"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." --- Nietzsche
LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
1973 - directed by John Hough
***1/2Like a serious-minded, less campy, more sexually experienced ground level update of House on Haunted Hill--i.e. a disparate group of people paid handsomely to spend awhile in a very haunted house--and based on a novel by Psycho author Robert Bloch-- Legend of Hell House was once just a solid little 70s spook film, seen mainly by kids at slumber parties after 'light as a feather, stiff as a board' and Ouija and with sound on low (to not wake up the parents). But with Shout's new Blu-ray its taken wing and expanded to a big dark, beautiful monster ready for close inspection. With its dark atmospheric decadent art design and color scheme; cinematographer Alan Hume bringing an almost Bava-esque level of warm, dusky, painterly color; the translucently pale skin of two beautifully alive in the firelight reflections of the rose red wallpaper, both ladies sexy as hell and brilliant, creepy, untamed, assertive actresses --the mix of sex assertive wit and style that only the UK seems capable of producing. Pamela Franklin proves herself a master of slow simmer emotional build-up as Florence, the psychic--and if you recognize her from The Innocents (1961) the you must remember her lovely name was Flora, i.e. she's the same kid here, full name Florence!; Gale Hunnicutt (very hot and dangerous) is Ann, the prim but open to sexual possession wife-assistant of Dr. Barett (Clive Revill), a self-righteous parapsychologist who thinks ghosts are just psychic energy without personality or form, easily dispersed by a magnetic pulse, which he's bringing over later; and--in the Elisha Cook Jr. role (i.e. he's the only survivor of the last investigation and spends most of the film drinking and tossing off cryptic remarks)--Roddy McDowall. They've all been hired by a dying millionaire to spend a week in the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," the Winchester Mystery House-ish estate of Earnest Belasco, a sadistic, decadent (and long-dead) munitions magnate. Past investigations have been calamitous, but when has that ever stopped an intrepid ghost hunter earning $100,000. to determine once and for all if there's life after death by staying there for a full week?
Fans who hate when a movie wastes time getting to the good stuff will rejoice: the credits have barely begun appearing before the chosen four are creaking open the gate and entering the very spooky looking fog-bound manor, which we learn's been stocked with a full larder and bar (no word on the poor sods who had to go in and dust and do the stocking) and it's all gleefully ominous, the kind of film built for the aforementioned slumber parties and drive-ins, where once you settle in and/or stop making out or talking you can step right into it and get rightly scared, like all the best Halloween-ready ghost movies, and not worry about piddly-ass subplots, mood-shattering sunshine or cross-cuts, or those cliche patronizing fake-outs where the monster under the covers disappears before the witnesses can answer your screams so they all think you dreamt it, or tired scenes of incompetent detectives being called in, or sunny daytime shots trudging out to the local church, etc., or stodgy vicars in terrible bowl haircuts, or disorienting cross-cutting, or Cockney horse trainers skulking tiresomely around the grounds after red herring screen time. None of it!! And it's all based on real life paranormal events! In a forward blurb, the amazing Tom Corbett, billed as 'psychic consultant to European royalty' notes: “Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.” As 50s TV psychic and Ed Wood All-Star Criswell might add, "can you prove it didn't happen!?"
As the week goes on, counting down to Christmas though no one mentions it, the days and times click by on the bottom of the screen in a kind of countdown of dread, adding to a feeling of authenticity and also enhancing the sense of endless night and gloom; it might be early in the morning or 3:33 PM it still feels like night. Kubrick likely was inspired by this sense of time's irrelevance when he put "Tuesday" on the screen in the middle of The Shining.
