Inquisition (1978): 31 Days of Horror

#16. Inquisition (1978)

inquisition 1978Nature of Shame:
Lacking some Naschy-directed vehicles on my moviewatching resume. Unwatched Mondo Macabro Inquisition Blu-ray release.

Hooptober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1970’s
Anniversary: 40th

This one features very little wind-up. I had a stack of unwatched Cinema Shame / Hooptober movies sitting by the television and rather than overthinking anything I grabbed the one on top. While we’re on the subject of “choice,” let’s discuss why it takes cinephiles longer to choose the appropriate movie for the moment than it does to watch the movie itself. I’ve wasted perfectly good moviewatching blocks because I’ve been crippled by choice. Why? What’s gone wrong with our wiring that we would allow this to happen? Repeatedly.

Despite what you may think, the decision-making process about what movie to watch is very unsexy — and it has quite a lot in common with the torture in this retelling of the Spanish Inquisition than you might think.

Inquisition Elevator Pitch

Witch-finder General falls in love with village beauty, only uh-oh! she’s actually sold her soul to the devil for reals and not fake like these other phony witches that the guy slaughters on a daily basis.

inquisition 1978

In the Bloody Torture Chamber of Inquisitorial Delights

Paul Naschy’s directorial debut, Inquisition, features, predictably, exploitative scenes of torture. Many of which seem merely lecherous — some, however, turn quite disturbing. Leering camerawork, excellent production values and a distinct concern for the mechanics of torture.

The narrative doesn’t bother with frivolity. Religious zealotry, supernatural elements, nudity, Satan and Death! Naschy’s Inquisition, at the very leastrenders female sexuality as the great threat to the patriarchy represented by the witchfinder general and the church. Some of these ladies just want to experience some sexy times and not be a witch, okay? “Witch!” says the patriarchy.

The period piece, set in 16th century France during the French Inquisition, features Paul Naschy playing witch-finder general Bernard de Fossey. Fossey travels to towns suffering from the plague and finds women he believes to be Satan’s earthbound minions. He questions them, tortures them and then burns them. As you do.

inquisition 1978

This continues until he meets a woman named Catherine (the beguiling Daniela Giordano) and starts to have tingly feelings — yet a man in Bernard’s position cannot be distracted by the siren’s call. In order to prove his allegiance to the church he becomes determined to find the source of the plague and figure out why his nether regions tingle.

No One Expects the French Inquisition

Obligatory Monty Python reference has no relevance. Though Paul Naschy plays three roles — that of witchfinder, Satan and Death — and when he pops up for the third time, you can’t help but say “For the trifecta!”

Spanish Inquisition
Definitely not the French Inquisition.

So We Did Expect the Inquisition?

For the most part, Inquisition plays it by the numbers, but it does ultimately subvert expectations by calling into question the existence of the supernatural within the scope of the film. So many women had been tortured and burned without legitimate cause that when Inquisition reveals the true nature of Daniela Giordano’s Catherine, only then does the movie offer an actual protagonist.

The twist comes in the form of viewer identification. Until Catherine reveals her motives, the movie has presented us villains and victims. And finally we have a badass legitimate witch working directly for Satan. So, yay, Satan?

This only works because Naschy has given us sufficient reason to believe in Bernard’s partial humanity. He’s a monster — no doubt — but in his relationship with Catherine (who’s been sent seduce and condemn the man killing Satan’s servants) he’s shown the capacity for emotion. Even this moderate amount of humanity provides necessary depth the character, rendering his fate part tragedy.

Final Inquisition Thoughts

A solid film — even if it leans a little too heavily on naked bodies in the throws of torture. Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray release of Paul Naschy’s Inquisition looks gorgeous. There’s grain and detail and color and how could they possibly make a 40-year-old Inquisition look so good? Bonus features on the disc also provide plenty of backstory on the film and dive into the methodology of Paul Naschy, one of the most notorious of Spain’s exploitation filmmakers. #SpoilerAlert: he’s actually quite thoughtful and intelligent.

inquisition 1978

Inquisition won’t interest everyone, but it’s a meticulously constructed period piece with a few shocking moments of intensity. Genre fans should definitely seek out the Mondo Macabro Blu-ray.

