Sunday, February 10, 2013

A-haunting we will go!

I recently watched two classic haunted house movies: The Haunting (1963) and The Legend of Hell House (1973). Both were produced in the United Kingdom, and featured one central Gothic location (the haunted house, of course!) with just four main cast members. What's really surprising is how well both films still stand up today, especially considering these pre-CGI stories leave much of the horror up to the audience's imagination.

In The Haunting, anthropologist and paranormal researcher Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson) is thrilled after being granted permission to temporarily lease Hill House, an eerie, stately mansion with a horrific past--which involved scandal, murder, insanity, and suicide. Hill House was "born bad," built by Hugh Crane in the late 1800s, and has been empty for decades.

Markway hopes to discover proof of the supernatural, and enlists the help of two women to act as objective participants, both of whom previously had first-hand experience with the abnormal. Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) is still recovering from the recent death of her mother, and longs to find somewhere where she truly belongs; Theodora (Claire Bloom) is a free-spirit with a heightened ability in extrasensory perception (ESP). Along for the ride is Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), a rich playboy who hopes to inherit the house from his aunt--and then sell it, along with all the contents.

As the story progresses, much of it is told from the point of view of Eleanor, and we often hear her thoughts as she faces the horrors within; it's an odd storytelling technique to use in this type of film, but it adds insight into her character as she falls under the influence of Hill House. The film has a smart script, peppered with both humour and horror, and is very well shot. The terrors are never seen on screen, but through the effective use of sound, silence, and camera shots, they're definitely felt by the audience. The Haunting was released in 1963 and directed by Robert Wise, with a screenplay by Nelson Gidding (based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson). *** out of ****

Trivia: it was rumoured that Richard Johnson was once considered to play James Bond in Dr. No, a film that also featured actress Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny--who here plays Markway's wife, Grace.

In The Legend of Hell House, parapsychologist Dr Barrett (Clive Revill) assembles a team of researchers to spend one week at the infamous Belasco House, tasked with proving the existence of life after death. This notorious "hell house" was sealed up over twenty years ago, after previous investigations led to the death of eight people. Along for the journey is Barrett's wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), as well as mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and physical medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall)--who was the only survivor from the previous research team. According to Fischer, "The house tried to kill me. It almost succeeded."

As the group arrives, Ms. Tanner immediately senses that the house "knows they're here"--and believes that it retains multiple surviving personalities. The original owner, Emeric Belasco (Michael Gough), built the house in 1919; he was a frightening, giant of a man, with "the face of a demon that had taken on some human aspect." He was purportedly a drug-addicted alcoholic, and was involved in mutilation, murder, and vampirism--as well as a gamut of deviant sexual practices. In 1929, twenty-seven guests and family members were found murdered in the house, but of Belasco himself, there was no trace--and he's never been seen since.

This story expands on a similar premise found in The Haunting, but adds more scares, blood and sexuality. Many of the scenes include close-up shots of the actors, which some find jarring--although I believe this adds to the claustrophobic nature of the movie. Although the ending is quite effective, it may seem a little silly to modern audiences, and perhaps Roddy McDowall should not have been allowed to chew the scenery quite so much--but it does showcase his acting chops, which were always top-notch. The Legend of Hell House was released in 1973 and directed by John Hough, with a screenplay by Richard Matheson (based on his 1971 novel Hell House). *** out of ****


Post a Comment