Friday, July 1, 2011

Don't Go In The House

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)

THE INNOCENTS child star Pamela Franklin plays spiritualist Florence Tanner. The Yokohama-born actress was busy with the supernatural in the early 1970s - appearing in NECROMANCY and the made-for-TV SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS - before retiring from acting in 1981.

PHYSICIST Dr Barrett (Clive Revill) is offered £100,000 by elderly Mr Deutsch (Roland Culver) to establish "the facts" about survival after death. The only suitable location for such an undertaking is the foreboding Belasco House, dubbed the "Mount Everest of haunted houses." Barrett is given a week to deliver his conclusions, organising the delivery of his newly perfected (and extremely bulky) electro-magnetic radiation machine, and works alongside mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), a physical medium and the only survivor of a previous investigation. The owner of the property was "Roaring Giant" Emeric Belasco, a six-foot-five perverted millionaire who disappeared soon after a massacre at the house. Florence claims to receive visits from Belasco's abused son Daniel, and when Barrett expresses scepticism he is attacked by - in quick succession - a glass, a flying meat rack and a falling chandelier, then a fire starts suddenly. Meanwhile, Barrett's wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) - accompanying her husband during his stay - is turning into a nymphomaniac, and Florence is being molested by the disturbed spirit of Daniel and later, mauled by a black cat.

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE beat THE EXORCIST into theatres by six months, and both deal with demonic possession in tandem with sexual language. However, the British entry plays like a children's horror movie, with one of the most laughable endings in genre history: basically, Emeric Belasco was no giant. Scripted by Richard Matheson from his novel Hell House (1971), the writer was apparently "sick with disappointment" after seeing the film, a notion shared by the majority of its audience over the years. At least half of its performers bring something to the table: Franklin takes the acting honours despite the ludicrous situations her character is thrust into, and McDowall entertainingly sleep-walks through his role as the distant Fischer. In comparison, Revill makes for a staid and stuffy scientist - one can only dream of Peter Cushing in the role - and Hunnicutt is miscast as the faithful yet sexually-frustrated wife, who at least can experience some kind of carnal pleasures while in the grip of the Belasco environment.

The cover to Saint Martin's reprinting of Hell House. More graphic and sexually violent than the screen adaptation, the novel also depicts the Belasco property as a luxurious art deco-style palace - complete with swimming-pool and ballroom - rather than the cobwebbed Gothic mansion of the film.

Crowleyesque Emeric apparently shut himself and his acolytes within the mansion ("Look at the windows...he had them bricked up so no one could see in...or out"), the house a haven for murder and debauchery ("Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism... not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.") In one unintentionally hilarious scene, sexually-souped Ann approaches Fischer with a sweaty verbal onslaught after rubbing the breasts of a statue ("Together, naked, drunk, clutching, sweating, biting...") Perhaps it was Matheson's intention to subscribe to Crowley's beliefs, and portray a set of individuals with differing viewpoints to illustrate that the only unifying human condition is sensual and sado-erotic pleasure, and to test what is physically and spiritually possible. Barrett is a rationalist who refuses to believe that Tanner and Fischer are anything more than conduits for electrical forces, the two mediums differ over the exact nature of the haunting, and Ann yearns for awakening. 

The film has a misplaced feeling through its not always convincing time-frame captions, and the week of the investigations takes place in the lead up to Christmas, without any mention of the holiday season. This otherworldly quality is enhanced by BBC Radiophonic Workshop veterans Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson’s electronic soundtrack, which exists more as a series of drum-driven oscillations than a formed score, and its distinctive visual style was recently plundered by Edgar Wright for his fake trailer DON'T! in GRINDHOUSE (2007). The special effects though are hardly special, resulting in a ectoplasm scene that has to hide behind some scientific hyperbole (“Premature retraction of ectoplasm causes systemic shock”) and one gets the impression that Matheson and director John Hough think they are making some important statements, though this is hard to see behind its shock tactics and silly sex scenes. This serious stance is underpinned by the opening written assurance from Tom Corbett - a "clairvoyant and psychic consultant to European Royalty" who also acted as technical advisor - to the effect that the story, though fictitious, is "not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true."