Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Schlocktober Reviews: The Legend of Hellhouse

And so Schlocktober is once again upon us. Yes, that tenth month of the year where I try to cram in as many horror movies as possible like the last bits of pumpkin pie during Canadian Thanksgiving. Like every other genre movies of the horror persuasion vary widely in quality; some good, most bad. Doesn’t matter, I’ll watch’em all from 70s B-movie ‘sploitation to the all too pointless modern day horror remakes to movies that are actually good fucking entertainment.
So I wanted to start the month off right and watch something decent. Or at least had the possibility to be decent. The Legend of Hellhouse, based off of Richard Matheson’s much shorter titled Hell House. Why the added legend bit? Fuck if I know. Unlike half the characters in this flick (literally) I’m not psychic.
Before we dive in, just a few forwards. I’ve read the original 1971 novel a few years ago (after a ringing endorsement by Stephen “I-actually-directed-Maximum-Overdrive” King) and I really enjoyed it. It was unique and creepy and although it shared in many of the haunted house troupes it played around with them rather than running them straight. Did I find it scary? No, but then again the list of scary books that actually got to me can be counted using kindergarten math, and I didn’t let it get to me. There’s a kind of blunt and raw edge to the book, a premonition of the culture the 1970s would become famous for (ignoring disco and the invention of soft rock of course). It was violent, but not excessively so, and it never sacrificed atmosphere for cheap scares. Like every good horror story, it invoked the downward spiral, ramping up its intensity until the final, shattering pages. All in all, good stuff. I even pictured how to do it as a movie while I was reading it, until I found out later that such a movie already existed.
It also introduced a fragmented view of the hauntings, as with most of the novel each character tries to understand and contextualize the phenomena around them based on their own prior experiences and paradigms. From the Christain spiritual medium to the parapsychologist skeptic, the characters in the novel have to contend with horror around them but also try to justify and convince everyone else that they have the right answer, the proper truth, to what’s happening around them. Each character is perfectly fleshed out and real, and are given their own singular third person narrative in which we can get the story from their point of view. Awesome stuff really. I wish more horror media tried this rather than just go for the cheap, dumb scares. Le sigh.
That’s all well and good, you might be asking yourself, but I came here to read a horror movie review during masturbation breaks to free porn sites, not a fucking book review. To which I say, touche, let’s get to the movie. And also, really? Have you no shame man? That’s practically asking for malware.
Anyways, the movie itself is stark, brisk, and in it’s own way, brief. The intro is over and done with in a pace that would make even fast food servers cringe. Dr. Lionel Barrett, a parapsychologist and skeptic meets up with millionaire Reinhard Deutsch, who promises a metric shitload of money if he can prove the existence or nonexistence of life after death. The arena will be Hellhouse, a manor once owned by professional debaucherist Emeric Belasco. Hellhouse say a string of blasphemous rites and general depravity until his own death long ago. Since then the manor has become known as the most haunted place on earth. Barrett’s got a week to prove life after death and he can choose a team of anyone he wants. Also, they are to build him “The Machine” and bring it to him by Wednesday. After that bit of tight exposition is over we’re hit with the opening credits in plain orange script.
It’s so simple it almost reads like a police report. Just the facts ma’am please, just the facts.
Then we get introduced to the rest of the cast reporting in for duty: Dr. Barrett’s wife, Edith, who spends most of the movie with the kind of wide mouthed expression that’s meant to show innocence but instead conveys a former brain injury; Benjamin Fisher, the only survivor of a group of psychics who tried to investigate the house 20 years previously, and Florcence Tanner, a Christian spiritual medium who veers from brick throwingly annoying to pants shittingly stupid and naive. She’s easily my least favorite character and her (spoilers) death scene’s only flaws were that it didn’t come sooner and that it wasn’t grisly enough. Plus, it kinda reminded me of that scene in The Exorcist where Linda Blair stabs her cooch with a crucifix while shouting, “Let Jesus fuck you!”
So all these characters are in hellhouse, but what to do? Well, that’s the fun part. And by fun I mean a quic tour of the house (with particular attention to the chapel. Pay attention, this and the dining room are the only important settings in the movie, unlike the book) a few trippy seance scenes with Miss Tanner and Mr. Fisher, and the sounds of the house tempting them. The house plays on their fears in subtle and not so subtle ways. I’ve never been mindfucked by a house, but like a crack high it doesn’t sound a particularly pleasant. Remember kids, just say no to spiritual mindfuckery!