Inquisition Rating:

Availability:

inquisition 1978

I just said it, but it bears repeating. This release from Mondo Macabro looks perfect. Though they’re doing the Lord’s work when it comes to restoring and releasing obscure European cinema — Paul Naschy’s Inquisition might just be label’s biggest achievement.

If you appreciate a witch-hunt film, you can’t go wrong. If you can just enjoy the merits of film restoration, by all means. There’s so much to like about this particular release that it eclipses the movie itself — which is already worth a watch.

Buy it on Amazon. You can also buy it directly from Mondo Macabro where I’m sure you’ll find a few other titles to delight you as well.

 

2018 @CinemaShame / Hooptober Progress

#1. Deep Rising (1998)
#2. The Mist (2007)
#3. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
#4. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
#5. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
#6. Maniac Cop (1988)
#7. Nightbreed (1990)
#8. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
#9. In the Castle of Bloody Desires (1968)
#10. Chopping Mall (1986)
#11. The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
#12. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
#13. Messiah of Evil (1973)
#14. Possession (1981)
#15. Blood Diner (1987)
#16. Inquisition (1978)

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add this nonsense to the list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Blood Diner (1987): 31 Days of Horror

#15. Blood Diner (1987)

blood diner 1987 posterNature of Shame:
Horror movies directed by women should be a yearly Hooptober requirement. I didn’t know this one was directed by a woman until after I already had it on my Hooptober list. Bonus points.

Hooptober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1980’s
Female directed

I needed a palette cleanser after Possession. I stared at my Hooptober watchpile. Blood Diner stood out so I figured let’s have some legitimate cannibalism played for laughs to wash away the taste of Possession‘s emotional cannibalism played for a gut-wrenching soul-suck.

Blood Diner Elevator Pitch

Two brothers, brainwashed by their serial killer Uncle Anwar, fulfill their destinies by collecting the body parts from immoral women and resurrect the Lumerian goddess Sheetar. The unwanted parts get served in a “vegetarian” diner! Waste not want not! Oh and Uncle Anwar is nothing but a brain in a jar with an attached speaker! You know, for the kids!

The brain in a jar orders pizza.

In the Bloody Diner of “Vegetarian” Delights

I’m going to take this opportunity to move this bl-g marathon along. I’ve watched all but one of my Hooptober films but I’m 17 posts behind. At this rate I’ll finish next Hooptober.

Blood Diner is a dumb dumb dumb, super dumb, dumb movie filled with barn-side broad humor that rarely fails to pluck the lowest hanging fruit. It pillages ideas from far better gore flicks like Re-Animator and the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (who apparently served as a muse for this entire production). While I acknowledge Hershell Gordon Lewis’ place as the godfather of gore, I’d really rather have my teeth cleaned at the dentist — nothing invasive mind you, just a regular cleaning with a to-go pack containing a new toothbrush, a pen and some floss — than watch Blood Feast again.

And yet, I *was* entertained by Blood Diner.

blood diner 1987

So. Uh. You Mentioned…. uh… a Brain in a Jar?

The novelty of a brain in a jar attached to a speaker loses its novelty after Blood Diner plays that joke out like Eddie Money played out “Two Tickets to Paradise.” Okay, I’m lying. I can’t get enough of “Two Tickets to Paradise” or the sociopathic brain in a jar. In fact, I cared more about the brain in the jar than I did the two leads, played by Rick Burks and Carl Crew. They’re generally affable everymen, but how can you upstage a brain in a jar? DID I MENTION THE BRAIN ALSO HAS EXPRESSIVE EYEBALLS? The most impressive of all $5 special effects.

Blood Diner wants the viewer to root for these brothers as they murder and massacre their way through hundreds of sinful ladies to resurrect the goddess Sheetar. I found myself mostly ambivalent about their quest because they’re likable, but likable compared to all of the other awful humans.

One of the only truly inspired gags in the film. A scripted character was replaced with a dummy so they didn’t have to pay an actor.

I am disappointed we didn’t get to see more from Rick Burks. The actor died in a car accident two years after the release of Blood Diner. He has such natural personality he could have become a cult-movie hero as a poor man’s Bruce Campbell considering his ability to make something out of overall limited horror-comedy material.

You Mentioned a Female Director?

