The Legend Of Hell House

The Legend Of Hell House begins with an enticing proposal.  An old man summons a respected scientist to his palatial estate.  He wants him to be part of a team that enters an infamous mansion.  Each member will receive a hundred thousand pounds after living in it for four days.  Their task: to determine if one can indeed survive after death.

For you see, this particular mansion is supposedly haunted.  And this is not the first time outsiders have attempted to understand its enduring mystery.

One of the team members, the much missed Roddy MacDowell, knows this place all too well.  20 years ago, he barely survived with his life intact while all his colleagues either died, were critically injured or driven insane.  He’s a physical medium who has learned to turn off his gift.

The beautiful Pamela Franklin plays a young mental medium absolutely convinced of the house’s legend.  (As expected, the scientist (Clive Revill), who already thinks she’s too young for such a challenging assignment, is not persuaded in the slightest.  They frequently butt heads.)  Rounding out the team is the scientist’s hot red-headed wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) who is sexually frustrated.  One wonders why she is even here when her husband’s not putting out.

What’s really peculiar about this movie is when it takes place.  The scientist has his meeting with the old man on December 17th.  Once the team is all picked up, they arrive together three days later.  That’s right.  This is all supposed to wrap up on Christmas Eve.  You know what’s even more peculiar?  No one mentions Christmas.

The moment they arrive at this place is the moment The Legend Of Hell House stops being interesting.  This mansion does not live up to its dark reputation at all.  The pacing becomes much slower as it becomes clear the filmmakers have no real idea how to scare us.  There is no unsettling atmosphere (unless you get jumpy around fog, suddenly breaking objects, falling chandeliers, moving bed sheets and creaky doors that sometimes open and close on their own), just a bunch of moaning and old school physical effects that are too old fashioned by today’s standards to be truly effective.  (The movie came out in 1973.)  The low, repetitive, rumbling music isn’t much better.  Where’s Bernard Hermann when you need him?

It does not help that, as the movie progresses, we are constantly reminded of the date and time which feels unnecessary and excessive.  Seeing these graphics again and again reinforces the film’s sluggish tone.  December 24th can’t arrive soon enough.

It takes a while to even learn the history of Hell House.  Many moons ago, unspeakable acts of depravity took place here culminating in a massacre that left a little more than a couple dozen people dead.  The only one unaccounted for is the wealthy freakazoid who owned this place.  His body remains missing.

Pamela Franklin’s character is able to channel the spirit of what she thinks is the owner’s son.  A seance is conducted.  At one point, the spirit speaks through her.  (How is this possible?  She’s not a physical medium like MacDowell.)  The message is not friendly.  The warnings are not heeded.

She is repeatedly visited by this invisible entity.  And yes, there’s the obligatory scene where they fuck which she later regrets.

Meanwhile, the scientist’s hot red-headed wife starts making a play for the wide-eyed, bespectacled MacDowell, since she’s not getting any action.  (At one point, while laying in bed next to her always sleeping husband she sees and hears shadows going at it.  She is really backed up.)  For his part, MacDowell, no longer blocking his medium powers, has his own freak out where we see him screaming and writhing on the floor all contorted like a stretching cat.  Maybe he shouldn’t have turn down her advances.  Looks like he could use a release, too.

Franklin, the mental medium, participates in another experiment.  As she sits quietly in a chair with her eyes closed, Revill, the skeptical scientist, starts doing play-by-play into a mic’d up recorder as he monitors various levels on his equipment.  Unexplained white energy starts emanating from her fingertips.  (Not exactly a dynamite effect.)  Revill is convinced she is somehow creating this energy herself.  Okay.

At one point, the scientist unearths this giant machine.  When it’s eventually turned on, everyone steps outside as it “cleans” the mansion of its filthy spirits.  (He finally uses it on day four.  Franklin, now controlled by the horny, angry, invisible entity, tries to destroy it but only causes minor damage.)  Incredibly, it works with one big exception.  By the time this finally wraps, only half the team will make it out alive.

The Legend Of Hell House is a good title in search of a good story.  It knows how to set things up in an interesting way.  (The best scene really is the first one.)  It just fails to pay everything off.  The moment we see this mansion from the outside we are decidedly unimpressed.  (The mood isn’t properly established.)  Once that front door opens and the foursome walk in, that opinion is solidified.

The ending is overwrought but not even remotely frightening.  One mystery is solved but many questions linger.  For one, how is that cat still alive?

