrelenting and exceptional. Overall though it is the cast that really carries this picture, and helps to build the tension along with the creepy, minimalist score (the opening titles track is phenomenal) and the house decor which is surprisingly sparse. No demonic dolls or pictures of spooky-looking past residents hanging about, yet the decor has the usual shades of Gothic red with ominous statues placed about to remind you that this place is old and intimidating. There is also a crazy looking chapel/shrine that instantly screams EVIL. A lot happens in this room, but I won't go into any details because that would ruin all the fun.
The closer I get to your face, the more serious I am
The group all have their suspicions as to what is going on in the house, but it is the scientific-thinking physicist who thinks it's just a mass of energy that is driving everyone - especially the two mediums - insane. His wife sleepwalks, acts drunk and hits on Roddy and the female medium believes she is communing with the deceased son of the home's once owner - and suspected source of all the evil - Belasco. She has her reasons though as she's the one that sees all the random door slamming, sheets flying off her bed, hears voices and she becomes possessed speaking in demonic-like male voice from time-to-time. Roddy though, having been the only person ever to survive staying in the house, is the only one truly on edge because he knows that whatever is possessing the place, science and the ghost of a dead son are not the root of the problem.
"I THINK I LEFT THE STOVE ON IN MY APARTMENT!"
I'd like to think that Roddy's character here is the precursor to his Peter Vincent, Vampire Slayer role in the 1985 horror picture Fright Night and it is his stay in this house that turns him into that character. That's just the film nerd in me doing what it always does though, tying movies together when they don't match up at all.
How about you, me and this statue go upstairs...
This is another title in the long line of fantastic Blu-ray Disc releases from Shout! Factory's horror label Scream Factory, and the HD presentation is outstanding. What I think made it for me though is there are still the odd faint pops and hisses on the soundtrack which gives it that old movie feel and adds to the ambiance - but not too old since it was released in the 1970s.
I can't find the power switch...
It's a horror picture definitely worth checking out, and it will make you think twice before you plan your next Christmas vacation investigating a haunted house.