Jackie Kong made a modest name for herself with the comedy Night Patrol (1984) starring Linda Blair, a movie I’ve forgotten. (I lament not this absence.) I do think the material’s in some ways bettered by her camera. Listening to her talk about the ways she twisted Michael Sonye’s script into a comedy, it’s clear she had a far greater perspective on how Herschell Gordon Lewis-brand material would play in the 80’s.

This had to be funny. This had to be light and quick and move from joke to joke because audiences had become immune to earnest gore as entertainment. We had straight-to-video trash coming out of our ears in 1987.

blood diner 1987

To her credit, Kong tests the limitations of 1986 decorum. The watchdogs must have had problems with the clean-cut boys next door committing the murders, the rampant nudity and the HGL-inspired gore. The Ronald and Nancy Reagan masks worn during a nude aerobics video shoot massacre has got to be one of the Top 10 most 80’s moments ever captured on film. The ratings board gave her the ‘X’ so Kong and Vestron released the film as ‘unrated.’ Because it was the 1980’s, and whatever, man.

Final Blood Diner Thoughts

Most people seem to love it or hate it, but, hey I’m non-committal. I can see arguments for both sides. As much as I cringed at some of the acting and easy laughs, I saw moments of true horror comedy inspiration. I wish the latter were more frequent, but then Blood Diner wouldn’t be such a cult movie. It’d have just been another Re-Animator and we only have room for one gruesomely funny gorefest as the pinnacle of the 1980’s horror comedy.

While I won’t be revisiting Blood Diner anytime soon, there’s a definite and deserved place for the film in the hearts of gore hounds. Just because I’m not exactly on the wavelength doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy all the easy jokes about vegetarians eating human flesh and loving the hell out of it. I may have even laughed at one or two of them myself.

blood diner sheetara
Behold Sheetara! I won’t spoil the appearance of the toothy-vagina abdomen that consumers her victims. You’ll have to watch the movie for that treat.

Possession Rating:

Availability:

blood diner 1987

Blood Diner resides in that category of films called “They released that on Blu-ray?” Yes. Blood Diner has been released on the Vestron Collector’s Series. It looks absurdly good considering that Jackie Kong shot it on such a shoestring budget she replaced a paid actor with a dummy to save cash.

Some things in this world do not make sense. Wonder Boys (2000), one of the finest films of the last twenty years, doesn’t have a Blu-ray release but Blood Diner has been given the deluxe treatment.

Buy it on Amazon. Maybe.

 

2018 @CinemaShame / Hooptober Progress

#1. Deep Rising (1998)
#2. The Mist (2007)
#3. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
#4. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
#5. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
#6. Maniac Cop (1988)
#7. Nightbreed (1990)
#8. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
#9. In the Castle of Bloody Desires (1968)
#10. Chopping Mall (1986)
#11. The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
#12. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
#13. Messiah of Evil (1973)
#14. Possession (1981)
#15. Blood Diner (1987)

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add this nonsense to the list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Possession (1981): 31 Days of Horror

#14. Possession (1981)

possession posterNature of Shame:
I am shamed. I’ve listened to people rave about Possession for years. BREAK THE SEAL.

Hooptober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1980’s

I’d waited to watch Andrzej Zulawksi Possession until I could see a decent copy. Once I had the decent copy (a Second Sight Region B Blu-ray) I waited for… the mood to strike? A total eclipse? A total eclipse of the heart? I am without excuse. I once included Possession on my Hooptober / @CinemaShame list and by golly it would be seen.

Possession Elevator Pitch

A young wife leaves her husband for undetermined reasons. She says it’s not someone else, but goddammit he knows it must be someone else. He starts following her, tracking her comings and goings and holy jeebus he sees things that no human should have to see. But you’ll have to greenlight my picture to find out what that is. because HOOOOOBOY it’s a wild, angry, soul-sucking ride. #CliffhangerPressureTactics

possession 1981

In the Mind of the Bloody Marital Infidelity

Possession is a horror film. True. The visual imagery, the film’s tenor, the escalating rise of the unseen monstrous within both Anna (Isabella Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill). Yet the movie is a psychodrama about the decomposition of marriage. The events and grotesqueries depicted on screen represent Zulawksi’s metaphors for the jealousy, rage and destruction of the familial bonds.