I love a ghost film doesn't waste time debating whether ghosts are real or not--even doubting Dr. Barett believes something's happening, so the argument can move to what produces the haunting: actual personalities that survive beyond death or just energy we instinctually anthropomorphize. Dr. Barett thinks it's all just projected psychic energy and accuses Florence of creating all the poltergeist disruption (and attacks on his life), unconsciously or not. But Florence insists the activity is being generated by the goodhearted spirit of the evil Mr. Belasco's walled-up son. Meanwhile, Mrs. Barett sleepwalks as a voracious nymphomaniac and her walks down the stairs or sudden appearances in the far corner of the frame in flowing hair and nightgown are a great mix of super sexy and double-eerie. Clearly a little sexually frustrated by her cold fish husband she tries to seduce McDowell and get him into an orgiastic menage a trois with Franklin while under the thrall of her unseen possessor. (while Barett fumes atop the stairwell and chastises McDowall only for not opening up to the house, i.e. for going through with it, Lady Chatterly style!) Sexy, crazy stuff, and Hunnicutt is up to the challenge, modulating a slow burn from smiling self-possessed enigma to furious flesh-rending cannibal holding herself barely in check. With her longing caresses of cobwebbed statues she may even out crazy McDowall, who just stands still in these scenes like he's not even tempted by this hot babe in her ghost-flowing lingerie, waiting until she's at peak monologue intensity to slap her. In fact, he waits, until most everyone else is dead before he launches a monologue entirely in shouts at the ghost of Belasco, until you can hear Vincent Price's ghost image rise up from its scenery-chewed nest inside a stack of mouldering AIP Corman-Poe film cans and nod in contented cat approval.
1988 - dir. Stan Winston
***Lance Henrisken is, unsurprisingly, convincing and even a tad poetic as a woodsy general store fella, the kind who usually warns kids not to go too far from the highway, and get off the road before dark, but instead it's he who is the initial victim, as a high-livin' teen makes a jump on his motorbike and lands on Lance's boy. It's surprisingly complex in its emotions and sympathies for a horror film: we see both the rudeness of the snotty suburban teen interlopers through the local's eyes and the sheer grimy otherness of the locals as seen through the suburban teen eyes --in fact there wouldn't be a more even divide of red state-blue state good/bad qualities in horror until Tucker & Dale vs. Evil 22 years later. But hey, in a straight up horror that can get annoying, we're like 'get to the monster already' unless we're wise enough to lean back and absorb the incredible naturalistic lighting and lived-in detail, which we can more easily do with Shout's gorgeous new Blu-ray (released this week!). Now we see the magic Bojan Bazelli brought to the proceedings, how he makes the outdoors seem like indoors somehow, too suspiciously perfect to not raise the hackles, Bazelli makes the backroad country seem pregnant with menace in the same way Dean Cundey did for the suburbs in Halloween. The first sight of the old witch's cabin as the sun sets (Bazelli never met 'a magic hour' he didn't like), with it's orange light shining through the windows and this uncanny stillness in the air, it's as if the whole natural world is hushed and waiting... full with the ominous tick-tock momentum of the setting sun stretches of Halloween and Phantasm coupled to the fairy tale Halloween goosebump raising of the witch houses in Corman's The Undead and The Terror! Using natural candle light and lanterns in rustic cabins for orange flame light flickers which seem to have massive power in the dark of the cabins creating unworldly, and very Halloween-ready, menace.
While we wait for the demon to be born, there are similar neat touches of art direction and photography we can marvel at, now: the local folks look genuinely like they've been working hard and living close to the dirt all their lives, and now with all that beautiful dusky detail restored its easier to notice The film really lives and dies with Henriksen's low key brilliance, with the poetic-realist touch gradual and perfectly applied, from naturalistic to dark setting sun fairy tale to nighttime blue filter monster action, a kind of slow steady momentum past the point of no return. I don't mind that it seems to take forever to get started now that the photography glows so duskily and I dig the vast spooky graveyard pumpkin patch and the withered old crone with the demon-raising mojo glowing in the firelight in a makeup that makes her look like Freddy Kruger's blind aunt crossed with Sir Roderick Femm in The Old Dark House (1932). The cast includes: Devon Odessa (Sharon in My So-Called Life) and Mayim Bialik as barefoot backwoods children a-teasing their small brother with the Pumpkinhead poem chant and later trembling at the monster noises coming from outside their windows, and as the final girl Tracy, Cynthia Bain is luminous and resourceful: her youth and beauty in stark contrast to the dirt-stained roughness of the locals. The pastel teens' 80s fashions and terrible headbands of the teens are all spot on and a nice contrast to the ancient wagon train-ish look of the locals. In the 80s I well remember how we hated those damned Springsteen bandanas, jean jackets, aerobics wrist bands, and stone-washed seamless jeans but now they're the sign that the monster coming soon after them will not be CGI but god-awesome analog. And there special effects titan Stan Winston (in his directorial debut) delivers the goods: the pre-CGI seven foot-plus tall demon with its long weird arms and expressive face (and several different incarnations) especially, and the overall atmosphere at once earthy and alien make any sense of cross-cutting disjointedness or confusion (it clocks in at under 90 minutes) forgivable.
