Thursday, September 11, 2014

Misterioso Blu Review: PUMPKINHEAD (1988), LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973)

"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."                                                                                    --- Nietzsche
(1973) Dir. John Hough
A serious-minded, less campy, grumpier, more sexually experienced ground level update of Bill Castle's House on Haunted Hill, the British horror film Legend of Hell House (based on a Richard Matheson novel) was once seen often on late shows on weekend TV movies by kids like me. I remember seeing it at slumber parties (before VHS existed so it was just 'on'). We seldom made it to the end before falling asleep or losing our UHF reception, but what we saw scared us silly. While the plot seems kid stuff--a disparate group of people paid handsomely to spend awhile in a very haunted house--it's not just for 70s slumber parties or skeletons on strings, not anymore. Now, with Shout's new Blu-ray, Hell has taken over the adult wing and expanded to a big dark, beautiful monster ready for closer inspection - and man is it pretty. Cinematographer Alan Hume delivers near Bava levels of warm, dusky, painterly light, and shows special magic capturing the the translucently pale skin of the two actresses, giving them an 'alive in the firelight reflection of the rose red wallpaper' glow that makes them look sexy as hell yet creepy, untamed, assertive, even dangerous.

Pamela Franklin (upper left) proves herself a master of slow simmer emotional build-up as Florence the psychic (is this a sequel to her role as the child "Flora" in The Innocents (1961). Am I the first to make that connection?); Gale Hunnicutt is Ann, wife-assistant of Dr. Barett (Clive Revill) and quite prim by day, but open to wild sexual possession at night. The men, on the other hand, are buzzkills. Barrett is self-righteous prig who thinks ghosts are just psychic energy without personality or form, easily dispersed by a magnetic pulse generator, which he's bringing over later, so considers Florence's reports of spirits in the house with scathing condescension. Roddy McDowall is in the Elisha Cook Jr. role (i.e. he's the only survivor of the last such sleepover party) so spends most of the film drinking and tossing off cryptic remarks about their inevitable doom, without any of Cook's dreamy hipster disconnect (instead he's just snippy). They've all been hired by a dying millionaire (who's trying to determine "once and for all" if there's life after death) to to spend a week in the "Mount Everest of haunted houses," the Winchester-ish estate of sadistic, decadent (and long-dead) munitions magnate Earnest Belasco. Past investigations have been calamitous, but when has that ever stopped an intrepid ghost hunter earning $100,000. for a week's sitting around?

Does this dying bastard really figure setting up some investigators for a week in a haunted house will answer the age-oldiest question once and for all? It would be hilarious if it wasn't played so grouchy-dead straight.

Fans who hate when a ghost movie wastes time with character development and other bits of business will rejoice over Hell House, for--like Castle's Haunted Hill--the credits have barely begun appearing before the chosen four are creaking open the gate and entering the very fog-bound manor, the house looming above them, all ominous. Instantly setting the mood, it never returns to exterior daylight, or any of those piddly-ass subplots or cliche patronizing fake-outs where the monster in your room disappears before the witnesses can answer your screams so they all think you were only dreaming. Or what about those tired scenes of incompetent detectives being called in, or sunny daytime shots trudging out to the local church, to see stodgy vicars? Or Cockney horse trainers skulking tiresomely around the grounds, peering around corners while chopping wood with scary axes? Not this house, sisters. And it's all based on what might, one day, be real life paranormal events! In a forward blurb, Tom Corbett, 'psychic consultant to European royalty' notes that “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.” Or as Criswell says in Plan Nine, "Can you prove it didn't happen!?"

As the allotted week of investigation goes on, the days and times click by on the bottom of the screen in a kind of countdown of dread, approaching and passing Dec. 25th, though no one mentions Xmas. The randomness of the dates and times adds to a feeling of authenticity and also enhances the sense of endless night and gloom; it might only be 4 PM tea time or 9 AM breakfast, but it all feels like one long night in this mostly windowless, dark strange mansion, which they mostly never leave. Kubrick was undoubtedly inspired by this sense of time's mounting irrelevance for his sporadic use of of similar 'time stamps' ("Tuesday"!) in The Shining.  What better endorsement do you need? Another influential aspect is the throbbing echo-drenched diegetic distortion score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hogdson of 'Electrophon Ltd.' Pitch-shifted somewhere between Forbidden Planet's 'electronic tonalities' and the avant garde echo-cussions of 70s thriller-period Ennio Morricone, it's so weird it's sublime. It may well have influenced some of the wilder music choices in Shining as well.