As a horror film, Possession functions on a very basic level. The tease and ultimate reveal of the nature of Anna’s infidelity would be enough on its own to cause a viewer disturbance, but that’s not Possession‘s game. Zulawski aims much higher than anticipatory titillation because Possession lingers on these characters’ jealousy and insecurity. Anna and Mark are broken and this film portrays the destruction of their very humanity.

possession 1981

So. Uh. You Mentioned…. uh… Did You Mention the Possession Monster? #SpoilerAlert?

I did mention “the monstrous” but I’m not giving away any more than that. I’m not participating in the reveal of how or why this turns into a proper horror film. Let’s just say this isn’t Kramer vs. Kramer and move on from there.

The poster gives away a little something when it uses “Inhuman ecstasy fulfilled.” You may draw the conclusion that what has physically come between Mark and Anna is not human. True. I choose not to spoil — not because it would somehow undermine your experience with Possession — but because it might prevent you from watching or taking it seriously. Within the context of the film, the surprise is a ghastly– oh fine.

FINE.

You really want to know? Let me just say, for the record, that knowing doesn’t lessen your experience. I knew and yet shock and horror remained.

It’s a sludge octopus. An oil squid. The world’s slimiest tentacled multi-phallus. It stands in for Mark’s nightmare, a visual representation of his jealousy and rage and self-loathing — it’s also suggested that Anna miscarried this thing months prior. YES. YOU READ THAT.

possession 1981

And This “THING” is Horrific?

The sludge octopus shocks, but the sludge octopus does not make the movie great or compelling. Possession rattles your rafters because Zulawski lingers on the worst of the human emotional spectrum.

Everything about this film works to keep the viewer off balance and uncomfortable. The structure of the film. The uneven pacing that could be considered the horror genre’s answer to Prog rock music. It’s a domestic drama, then it’s a creature movie, then it’s an action movie parody. This genre hybridization suggests the work of a genius madman, a auteuristic Viggo the Carpathian, pulling from a wellspring of personal experience. (Andrzej ?u?awski divorced his wife, actress Malgorzata Braunek, in 1976, five years before filming Possession.

possession 1981

How he films Isabelle Adjani speaks volumes about how he still feels about his ex-wife. She is a siren and seductress, a creature of unspeakable violence and mystery, a mother, a sexual being. Adjani’s performance, while not exactly muted, carries all of this baggage throughout the film. The camera worships Adjani, and the audience likewise can’t help but become mesmerized by the sight of her. Her subway scene will cleave part of your soul.

Final Possession Thoughts

Good luck pulling apart the meaning of Zulawski’s final volley. The film ends in such a way that ambiguity comes full circle. It suggests a feeling so precise that even though we can’t put it into words, we feel exactly what it is that Zulawski wants us to feel.

Each person may experience Possession differently, but the amorphous, inexplicable feeling left inside you won’t dissipate when the credits roll.

Sirens blare in the aftermath of violence, the final destruction of Possession‘s last shreds of humanity. Zulawski’s camera finds the female gaze and its piercing green eyes. Who or what has been left behind after this relationship has reached its cataclysmic end? They might look human — but they’re the monster.

possession 1981

Possession Rating:

Availability:

possession 1981 second sight blu-ray

Possession (1981) has been released on a very limited Blu-ray from Mondo Vision. Good luck tracking down a reasonably priced copy. 

It is also available in the UK on a nice release from Second Sight. It is, however, Region B locked. Not Mondo Vision super deluxe special velvety goodness, but you can watch the movie, and it looks terrific.

If none of that suits you… well, I don’t know what to tell you. This movie needs to be seen. Go get that Region-Free Blu-ray player and stop worrying about all the films you can’t watch.

 

2018 @CinemaShame / Hooptober Progress

#1. Deep Rising (1998)
#2. The Mist (2007)
#3. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
#4. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
#5. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
#6. Maniac Cop (1988)
#7. Nightbreed (1990)
#8. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
#9. In the Castle of Bloody Desires (1968)
#10. Chopping Mall (1986)
#11. The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
#12. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
#13. Messiah of Evil (1973)
#14. Possession (1981)

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add this nonsense to the list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Messiah of Evil (1973): 31 Days of Horror

#13. Messiah of Evil (1973)

messiah of evil 1973Nature of Shame:
Unwatched Code Red Blu-ray. Supposed underseen classic of horror cinema.