It’s never a good sign for a supernatural horror film to see a suspicious disclaimer right at the top.  Some real-life psychic I never heard of, who had apparently advised European royals way back when, wants you to know that while this story is fake (the screenplay, written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), is based on his novel), the fanciful ideas suggested in The Legend Of Hell House could very well happen off-camera.

Oh, fuck off, Tom Corbett.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, May 13, 2019
10:01 p.m.

Published in: on May 13, 2019 at 10:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hands Of The Ripper (1972)

What if Jack The Ripper had a family?  What if his wife discovered his dark secret?  And what if his infant daughter inherited his psychopathy?

It’s perfectly plausible that this notorious serial killer, who was never caught, may have led a double life in the real world.  After all, there have been many such examples throughout history.  John Wayne Gacy was a pillar of his community while he quietly picked up teenage boys to rape, torture and murder, dozens of whom he buried on his own property.

When he wasn’t terrorizing young women, Ted Bundy had a steady girlfriend, was an exceptionally bright law student and volunteered for Republicans while aspiring to be one himself.  Christ, The Golden State Killer, a house invader, rapist and murderer, was a cop.

But in Hands Of The Ripper, that’s where the plausibility ends.

In the opening scene, Jack The Ripper is being chased by an angry mob.  But he’s too fast for them.  As he returns to his fictional family home, his wife takes a moment to realize who he really is.  Fearing the worst, Jack throws her down and stabs her to death, right in front of his crying two-year-old.

Fifteen years later, Anna is now a vulnerable teenager shamelessly exploited in two ways by her current caregiver, a shady psychic.  First, she pretends to be a disembodied voice from the spirit world for phony seances.  Second, that same psychic pimps her out to wealthy johns.  Soothsaying isn’t lucrative, apparently.

There’s a scene where a member of the British Parliament offers the psychic money for what he thinks will be a deflowering.  But once he gives Anna a piece of jewelry as a gift, she is hypnotized by the light reflecting on it and becomes silent.  The elected official starts smacking her around when she doesn’t respond to his advances.  Overhearing the violent commotion, the psychic enters the room and gives the man a refund.

Outside, a cynical Freudian doctor, who had just attended the psychic’s latest bogus seance (he’s trying to have all of these fraudulent businesses shut down), is waiting for a cab ride home.  Suddenly, he hears a scream.  As he passes the departing politician in the open doorway, he makes his way upstairs and notices the psychic pinned against Anna’s bedroom door, a poker jabbed right through her.

What Dr. Pritchard does next calls his own sanity into question.  Instead of reporting Anna to the police (she first gets picked up along with a bunch of lippy sex workers), he takes her in, placing her in his dead wife’s old bedroom and allowing her to wear her old clothes.  When the politician is interrogated for the psychic’s murder, the doctor covers for him.  He wants his elected official to dig up all he can on Anna’s past.

While the sleazy politico fails to find anything, he is ultimately right about Anna.  She is definitely possessed.  The second he gives her that gift, she transforms into a different person.  Poppycock!, declares the supremely foolish Dr. Pritchard, who thinks she’s suffering from a severe mental illness.  It will take him the entire movie to realize how wrongheaded he really is.

There’s another trigger for Anna’s explosive violence.  Whenever she’s embraced or kissed, she suddenly hears her murderous father’s voice calling her name.  And then, it’s stabbing time.

Doubly blinded by his lust for her (his wife’s been dead a while; Anna gives him a look that suggests the feeling is mutual) and his stubborn determination to understand and cure her, Dr. Pritchard stupidly becomes an accessory.  No one seems to care about all these dead bodies laying about (except the torch-carrying dudes curiously outraged over a lesbian sex worker’s assassination).  There’s absolutely no follow through by the police.  They care even less than we do.

In one scene, the desperate psychoanalyst is about to dispose of one such body when his oldest domestic staffer startles him and he scrambles to avoid detection.  No one challenges him on his blatant lie about her permanent disappearance.  Did he actually leave her body in the tub?  We never see him try to dispose of it again.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pritchard’s son is to be married in less than a week to a klutzy, blind woman.  Dad’s oldest domestic worker is very old fashioned towards the couple.  (To be fair, the movie is set in the early 1900s.)  They are never to be left alone before their wedding.  They must always be chaperoned.  They can’t even live together.  In the underwhelming climax Anna fills in for the old lady while accompanying the blind woman on a pre-wedding trip to a historic monument with sentimental value which horrifies a no longer delusional Dr. Pritchard.

