‘For the sake of your sanity, pray it isn’t true!’
The Legend of Hell House is a 1973 British supernatural horror feature film directed by John Hough (Twins of Evil; Incubus; American Gothic) from a screenplay by author Richard Matheson (The Devil Rides Out; I Am Legend; The Incredible Shrinking Man), based on his own novel Hell House.
The Legend of Hell House is one of only two productions of James H. Nicholson after his departure from American International Pictures (AIP) – a company he had run, along with Samuel Z. Arkoff, since 1954. Matheson’s screenplay drastically reduced some of the more extreme elements of the novel. In the original novel, the house was located in Maine, in the United States, and the investigative team is composed of Americans.
The moody, largely electronic soundtrack score was composed by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of Electrophon Ltd, with uncredited additions by Dudley Simpson.
A group of psychic investigators steel their nerves and make ready to visit Hell House, an old haunted mansion which has already seen off one team of researchers. Entering its foreboding walls, they determine to reveal the house’s secrets – but they will have to broach the very limits of madness before they do so…
“The Legend of Hill House is all the better then for its incongruity; it doesn’t quite sit with the more staid strains of Hammer nor the exploitation boom about to blossom (and if The Exorcist isn’t exploitation, it sure as hell was marketed as such). Instead, it simply stands as one of the best haunted house films of its era, unencumbered by trends passing and coming.” Scott Drebit, Daily Dead
“With great atmosphere and a cast of only four principal players, this is a fine example of well-executed horror done with the bare essentials. The cast is excellent, and although McDowall tends to be hammy at times, it’s still a worthy credit to his fantasy résumé.” George R. Reis, DVD Drive-In
“The Legend of Hell House is often thought of as a good, not great film, and that may ultimately, be because it has the courage of its convictions. Stands by its thesis, and doesn’t succumb to the audience desire to be blown away. How rare, and how wonderful.” John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1970s
” …in spite of some atmospheric sequences, the film doesn’t overcome the script’s failure to establish the necessary conflict between science and occultism, relying instead on a mechanical succession of spectacularly staged shocks. As a result, the impact of the climactic revelations about the mad millionaire’s perversions are an anticlimax because they are inadequately prepared.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“This acclaimed British production is a terrific, albeit imperfect, haunted house film. Chief among the appeals is the threatening atmosphere, which rises and thickens within minutes of the opening. Heavy use of close-ups, with few establishing shots, creates a feel of claustrophobia … To me, only The Haunting is superior.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
“This unusually atmospheric film (in the league of The Haunting) is tense throughout under John Hough’s direction, with several twists of plot. It is not the harrowing experience of Matheson’s superb book, but it comes as close as a movie can.” John Stanley, Creature Features
“The subject of ghosts is approached in a reasonable, rational way, and it serves to both fascinate and lower our guard as viewers — things are less frightening when we think we understand them. It’s here, though, where the film and director John Hough (Twins of Evil) unleash their greatest trick yet by terrifying and educating us anew.” Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects
“Trivialising the theme, saddled with some terrible dialogue, needlessly tricked out with a lot of countdown-style dates, it flounders into innocuous routine. Pamela Franklin, however, gives a convincing as the ‘mental medium’.” David Pirie, The Time Out Film Guide
“It’s not the originality that makes it here, as we’ve seen these tactics in countless other movies. It’s the deadly serious conviction with which the actors and director approach their task that makes these scenes believable and, therefore, suitably frightening. The careful pacing allows us the luxury of savoring each small and well-placed frightening moment, leisurely preparing us for the horrors to come.” Sofa Gothic
“The anticlimax is helped by the clever casting of Michael Gough, whose screen image from Horrors of the Black Museum to The Corpse corresponds exactly with what we are told of Belasco. The film is entertaining, sometimes conceptually daring, but its cool, scientific detective story mitigates against irrational fear.” Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies
“This unnerving combination of old-fashioned haunted house tricks with modern scientific jargon and (comparatively mild) sex and violence makes for a memorable, atmospheric experience. The set-up will be nothing new to viewers of The Haunting, but Matheson’s story weaves in some unusual directions and certainly layers on the chills, culminating in a memorably odd finale.” Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital
“Hough does a creditable job in maintaining viewer attention for the duration of the running-time, despite the script throwing in several moments of ridiculousness.” John Hamilton, X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film: 1971 – 1983
“Once the group’s inside the house – a marvellously well-realized place – director Hough creates a dark, threatening atmopshere. By standards of the time set by The Exorcist, the action is comparatively inoffensive, but this is top-drawer, well-acted stuff. The electronic score by Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire adds a lot.” Mike Mayo, The Horror Show Guide
“Crisply directed by John Hough, although with a propensity to overuse his camera and lenses, this is still the old haunted house horror movie with a fine gloss and excellent special effects. It’s all very eerie in the tradition and only labours when it begins to explain the psychic phenomena in layman’s terms. Until then it’s quite chilling with some very creditable tense moments.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook
“One of the most absorbing, goose-fleshing and mind-pleasing ghost breaker yarns on film.” Judith Crist, 1977
“While director John Hough does a fine job with the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night aspects of the material, he fails to breathe any life into Richard Matheson’s woefully underdeveloped screenplay.” TV Guide
” …the film remains at heart thoroughly plodding and unimaginative. Hell House itself is almost startingly clichéd and the performances never convince, making the result stilted and entirely unpersuasive. To be fair to the filmmakers though, Matheson’s script itself was not up to his usual high standard.” David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror
“There are certainly chilling moments but the expected revelation is hardly the stuff of which nightmares are made.” John Elliott, Elliott’s Guide to Films on Video
Buy novel: Amazon.co.uk
Buy DVD: Amazon.co.uk
Audio download: Amazon.co.uk
Cast and characters:
- Pamela Franklin … Florence Tanner – The Food of the Gods; Necromancy; The Innocents
- Roddy McDowall… Benjamin Franklin Fischer – Fright Night; The Ballad of Tam Lin; It!
- Clive Revill … Doctor Lionel Barrett – Z Dead End; Godzilla: The Series TV series; Dracula: Dead and Loving It; C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud; The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries TV Series; The Headless Ghost
- Gayle Hunnicutt … Mrs Ann Barrett – Eye of the Cat
- Roland Culver … Mr (Rudolph) Deutsch
- Peter Bowles … Hanley
- Michael Gough … Emeric Belasco [uncredited]
Production began on 23 October 1972. The external shots of the house were filmed at Gothic revival mansion Wykehurst Place, Bolney, West Sussex (also location for Demons of the Mind; Son of Dracula; Holocaust 2000). Mr Deutsch’s mansion in the opening sequence is Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. The interior shot of the long room is the palace’s library.
“In The Legend of Hell House, the house is the monster. It’s a powerful film and has no big star in the cast (the star was the house). It’s the Mount Everest of British haunted house films, and they could not have chosen a better location. You really do believe it’s an evil house.” Simon Flynn, British Horror Film Locations
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