Hooptober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1970’s
Female Directed Horror Film

I’d watched the beginning of this film twice. Through no fault of the film itself I had to abandon each viewing. Life intervenes. This time there would be no distractions. The wife even joined me for the viewing. With her viewing alongside me that meant one fewer potential distraction to pull me away.

messiah of evil

Messiah of Evil Elevator Pitch

A young woman travels to a remote California town called Point Dume to find her artist father. She finds an empty beachfront house and a diary that details an evil overtaking the town. After meeting a philandering aristocrat and his sexy entourage (sextourage?), they attempt to put together the pieces of puzzle. What happened in this town?

In the Creepy Town of the Bloody Walking Dead

Let’s consider Messiah of Evil the hippie reaction to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. As a surrealist nightmare Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s film succeeds at crafting a kind of Lovecraftian spin on self-induced fatalistic Kafka. Sure. Let’s go with that. Pure evil invading contemporary culture. Contemporary culture staring back and saying, “Looks like we’re in a bit of a pickle. Oh well. We had a good run. Cheers, everybody.”

messiah of evil

Arletty arrives in this town to find what happened to her father. Once she tags up with this Thom, a Portuguese-American aristocrat (how is this even a character?), and his sexy wind-up harlots, it becomes readily apparent that whatever happened in Point Dune is still happening and, pretty sure, daddy’s gone, hun.

Yet these characters hang around, just to be sure. It’s becoming a bit of a bugaboo for me with horror movies. Characters find themselves in a situation that feels either terminally hopeless or abnormally unusual/frightening/unsettling. Instead of taking advantage of the flight component of our innate fight or flight instincts, they stick around because A) they won’t be bullied; B) goddammit they’re going to find out what happened to so and so; and/or C) the movie has no contingency plan for a character that makes rational decisions.

messiah of evil

So. Uh. You Mentioned Zombie Vampires?

Messiah of Evil gets a half pass on the characters refusing to leave a hopeless situation. It’s clear that Huyck and Katz want to operate in the arena of arty surrealist intellectualism. Since Arletta refuses to leave because she must find her father, she finally comes into contact with the aforementioned zombie vampire hybrid that populate Point Dume.

The movie derives it’s brand of monster from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Messiah adds a vampiric quality, probably because of the film’s proximity to Romero’s then unique take on the zombie. (The Romero zombie becomes the cinema standard in short order.) We’re directed to see vampires or at the very least cult figures, but as a result of this reading Huyck and Katz keep the viewer off balance, further contributing to this unsettling gateway to another world curse.

The standout scene in the film takes full advantage of this imbalance as one of Thom’s harlots attempts to flee (right decision, poor execution) and finds herself trapped in the town’s supermarket. Within this supermarket, the zombie vampires stand over the meat cooler and have at a pile of choice cutlets. Of course, she’s like filet mignon to their shrinkwrapped ground beef.

Vampire Zombis Can Die? Eh. #SpoilerAlert

In keeping with the surrealism, the movie never spells out the rules for these kinds of monsters. Messiah of Evil doesn’t care about rules or the possibility of vanquishing these foes. Because they’re not actually the opposition. The opposition becomes the coming apocalypse. All of the corrupted townspeople gain this hunger for “meat,” but they’re none too picky about the source. The consumption of meat is a visual trope to create relatable and more horrific monsters beyond “Waiting for Godot” idlers. They’re all just biding their time until the return of “the stranger” of legend. But, hey, every ghoul’s got to eat in the meantime, right?

messiah of evil

Not everyone seems to be particularly affected. While the entire town becomes consumed by this hive-mind cultish control, a police officer rolls up to fight off a wild, roving mob of these vampire zombies. Messiah plays fast and loose with the rules (or lack thereof) for this town and this monstrous presence. So why a cop now? Why the mob? The answer’s obvious. We needed another horror beat to keep us invested.