Miss Tanner gets drawn in through her stupidity, somehow convincing herself that Belasco had an illegitimate son named Daniel, and that he along with his father are haunting the house in a concept she calls multiple hauntings. She gets involved with “Daniel” trying to help him to resolve his earthly pathos and fetters and move on. It…doesn’t work as well as she hoped. One early scene has a presence in her room open and shut the door. It… isn’t scary. Or atmospheric. Instead it just comes off like Casper’s older teenage brother Balthazar the Emo Git Ghost. Just the way it’s shot, with a set camera and few cuts, just doesn’t work.
However, this is probably one of the few shots that don’t work. (The other is a possessed cat that attacks her, which kinda looks like a rejected Monty Python sketch. Maybe one involving the dangers of bad catnip trips or something? I dunno, British comedy can be tricky and weird.) The other shots though are done in the same practiced business style that seems to predominate in the movie. The manor itself is vast yet clausterphobic, like you’re in the body of whale, being slowly digested. The effects are, for the most part, seamless, with an emphasis on practical effects that seem less dated now then movies that came out only ten years ago (*cough* that shitty remake of The Haunting *cough*).
The actors themselves are fine and up to the task, although it’s a little jarring that they’re all British while the novel takes place in America with Americans. Even ——, who plays Miss Tanner, does a good job with what she has and I have no beef with her. I just hate how she was adapted from the book. In fact, every character except for Ben Fisher seems to get the shaft here, with the same brisk pace that carries the plot forward in tsunami like fashion also fails to dwell on the characters and make them as three dimensional as they were in the books. Ah well, c’est la vie I guess. I’ll stop bitching about how the movie compares to the book. At least for now.
What the movie does get right is the clash between Dr. Barrett and Miss Florence, between traditional spiritualism (albeit with a Christian bent) and modern science parapsychology. This was at a time when parapsychology still mostly existed within the scientific world and not completely outside of it as it mostly does today. ESP, mind control, clairvoyence and astral projection were still possibilities within science at that time. The film opens with a quote from an actual clarivoyent, who claims that although the events in the movie are fiction that all of the phenomena are based on real world facts. Man, you never see that stuff anymore. The only people who seriously believe in that stuff are your girlfriend when she’s checking out her horoscope and that cousin you have, y’know, the one who believed in the Mayan 2012 Apocalypse and who’s since moved onto to some half baked notion of Chakras. Yeah, that one. Doesn’t he still owe you twenty bucks or something?
Ahem, getting back to topic the whole modern versus mystic theme, as well as the other themes of individual perceptions battling it out, is for the most part carried faithfully over from the book. As for the two “side characters” (who’re also, spoilers, the only ones to survive) Fisher and Edith, they’re mostly about survival. They want to either take the money and run in Fisher’s case, or make sure everyone survives, with Edith. Unfortunately, again, they just aren’t handled as well as they could be, so while Fisher’s survivor guilt is kept mostly in tact Edith just becomes a very one note character, a nurturing super-ego while she’s conscious but a ravening, lusty super slut that throws herself at anything with a pulse when the house starts to influence her. It’s the ol’ Madonna-whore complex used in with less subtlety than a Batman villain.
And speaking of possession, that’s the one big appeal of this movie. Although it’s a little less new and exciting than it was then, the idea of a haunted house influencing and possessing people was a really cool idea. Stephen King basically admitted he’d used the idea for The Shining, and it shows. The house likes mind fucking the people who’re in it, and uses their own vices and, indeed, paradigms against them. You’re left wondering if the conflicts between the characters wouldn’t have been so great if not for the house’s malign supernatural influence. You can’t help at the end feeling like if they’d been able to compromise and work together they wouldn’t have ended up as they did. Like Congress but half as scary really. And if that were the case we wouldn’t have had a very good movie now would we?
While I’ve provided plenty of spoilers and talked a lot of shit about this movie, but I still encourage people to see it, if for no other reason than it’s one of the old school horror movies that put atmosphere over body count. And for the fact that it didn’t feel the need to provide 72 1/2 beginnings and the obligatory fake out ending. God I hate that shit.

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