Hands Of The Ripper was released in 1972 by Hammer, the British studio best known for reviving Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy after Universal abandoned them at the end of the 1950s.  This is not their finest production.

Although it looks good and features decent performances from its mostly unknown, accented cast, it will not haunt you while you sleep nor will it inspire you to look over your shoulder when you leave your home.  That said, the horror scenes are surprisingly graphic, even by Hammer standards at the time, but the emphasis on shock rather than suspense and logic hurts the quality of the film.  The filmmakers aim for cheap rather than clever.

The late Angharad Rees is the picture of innocence as Anna, Jack The Ripper’s tortured daughter.  But she’s nowhere close to being terrifying as she jabs anyone who triggers her.  We just don’t buy her bizarre possession.  It doesn’t help that we don’t care about any of her victims.

Eric Porter, who plays Dr. Pritchard, looks uncannily like F. Murray Abraham.  He has a great, intense stare.  But his character is too dumb to take seriously.  Dr. Pritchard is part of a long history in horror of well intentioned men of science who insist on studying evil rather than vanquishing it.  Because of their misguided compassion, they pay the ultimate price.

Jack The Ripper’s hold on his only child turns out to be so weak, a simple, repeated command from a desperate man ends everyone’s suffering.  If only Dr. Pritchard wasn’t so horny and stupid to begin with.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 11, 2019
10:54 p.m.

Published in: on May 11, 2019 at 10:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cape Fear (1962)

He has waited so long for this moment.  Strolling into town with a new air of invincibility, he finally sees him.  But he is cruelly ignored.  The man, the one who ruined his life, walks right past him.  An unforgivable denial of responsibility.

Max Cady has wanted to get his hands on Sam Bowden for over eight years.  Now he has his chance.

Having just served a long sentence for assaulting a young woman, he is not reformed.  He is infuriated.  And Bowden’s gonna pay.

Why target him?  Sam saw everything and didn’t keep his mouth shut.

In four notes, Bernard Hermann’s brilliant theme for the original Cape Fear immediately hooks you into the story. (The score will be quite familiar to anyone who saw Martin Scorsese’s superior update.  He used the same music.)  Without it, the opening title sequence is just a cigar-smoking guy in a hat walking around town during the day.  With it, a new menace has arrived and everyone should be on their guard.  The spectacularly moody black and white cinematography with its strong emphasis on shadow increases the tension that much more.

Robert Mitchum plays Cady as a sly, vengeful devil, his phony charm carefully concealing his hidden venom.  When he famously takes Sam’s car keys right out of the ignition the second time he sees him, it is only then that the upstanding lawyer remembers.  Cady will never let him forget again.

He starts stalking Bowden and his family.  At the bowling alley.  Outside his large house.  And most memorably, at the docks.  Cady is conspicuous on purpose.  He wants Sam to confront him.  In a moment that is as provocative now as I’m sure it was in 1962, the ex-con tells the devoted family man that his young teenage daughter, cleaning the top of a boat in bare feet and short shorts, is getting to be almost as “juicy” as his wife.  Sam’s understandable reaction is his biggest vulnerability.

All that time in prison has made Cady a student of the law and a better criminal.  Either he comes close to the line without crossing it or he’s more skilled at covering his tracks.  Knowing his nemesis will never relent, Sam continually calls on his friend, the police chief (Martin Balsam in a very fine performance), to do something about it.

Did Cady register as a previous offender now that’s he moved here?  Yes he did.  Is he violating vagrancy laws?  Nope.  He just came into money from selling his family’s farm.  Can he be arrested for stalking?  No he can’t.  He hasn’t made any direct threats.

Unable to legally deport him from the state, the police start directly harassing Cady.  As he calmly sips on his booze at a local watering hole and notices the cute brunette eyeing him from across the way (she’s talking up another guy), here comes the heat urging him to come downtown.  Just before they take him away, though, he hits on her right in front of her companion and makes future plans.  Balls of steel.

By no means a shrinking violet, Cady then hires a very smart lawyer.  This man has all the receipts.  In a meeting with the police and Sam, he lists off all the times they questioned his client about numerous recent crimes they’re investigating.  There are no arrests because they can’t nab him on anything.  A smiling, chuckling Cady is firmly in control.  All Sam can do is scowl in frustration.  The roles have been reversed.