Another thing I love in a ghost film is when it totally doesn't waste time debating whether ghosts are real or just figments of a suggestible mind, which is usually a big problem in American and British films. Here the supernatural is a given-- even Dr. Barett believes something's happening-- so the argument can finally move from an 'if' to a question of whether actual personalities survive beyond death or just a form of psychic residue which we instinctually anthropomorphize. Dr. Barett thinks it's all just projected psychic energy, void of personality or soul, and pissily accuses Florence of creating it, unconsciously or not. Florence thinks the activity is being generated by the spirit of the evil Mr. Belasco's walled-up son. In the dead of night, to liven things up, Mrs. Barett sleepwalks, possessed seemingly by the ghost of a major nymphomaniac. When she glides down the stairs or makes sudden appearances in the far corner of the frame, in flowing hair and nightgown she generates an autonomous sultry frisson that's quite unforgettable. Sexually frustrated by her cold fish husband while conscious, asleep she tries to seduce McDowell and get him into an orgiastic menage a trois with Franklin. Modulating a slow burn from smiling self-possessed enigma to furious flesh-rending maenad cannibal, Hunnicutt is simply outstanding here. McDowall, on the other hand, just stands frozen in these scenes like he's not even tempted by this hot babe in her ghost-flowing lingerie. Instead, he just waits patiently until she's at maximum pitched intensity to slap her, as if he has no interest in helping anyone with their big scenes, or trying to do a decent job, or even feigning interest or even homosexual panic. No wonder British women are so sexually assertive, with such men as these for pickings! And why is Roddy even there in the scene? They may as well as put a suit of armor in his place, or a life-size cardboard cutout. Mainly he stands around and waits through almost the entire film until nearly everyone else is dead before he finally steps up to the bat, shouting whole pages of plot point denouement at the ghost of Belasco. Wind howls, doors rattle, and the tenor of McDowell's voice rises and rises to match it. Finally you can sense the phantom residue of Vincent Price rouse from its chewed-scenery nest, proving once and for all, you dying rich sponsor, ghosts is real!

Too bad Revill's smarmy know-it-all doctor makes sure that no one gets along, bonds, or laughs until then. You could offer him a coffee and he'd snarl at you for your stupidity in believing caffeine is the answer when it's merely a placebo for the feeble minded. He curtails all attempts at camaraderie and as a result the cast all keep to themselves, reacting to each other's presence only with shouts and slaps, demeaning disbelief, and worried condescension. It's enough to make one long for the cozy lesbian flirtations between Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones and Owen Wilson in The Haunting remake. In fact, I know it's heresy, but I'll see that movie again any time, while this this film for all its thick atmosphere, beautiful photography, superb Brit thesping and spooky effects, makes the criminal mistake of forgetting spookshows are supposed to be 'fun'  -- hungover bitchiness never helps generate repeat business.

The Shout Blu-ray does what it can to allay the damage, bringing out the full gorgeous eerie textures and depths of the film. Extras include a genial 'talking shop'-style interview with John Hough, wherein he notes that Disney hired him to direct Escape to Witch Mountain based on his work in Hell House, and there's a repetitive if interesting commentary track with Franklin. She mainly says that Hunnicutt and McDowall kept to themselves while, surprisingly, she and Revill got on famously and that the cinematographer took forever with his lighting, using every single light he had in every single shot, to the point the crew would start hiding lights from him in the cupboards. Though the time spent was clearly worth it, and thanks to this spiffy Blu-ray upgrade, every shot is suitable for framing.

1988 - dir. Stan Winston
Lance Henrisken is (unsurprisingly) strange, muted, a tad poetic and A-gaming through this EC comics-esque B-backwoods monster tale. As the woodsy general store/gas station owner and bereaved single parent Ed Harley he's the type of character we usually only see in the beginning of a horror film, cryptically warning the teenage weekend campers not to go too far from the highway, before spitting tobacco at their feet and wiping his hands on a filthy oil rag. This time the equation's reversed: the visiting teens are the bad guys, kind of, killing his son (by accident) and spurring old Ed to backwoods vengeance. Surprisingly complex for a monster film, director Winston lets us see both the rudeness of the snotty suburban teen interlopers through the local's eyes and the sheer grimy otherness of the locals through the suburban teen eyes --in fact there wouldn't be a more even-keeled look at the rural-vs.-suburb/city divide in horror until Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. 

The down-ramp of all that though is the usual 'get to the monster already' agitation, that is, unless we're wise enough to lean back and absorb the incredible lighting and lived-in detail, which we can more easily do with Shout's gorgeous new Blu-ray. Now we can see the full magic hour-heavy breadth of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli's genius, how he makes the outdoors seem like indoors, and vice versa, how he makes the backroad country seem pregnant with menace the way Dean Cundey did to the suburban streets in the original Halloween. The first sight of the old witch's cabin as the sun sets, for example: with its orange light shining through the windows, captures an uncanny stillness in the air, as if the whole natural world is hushed and waiting to see what old Ed Harley's gonna do. Using natural candle light and lanterns in rustic cabins, and eerie crosshatches of moonlight and diegetic headlights, flashlights, and lanterns for the outdoor nighttime shots, Bajelli conjures a very Halloween-ready mood that never really survived the journey to the small screen in previous video editions. Now we can savor how how the poetic-realist folktale touch is gradually applied, luring the story from rural revenge saga afternoon, to dark setting sun fairy tale, to nighttime blue-filter monster movie.  I don't mind that it seems to take forever to get started now that the photography glows so duskily and the details of the vast spooky graveyard pumpkin patch can be pored over like we're right down in the muck with Ed. Now too we can see the details of the old crone in her cabin (where on VHS it was all just an orange darkness): her old age makeup makes her look like Freddy Kruger's blind aunt crossed with Sir Roderick Femm in The Old Dark House (1932)!

The rest of the cast is pretty interesting too, now that some of the actors have become minor stars: Devon Odessa (Sharon in My So-Called Life) and Mayim Bialik are two of the barefoot backwoods children a-teasing their small brother with the Pumpkinhead poem chant (there's always one kid who's afraid to hear it. As Tracy, Cynthia Bain is luminous and resourceful: her youth and beauty in stark contrast to the dirt-stained roughness of the locals and even the lesser mortal sheen of her fellow teen co-stars. The pastel 80s fashions and terrible headbands are guaranteed to provide uncomfortable shivers to anyone who remembers an anguished teenagerhood spent amidst Springsteen bandanas, jean jackets, aerobics wrist bands, and stone-washed seamless jeans. Me, now I rejoice to see them, signifiers as they are of pre-CGI monsters to come (vs. the CGI revolution of the early 90s, with its khakis.

But even then, the real reason to see the film is Henriksen, with his ever-strange otherworldly air working in full step with Bazelli's color filters to make the overly familiar backcountry milieu neither hostile nor friendly in conventional ways, but as uncanny as an alien landscape. That his character's southern accent comes out strongest when he's really angry or upset is the mark of a truly subtle actor, as if the rest of the time his Ed Harley is trying to mask his mountain man roots. Only great actors bother to fill their B-roles like this with such layered lived-in termite detail.

That said, if the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts it's because, perhaps, it tries to be too nuanced, it forgets its purpose along with the way. As with Hell House, it's not the kind of 'fun' ride that leads us to demand sequels (though they sure came). If the teens were cooler and the demon was loosed on them for some ridiculously small slight--one of them shoplifted a candy bar or something--it would chill us far more more, which is the point. Also, the idea that any boy wouldn't be keenly aware of the path of those motorbikes, wouldn't be asking to ride one, or at the very least be watching in awe as they jump, is just hard to believe. It would have worked far better if it was a stray bullet from a drunken backyard target practice or somethign. And it never makes sense why Harley wouldn't go to the cops, or his neighborhood drinking (or AA) buddies, especially him being a small business owner where success depends on being sociable and developing repeat customers, or that he wouldn't first try confronting the kids directly, taking revenge himself, or at the very least find some other recourse to be exhausted first. Not to make light of losing your kid, but no matter how aggrieved he got I don't think any man would leap to the demon conjuring option first, without even considering other saner options, especially when he well knows the consequences. Even worse is Harley's second guessing himself, trying to welsh after the first grisly murder, running back to the witch to demand she lift the spell, then to his neighbors to demand they help him kill it when that doesn't work. All this after he demanded they tell him where to find the witch in the first place and they wouldn't. I don't blame them a bit for keeping their doors barred to his pleas. You made your bed now lie in it, Ed Harley!

Such qualms might irk, but they might also melt away once one sees the film a few more times. Its earthy folktale aspect, its devotion to minute atmospheric detail (the lived-in dirt of the rural clothing and faces), its sparingly ominous synth music, the myriad facial expressions and unique movements of the monster, the eerie stillness in the exterior magic hour photography, the way the monster uses the lifeless bodies of its victims to smash in doors and windows, the way it travels with his own whirlwind of leaves, fog, and crackling lightning, it all adds up big time now that it can all be appreciated in its ultimate HD expression. 

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 strangely-placed puppeteer eye holes, and the cuts that alternate the monster between live-action puppet, stop motion miniature, mechanical head or arm, guy in a suit, and animatronic dummy, sometimes all in a single action. My favorite detail was hearing them point out that the guy wearing the monster suit in some of the walking scenes was deliberately trying to move in the style of Harryhausen's Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth (i.e. a human in a suit aping stop motion animation!) and that in certain spots his sneakers were visible and had to be masked out. 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 the late, great Winston.

All in all, Shout's loving care (via their Scream Factory offshoot) and Blu-ray remastering help make these two minor horror films into 1080 HD works of art. Maybe in the end all the needless killing has been worth it, for we are living the dream of every movie lover who died before the advent of this format. I know I dreamt of such things as a monster lover kid. I even wrote a paper in junior high school advocating the importance of creating a widescreen TV, dreaming of perfect vivid picture and giant screens while reading Famous Monsters of Filmland instead of playing kickball --they always picked me last, so why wouldn't I spurn them?. I wonder if I'll have to pay some hellish price for my anamorphic HD Blu-ray wildest dream wishes coming true... Whatever it is, I'll pay it, Ed Harley!


  1. eddie lydecker12 September, 2014

    The date captions in "The Legend of Hell House" make it a perfect and cosy movie to watch over the Yuletide period. By the way, its a pity the movie completely falls apart in the last 20 or 25 minutes otherwise it would`ve been one the greatest horror/ghost films ever made.

  2. Love both of these films.
    One small but important correction, The Legend of Hell House is based on the novel Hell House by Richard Matheson, not Robert Bloch.

  3. Thanks, Anonymous! Damn my dyslexic author memory... and eddie, you're pretty damn right, and what a bizarre underutilization of the great Michael Gough!


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