Henriksen is flawless, otherworldly and believably rustic without ever being cliche'd, his character's southern accent coming out strongest when he's really angry or upset is a great touch, the mark of a truly subtle pro, as if the rest of the time he's burying his roots. If the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts it's because, perhaps, it tries to be too nuanced, it's not the kind of 'fun' ride that leads to bigger budgeted sequels, but an emotionally mature, seasoned Halloween-ready shocker that never worries too much what genre it's falling into or out of. If the film stuck with the teenagers and they were kind of cool and nice and trying to do the right thing and the demon was sicced on them for some ridiculously small slight--one of them shoplifted a candy bar or something--it would chill us more, even if it didn't leave much of a lingering impression, but the idea that a kid, a boy, wouldn't be keenly aware of the path of those two crazy bikes, wouldn't be asking to ride one, or at the very least keeping his eyes out, is just hard to believe, as is even a direct hit would kill him outright (I think it would have worked far better if it was a stray bullet from a drunken backyard target practice). And it never makes sense why Harley wouldn't go to the cops, especially him being a small business owner, or confronting the kids directly, but that demon conjuring would be the only logical option without any need to explore the others. Then there's the issue of Harley trying to welsh after the first grisly murder, and running back to the witch to demand she lift the spell, then to his neighbors to demand they help him, this after he demanded they tell him where to find the witch in the first place. Ed Harley! You made your bed now lie in it, backwood-style.
But these qualms tend to melt away once one sees the film again and can just appreciate the careful storytelling and devotion to minute atmospheric detail; and anyway by the second half of the film all lapses in common sense are forgiven, because the ominous synth music is great and best of all, quite sparsely used; the special effects are ingenious and wild--the monster delivering an array of priceless facial expressions, using the lifeless bodies of victims to smash in doors and windows, pausing to smash a crude wooden cross, the way he travels with his own Evil Dead x Fulci's City of the Living Dead-style whirlwind of leaves and swirling fog, and crackling lightning--all lovingly and cleverly employed. Extras include a lively fun commentary track with the special effects guys, and you can tell they had a blast making the film and love pointing out all the eye holes and mechanisms and dummies used, that the guy wearing the suit was trying to move in the style of Harryhausen's Ymir (i.e. like stop motion animation) and that in certain spots his sneakers were visible and had to be masked out; it's one of the best commentary tracks I've heard, they're really excited and having a blast and pointing out lots of stuff even loyal fans of the film might have missed. There's also a dozen or so talking head interviews, including one with a moist-eyed, breathless possibly insane Richard Weinman, some great VHS tape monster suit test runs, and a tribute to Winston.
All in all, Shout's loving care (via their Scream Factory offshoot) and Blu-ray remastering help a minor but inarguably essential horror classic emerge from the folksy swamp into the clear Blu Bozan Bajelli light. When 1080 HD clarity reveals poetry, spookiness, and breadth of outdoorsy stark beauty instead of just the manufactured limits of CGI (which can make some newer films seem airless and without any inward depth), then everything up to now in our collective home entertainment evolution has been worth it.
So once again, Halloween is saved. Two more quintessential films for seance slumber parties you could never find. Scream Factory, Hell House and Pumpkinhead... I love you like the fall itself.