THE LEGEND OF
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CIRCUS OF HELL
GAHAN WILSON &
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JOSEPH CROSS, BRIANA EVIGAN,
Special Effects Make-Up
A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Dr. Barrett waits in a grand foyer or some otherwise ungainly huge room. Called to come forward, he enters the presence of an old wheelchair bound man with a booger in his nose. The old man is Mr. Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver: THE LATE EDWINA BLACK, FRAGMENT OF FEAR, THE UNCANNY) and he has one request for which he is willing to pay £100,000 pounds. Considering that this took place in 1973, that's no small change. Rudolph wants Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill: THE HEADLESS GHOST, THE BLACK WINDMILL, C.H.U.D. II, DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT) because he is one of the five top men in his field.
Dr. Barrett is a physicist, but more to the point, he has studied parapsychology for the last twenty years. The subject of Barrett's study will be to ascertain, for certain, survival after death. Barrett scoffs but the old man assures him that he is sending him to the only place where the supernatural has never been refuted: The Belasco House. "Hell House?" Dr. Barrett whispers, and the old man smiles nodding. He then proceeds to tell Barrett who will accompany him into the house: To spend one week there and report back. Barrett finds himself shocked and surprised by all of this but £100,000 is hard to pass up - even in today's pounds.
In short order, Barrett, along with his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt: EYE OF THE CAT, FRAGMENT OF FEAR, VOICES), are soon joined by mental medium, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin: AND SOON THE DARKNESS, NECROMANCY, SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, THE FOOD OF THE GODS) and physical medium, Benjamin Franklin Fisher (Roddy McDowell: PLANET OF THE APES, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, EMBRYO, FRIGHT NIGHT). What is especially interesting about Fisher is, he is the sole remaining survivor of the last scientific expedition into the Belasco House, from 20 years earlier. You would think almost nothing could get him to go back and you'd be right. Nothing but £100,000.
The foursome have one week, by then it will be Christmas Eve, to verify the existence of life after death. Dr. Barrett, though a skeptic, also wants to believe, and the Belasco house has quite a history after all. As Barrett tells his wife, "The Belasco House is the Mount Everest of haunted houses."
Before Barrett takes on this experiment, he requests that a certain machine he is working on be completed. After assurances have been given that it will be finished and delivered to the Belasco house, Barrett leaves.
Soon the four folks enter the house and within no time, Merry Mishaps occur.
Within a very short time, three of the four will come to know that the long dead Emeric Belasco has not only survived death, but is a horribly powerful force feeding off of all life that enters the house. One by one, all of them will be possessed by a madness - no supernaturally locked doors or windows are necessary - Belasco preys on their minds, fears, desires, and deep needs to keep them right where he wants them. All of them will have to concentrate together to defeat the murderous force that dwells within the Belasco House.
The music for THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is more than a little creepy, with an odd and unsettling score and sound effects by Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, and Dudley Simpson (best known to fans of Dr. Who). Directed by John Hough (EYEWITNESS, TWINS OF EVIL, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, THE INCUBUS, AMERICAN GOTHIC, BAD KARMA) the film moves along at a pace almost like a documentary, which is likely the way famed Horror screenwriter, Richard Matheson (HOUSE OF USHER, PIT AND THE PENDULUM, BURN WITCH BURN, TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE OMEGA MAN, THE DUEL, THE NIGHT STALKER, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, TRILOGY OF TERROR, Masters of Horror: DANCE OF THE DEAD) wanted it.
Like Robert Wise' THE HAUNTING, less is more as sound effects largely function in the stead of visual effects. And while there are a few of these, no ghosts are ever actually seen.
I love this film, though it is not without its flaws. One egregious error is a scene in which Fisher is overcome by the powerful forces at work in the house. In extreme close-up, he sits bolt upright screaming with his Eyes Crossed! While actor Roddy McDowell was certainly giving the moment everything he had, director Hough should have seen this and reshot it, as the crossed eyes make the entire scene silly and the momentum of the unintentional hilarity takes a while to dispel.
Otherwise, the most was made of all the effects, the actors, the music, and the house itself.
In 1973, director John Hough was at the top of his form and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is his masterpiece.
Four Shriek Girls.
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