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20th Century Fox presents
Ann: "What did Belasco do to make this house so evil?"
DVD ReviewWe've all had those nights where we think we've heard or seen something that wasn't there. Perhaps a mysterious sound awakens us from sleep and it's only the wind or the cat. It could, however, be something a bit more sinister, and The Legend Of Hell House takes the concept of "things that go bump in the night" to violent, horrific extremes. Hell House has long been one of my all-time favorite horror films, and I try to watch it every Halloween, if possible, because it's such an appropriate flick and it still manages to creep me out, even after multiple viewings.
Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), an esteemed scientist, is offered the chance, for one week, to investigate one of the most infamous haunted houses in the world. Though Barrett is a skeptic, he accepts, as the offer to actually be inside of the infamous Hell House is too much to refuse. He and his wife are assigned two mediums as assistants: Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), the latter of which was the only survivor of a previous expedition to the house. There is a rather sordid history of the home, as it once belonged to a cruel man named Emeric Belasco, who's personal life was filled with twisted madness. Inside his mansion, many people suffered and died, but Belasco himself was never located, though it is believed his spirit roams the hallways. Hell House resisted many attempts at paranormal study and wound up killing or crippling those that sought to unravel it's supernatural mysteries. But, Lionel thinks this time will be different, mainly because he considers himself armed with the light of rationality and disbelief.
From the moment these investigators step into the doorway of Hell House, however, things are not the calm, scientific exploration Lionel has hoped for. Instead, the team is assaulted by mystic forces and angry spirits. Some become briefly possessed, others tormented by the sadistic past of the manor. Hell House and Emeric Belasco lay down a gauntlet of challenge, and surprisingly, the paranormalists pick it up. The Legend of Hell House is an intense, fiercely hateful type of ghost story, the kind that is very hard to get right without making it come across like a slasher film sans the slasher. This isn't just mischievous, lost spirits as we might find in, say, The Haunting (the 1963 film, NOT the 1999 version), these are vicious ghosts that want to hurt and even kill the people who have violated their domain. As such, writer Richard Matheson (working from his own novel) and director John Hough manage to perfectly balance creepy atmospherics with instant bursts of violence and terror. Relying on very few special effects, the frights are accomplished mainly through stylish direction and the unnerving sound work, which mainly consists of strange electro/ambient noises and half-audible voices.
Of course, the solid cast works well. One of my favorite aspects is how Roddy McDowall, obviously one of the "big names" in the film, is such a muted and boring character for half the film, but in a clever twist, he suddenly becomes the core focus of the second half, bearing most of the emotional load. The mental breakdown and weakening of personalities is expertly conveyed, which helps a lot in creating credibility. The film's pace is amazingly fast, much more so than typical tales of hauntings, which leads to a fairly meaty plot to keep things going. Unlike some ghost stories, this one really has a solid conclusion and an earnest mystery to keep viewers guessing, almost like a murder novel. Another thing I particularly like is that there is literally no humor in the film. While some characters take on a light attitude at some points, out of nervousness, the film never intentionally tries to break the mood. It's relentlessly dark and brooding, which is very smart since it allows viewers the feeling of being trapped, just like the characters. Don't worry, though; you can always shut off the TV if you need to.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Unfortunately, the image is not anamorphically enhanced, which strikes me as odd given Fox's typical commitment to 16:9 enhancement, even on movies with no mainstream potential. That aside, Hell House is a very nice transfer with, thankfully, only minor problems. Some sections are rather damaged and 'splotchy,' for lack of a better term, but this seems limited to the opening portions, and only select moments. The rest of the film, though, is very clean, clear, and holds much detail. Black level is properly balanced, which helps bring out the photography's natural reliance on shadow. There is also very good use of color, which really glows in the transfer, despite the films age and grain. This is a very pleasing disc that also, to the best of my knowledge, marks the first home video release in widescreen, bringing back the composition as originally intended by the director.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The disc features a new 4.0 sound mix that, for the most part, is pleasing. While I honestly cannot recall any surround usage, the front soundstage is impressive and improved upon the normal Mono of past releases. Most dialogue is in the center channel, but all the music and sound effects are primarily stereo, sometimes directional. This adds a very interesting sonic quality to the spookier moments in the film, especially the unusual background sounds. Hell House really needs to be watched at a slightly higher volume than normal in order to really appreciate this, or else you might miss some subtleties. I don't consider this a flaw in the mix, though, just the way it was designed. If anything, the clarity of the 4.0 mix is slightly better than that of the original mono. The Mono is also presented on the disc, as well as a French dubbed track.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Batman: The Movie, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer Big Trouble In Little China, Bedazzled
Layers Switch: 00h:44m:54s
Extras Review: As a fan, I'm obviously disappointed at the lack of extras as I think this film deserves a decent edition. regardless, an original trailer and trailers for other recent Fox releases (like Big Trouble In Little China, Bedazzled, and Batman: The Movie) is found here. One plus, at the very least, is the stylish menu design. I also actually like the new cover artwork, which is completely different from the original.
Extras Grade: D+
Final CommentsThe Legend of Hell House is a masterful tale of ghostly terror, just in time for Halloween. This is not one for the family, though, so make sure the kiddies are bundled away soundly, or you'll be the one paying for the therapy.
"May you find the answer that you seek. It is here, I promise you."
-the voice of Emeric Belasco
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