When the family dog is poisoned, Cady is fingered but there’s no proof.  When that same brunette he picks up from the bar, who openly and boldly denounces his savagery on the car ride to her place, is inevitably assaulted by the Southern creep, she is too afraid to have him arrested.  She bolts.  And when Sam’s daughter notices him walking towards her as she sits in her mom’s empty car, she freaks out and runs back into her school thinking he’s following her.  (Clever use of The False Alarm.)  Ironically, she ends up in his arms anyway but while fleeing once more she gets hit by another vehicle.

Sensing his growing fatigue with the police’s lack of success in quashing his new neighbourhood threat, the chief suggests a “humiliating suggestion” to Sam.  Call Telly Savalas, a private detective.  Maybe he will uncover something useful.  But Cady won’t stop.  He will never stop.

He won’t take bribes.  He’ll even survive a beating from hired goons.  (Note to Sam.  You should’ve recruited monster heels from the NWA.)  And he’s no longer coy about his intentions.

Knowing what he must do, Sam develops a risky plan with the full consent of his family.  When you think about it, it is not entirely smart or reasonable.  But he’s quickly running out of options.  That said, I’m not sure I would want to be bait for a sociopath.

I saw the updated version of Cape Fear on Boxing Day 1991 and it’s clearly the better movie.  Robert De Niro was given way more freedom to make his Max Cady more seductive and terrifying.  (Note the respective scenes where he convinces a teenage Juliette Lewis to fellate his finger and how he brutalizes Illeana Douglas, another paramour.)  Alternately, The Bowden Family are not completely innocent.  (Note the religious symbolism of Nick Nolte’s hands in the final scene.)

But Scorsese would never have been able to pull off his remake were it not for this surprisingly contemporary original, itself an adaptation of the novel The Executioners.  He improved the finished result but director J. Lee Thompson provided him with the blueprints.  There’s no way the 1991 version would exist without it.  (Scorsese constructed it as an homage to the film not the book, despite making numerous departures.)

Like a lot of his characters, Gregory Peck plays Sam Bowden as a man of decency facing challenging tests to his integrity and beliefs.  (It’s coincidental that his most famous role, Atticus Finch, another attorney, this one under societal pressure to side with racism, in To Kill A Mockingbird (for which he won an Oscar), was released the same year as Cape Fear.)  When we meet him, he’s quite liberal and supportive of civil rights even for the lowest of the low.  But Cady’s intrusions into his family’s life pushes him so hard at one point he considers shooting him with his gun.  Polly Bergen, wonderful as his wife, threatens to turn him into the police which sounds like an idle threat but there she is, receiver in hand, police on the other end, and here he comes, returning to reason, hanging it up just in time.  She knows that’s what Cady wants.

His plan to use Detective Savalas as a lure to lead Cady to his isolated houseboat is fraught with complications.  (You should’ve hired more cops, counsellor.)  Sam doesn’t anticipate being outsmarted quite so easily.  Nonetheless, the sequence pays off handsomely with Cady in full-on sleaze mode.  When the rapist cracks that egg and smears all that goo over Sam’s traumatized wife’s chest, the creepy symbolism is unmistakable.  Bergen’s reactions, especially the ones heard off camera, evoke just the right amount of terror.  You think she’s still being assaulted.

Robert Mitchum’s unseemly leering at their teenage daughter, especially during the dock sequence, and the scary story he tells Sam during the bar scene, prepares us for the moment he abducts her.  (He has experience with kidnapping women.)  Mitchum never overdoes any aspect of his performance, firmly grounding it in reality.  Cady is always in control which makes him so formidable.

Mitchum understood the power of his own face.  By dialing down his expressions, his Cady commands more loathing and contempt and genuine fear rather than ridicule.  His downplayed glances say everything.  Watch him ogle that passing woman just before he climbs up the courthouse stairs during the opening credits.  He objectifies with a single stare.  There is no kindness in him, either.  Note how instead of picking up that book a woman drops on the staircase, he just keeps on walking past much to her astonishment.

Cape Fear doesn’t end the way you expect.  I would argue it’s not necessarily a happy ending.  Sam Bowden makes a decision most others, if put in the same situation, would not.  Cady has pushed him so hard to completely stray from his liberal principles but clearly not far enough.

In the end, Sam tries to have it both ways.  On the one hand, by not following through the way Cady wants him to, he’s able to maintain his faith in the justice system and his own sense of decency.  But on the other, he’s clearly not interested in restorative justice.

More importantly, he is forever changed by the experience.  When Sam manages to retrieve his gun in time, Cady sounds defeated.  But look at all the damage he caused the Bowden women.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 11, 2019
10:25 p.m.

Published in: on May 11, 2019 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment