Multi-Monday Brings Down the Hough-se With The Legend of Hell House (1973) and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)
Hello folks and welcome back to another installment of Multi-Monday. This week I’m looking at two films from director John Hough. The name might not be familiar, but some of his movies will certainly ring a bell. Hough began his career in the early Sixties acting as Assistant Director and occasionally Director of the popular British spy series The Avengers. As the Seventies began, Hough helmed Twins of Evil, a film from Hammer studios starring the ubiquitous Peter Cushing. After working with Orson Wells on Treasure Island, Hough made a duo of genre films, one a mediocre affair and the other a classic, that would forever seal his legacy in the genre film world.
First in 1973, The Legend of Hell House starred Lair favorite Pamela Franklin (The Innocents, And Soon the Darkness) and Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes, Fright Night). The film was based on a novel by Richard Matheson, the pen behind I Am Legend and many classic Twilight Zone episodes, and the author adapted his work for the screen as well. The film follows a team sent to the notorious Hell House to prove/disprove survival after death. The team is lead by physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnnicutt), a young female medium Florance (Franklin) and the only survivor of the previous investigation, psychic Benjamin Franklin Fisher (McDowell). Previous visitors have either been killed or gone mad, and the further the team gets into uncovering the secrets of former resident "Roaring Giant" Emeric Belasco,the more likely it appears that they will suffer the same fate.
I was hoping that it would combine the British horror styles of the Seventies with the moody atmospherics of films such as The Changeling, The Innocents, or The Sentinel. Unfortunately, while the film tries to capture the feeling of being in a haunted house, it comes out more ham fisted than spooky. Usually reliable, McDowell’s character seems like a non-entity until the final act of the film, and by then it’s too little too late. Pamela Franklin put on a nice act as the often terrorized and occasionally possessed medium, but as the film grinds on her performance veers too far into the overdramatic to be very enjoyable.
The only redeeming quality of this film is some of the over the top moments that caused me to break into peals of laughter. The particular scene that springs to mind involves Ms. Franklin being attacked by a cat. Not since the opening scene of Fulci’s Cat in the Brain have I seen a faker feline, and watching Franklin struggle with it was more than a little amusing. Matheson had to tone down both the violence and sexual situations from his novel, and while I am no fan of remakes, I would be interested in seeing a modern interpretation of the story with more of Matheson’s original material retained.
In the end, I can’t see Legend of Hell House ranking with the classic films that tackle ghostly themes. It tries to build up tension, but instead of having a slow burn, this flick has a slow dousing. Any tension that does manage to get built is extinguished by the plodding pace of the narrative. I have great patience with films, but I found Hell House hard to watch from a pacing standpoint alone apart from the other issues that the film contains. If you have ninety minutes and the desire to watch this film, be warned it will seem much longer and in the end lack a satisfying payoff.
John Hough’s next film would be a cult movie classic, but Hough chose to move away from the horror genre and British film. Instead he produced a film that by its very nature is one of the most American of genres, the car movie. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is often brought up in the same discussions as films such as Vanishing Point, Bullitt, or The French Connection because of its legendary car chase scenes. Dirty Larry Crazy Mary even got several mentions a couple of years back when Quentin Tarantino made his fase paced vehicular love letter, Death Proof.
While The Legend of Hell House Lacks the tension that would have made that tale convincing, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry begins with enough suspense to have filled two or three viewing of Hell House. Starting the film with the two male leads Larry (Peter Fonda) and Deke (Adam Roarke) pulling off a robbery seems like an exciting premise. They plan to knock over a supermarket for their daily cash drop, but they way they go about it is very unsettling. Deke breaks into the supermarket manager’s home and keeps his wife and child hostage while Larry strolls calmly into the store picking up the cash from the manager (Roddy McDowell) who has been informed that his family will suffer if he makes a scene.
The sequence is suspenseful and very tense, but more than that it’s a hell of a way to introduce your leads. From the very start they are desperate men who seem very unsympathetic. It’s also interesting that their plan mirrors that of the criminals in the Johnny Cash film Five Minutes to Live. While Crazy Mary Dirty Larry departs from the crime portion of the film quickly, it seems that the opening scene had to have been modeled off the little seen film starring the Country music legend.
After Larry gets away with the cash, the plan is to pick up Deke and speed out of town, but things start to go haywire when Mary (Susan George), who had spent the evening with Larry, shows up sprawled out in his car. With no time to get rid of her, Larry must agree to take her along, and she becomes their surprise co-conspirator. They take off into the countryside, but soon the local cops call in their best man, the individualistic officer Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow). Franklin takes command of the squad cars and begins to use everything at his disposal to bring the thieves to justice.
As the film unfolds and you begin to know more about Larry, the ex-car racer, and Deke, his dry drunk mechanic, they become more relatable characters, but the memory of their home invasion is never far behind. The only likeable character is Susan George’s Mary though she is a consummate and perpetual liar. In some ways Dirty Mary Crazy Larry mirrors the Peter Fonda classic Easy Rider, but while Captain American and his cohorts were good time rebels who might run some drugs, Larry, Deke, and Mary are on the edge of becoming career criminals.
Hough’s film is an interesting character study, but it remains hard throughout to like any of the leads much. Fonda especially continues to be a massive asshole as the film goes on, though both Deke and Mary evolve into sympathetic losers. I have no doubt that Peter Fonda played his part as written, and he definitely succeeds in being a complete jerk. Adam Roarke does a wonderful job as Deke, the mechanic who screwed up Larry’s chances of being a NASCAR star. Roarke is probably the least recognizable name in the cast, but anyone who has seen a fair amount of biker flicks will recognize him from films such as 1970’s Hells Bells or 1968’s The Losers. Susan George is the picture of ‘70’s cuteness as Mary. George may well best be known as rape victim Amy in Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, but she deserves to be remembered for the plucky, cute freeloader in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.
Last but not least, I have to say that the best and most likeable performance in the film comes from Vic Morrow as the lawman Franklin. He refuses to wear a badge or gun, he can think like a criminal on the run, and he’s not beyond ramming a car with a helicopter if he has to. While the other cops are squarely obsessed with modern techniques of law enforcement, Morrow’s Franklin almost seems like a sheriff in a western film. Morrow of course had a long career of character roles and starred in the TV series Combat!, but he will infamously be remembered for when he lost his life. Morrow was one of the victims of the tragic helicopter crash on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. With so much of his screen time in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry being in a helicopter, it was a bit eerie.
Where Hough’s Hell House failed was having unsuspenseful situations filled with characters that I could not get into. On the other hand, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, gained strength from putting challenging characters in a tense situation. Hell House plodded along revealing little of itself to the audience while DM,CL continues at a breakneck pace from start to finish. If you can only see one of these films, then make it Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. After all who needs a sub-par ghost tale when you can watch one of the best and longest car chase sequences ever put to film.
I hope you all enjoyed this installment of Multi-Monday. Join me back here for the rest of the week for some hippie horror, more Hitchcock fun, a visit from beautiful lady, and another Giallo to round out the month! Then the furious posting begins with 31 horror films in 31 days including the Sequel to the Halloween Top 13!