They bleed from the eyes, cannot feel pain, crave meat and “become shells of themselves.” Arletta sorta transforms, but doesn’t and there’s entirely no explanation for her being able to escape the curse while others seem to slide right into undeadland. Okie dokie.

messiah of evil 1973

While the hopelessness grants this movie an uncommon dread, the movie also stumbles because the characters react without clear motivation or drive. These otherwise normal characters make strange decisions, as if acting according to the will of the unseen force controlling the town itself. I don’t know if we can credit the film for this creative decision because it seems like characters act in order to keep the film rolling not to benefit a narrative.

Final Messiah of Evil Thoughts

I’m not entirely confident in my overall assessment of Messiah of Evil as a narrative film. So much of it feels odd or aimless — but it’s also this very same tenor of filmmaking that contributes to its haunting surrealism. Messiah works in individual moments. It works at the level of the image. Huyck and Katz revel in the potency of the father’s hazy, suited figures in his paintings, the isolated seaside community, the nearly abandoned town — but they can’t seem to assemble their ideas into even a reasonable nightmare scenario. The determination of Messiah being “dreamlike” resonates, but it’s also dismissive.

The best reading of Messiah of Evil takes its cue from the father’s paintings. Always in suits, always in huddled groups approaching the foreground. The stubborn, stodgy establishment coming to extinguish and assimilate our young free-spirited protagonists (a dandy and his lovers) representing the youth movement coming out of the 60’s. Romero gave his zombie movies more meaty societal criticisms upon which to feast, but that doesn’t mean other, lesser filmmakers can’t have a scrap or two as well.

Messiah of Evil Rating:

Availability:

messiah of evil code red blu-ray

Code Red DVD released a wonderful Blu-ray edition of Messiah of Evil. 

Messiah of Evil is also available to stream of Amazon Prime. The poor quality of the stream, however, doesn’t do the film any favors. It might be good for a sample, but nothing more.

The disc includes a nice audio commentary from the directors and a featurette about Messiah of Evil. Also of note (I haven’t seen them so I can’t necessarily recommend them!) are a pair of short films from the directors.

 

 

2018 @CinemaShame / Hooptober Progress

#1. Deep Rising (1998)
#2. The Mist (2007)
#3. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
#4. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
#5. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
#6. Maniac Cop (1988)
#7. Nightbreed (1990)
#8. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
#9. In the Castle of Bloody Desires (1968)
#10. Chopping Mall (1986)
#11. The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
#12. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
#13. Messiah of Evil (1973)

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add this nonsense to the list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

The Legend of Hell House (1973): 31 Days of Horror

#12. The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Nature of Shame:
Unwatched Blu-ray, I suppose. I needed a semi-scary spook flick for my wife and sister-in-law who aren’t “down for anything,” contrary to their claims.

Hooptober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1970’s

A couple years ago, I made these non-horror-watching hooligans watch John Carpenter’s The Fog. They still talk about The Fog and I’ve struggled to repeat that performance. This year I presented Night of the Comet, Night of the Creeps and The Legend of Hell House as possible viewings. Much to my surprise, they picked Hell House. So here we go.

the legend of hell house

The Legend of Hell House Elevator Pitch

An eccentric millionaire hires a physicist to prove life after death by sending him into the Belasco House, “the Mount Everest of haunted houses,” for a week. He brings along his wife, two mediums and unbridled skepticism.

In the Haunted House of Bloody Narcissism

I last watched The Legend of Hell House many years ago by myself in an old Boston apartment. My wife was in law school and I spent many nights up alone watching movies. It spooked me a little bit. Not Session 9-level turn-on-all-the-lights-and-invite-every-living-person-over-for-a-nightcap grade spooked, but unnerved nonetheless.

Upon this viewing, perhaps because of the mixed company (read: any company), I paid as much attention to the reactions of the viewers as my own tingler.

legend of hell house

Based on Richard Matheson’s Hell House, The Legend of Hell House wasn’t the super straight A-to-Z ghost story and retelling of the Shirley Jackson novel that I remembered. Due in large part to Roddy McDowall, the film serves up just enough light comic relief to dull the overall fright factor. Some of it seems rather silly, like 2018’s imitation of a traditional 1970’s horror movie. This makes it a very strong choice for someone looking to dip their toe into the deeper waters of horror. The tenor and pacing of the 70’s might create distance in a viewer more accustomed to modern cinematic conventions.

So. Uh. You Mentioned Ghosts?

This is no Scooby-Doo pull-off-the-sheet style “haunted” house tale. Although Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) dismissed the possibility of life after death as a self-induced psychological manifestation, there’s no part of you, as the viewer, that sides with the skeptical doctor. It’s clear from the beginning of this film that Dr. Lionel is going to get these people killed. The only question — as Roddy McDowell suggests — is how many.

legend of hell house

Director John Hough uses gloomy skies, minor keys and ominous daily time stamps create a mood. The music (or lack thereof) contributes most effectively to this mood as there’s no sonic distinction made between the score or ambient sound effects. They are one and the same.

The house blocks out all incoming light. The rooms, cluttered and claustrophobic, convey a sense of the owner’s (and suspected haunt’s) personality without ever giving Emeric Balasco a voice. Set design and lighting suggest his voice, his backstory. As the team digs further into the history of Balasco, the sordid and previously latent details become revealed.

legend of hell house roddy mcdowall

If not for McDowall’s eccentric medium, Benjamin Franklin Fischer, The Legend of Hell House might have been too straight, too sinister. Even though Ben’s the most scarred of the characters in the film (he’s been through this experience before), Roddy McDowall can’t help but inject affability into his performances. He’s a broken man, but his nervous energy provides relief from the stoic seriousness.

Ghosts Can Kinda Die! #SpoilerAlert

Since the audience knows the truth that Dr. Barrett seeks, The Legend of Hell House’s mystery becomes not whether the house is haunted, but who’s actually doing the haunting. We’re given the run around by the sordid spook(s) inhabiting Belasco House.

legend of hell house pamela franklin

Dr. Barrett becomes the target of particular rage. His wife Ann goes on midnight lust walks and demands sex from Ben. The mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) has ghost sex. When Ben finally opens himself up to receive the ghost transmissions, we’re relieved to finally get some answers (which confirm our suspicions all along).

That said, the mystery isn’t entirely effective. Confirmation allows us to focus back on what works so well in The Legend of Hell House. Mood. The traditional haunted house scares of Hell House work because they’re back up by delicious production design and a singular focus on low-level tension. With each passing day the veracity of the ghost’s behavior increases. With each new timestamp our own expectation for violence grows.

legend of hell house

Arguably the actual events don’t even live up to our anticipation of the events. Anticipation fuels almost all of the horror in The Legend of Hell House. The curation of expectation of what might happen leads us from narrative beat to narrative beat. The best horror films understand how to build this tension so that the actual horror event serves only to punctuate the anticipation. Bad horror films focus too much on the horrific elements themselves. A punchline without the setup.

Final The Legend of Hell House Thoughts

Delivers moderate scares — and would certainly work as an introduction to another level of horror film. The Legend of Hell House finds its groove and rides it to a conclusion. Some, including those in my viewing party, felt that the ultimate payoff felt underwhelming. True. The Legend of Hell House lacks the proper payoff of other, better haunted house films like The Haunting, which parallels this film in more ways than one.

I don’t necessarily agree that it undermines the film, but I understand the point. The ending’s a bit bonkers at face value. I won’t spoil the final scene for anyone idly checking in on my 31 Days of Horror progress, but suffice to say that the film concludes with a bizarro twist of character. If you let it simmer, however, I think you’ll warm to my idea that it’s an abstractly disturbing moment of humanization. It speaks to the power of myth and legend — the power of a deranged man to endure long after his death.

legend of hell house

The Legend of Hell House Rating:

Availability:

Shout Factory released an excellent Blu-ray of The Legend of Hell House back in 2014.

Some  scenes look rather soft, but Hough used so much soft focus and diffusion filters throughout the film that I’d be surprised if the film *could* look better than this. The film grain remains and looks remarkably natural.

 

2018 @CinemaShame / Hooptober Progress

#1. Deep Rising (1998)
#2. The Mist (2007)
#3. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
#4. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
#5. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
#6. Maniac Cop (1988)
#7. Nightbreed (1990)
#8. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
#9. In the Castle of Bloody Desires (1968)
#10. Chopping Mall (1986)
#11. The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
#12. The Legend of Hell House (1973)

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add this nonsense to the list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick