The Legend of Hell House. 1973. Directed by John Hough. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel.
Starring Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, & Michael Gough.
Academy Pictures Corporation.
Rated PG. 95 minutes.
I love anything involving Richard Matheson, so the prospect of him adapting his own novel Hell House into 1973’s John Hough-directed The Legend of Hell House was so exciting. I can only imagine being a fan back then, getting to see it for the first time. Alas, only a few years ago I got my hands on a copy. And it blew me away.
Something Matheson touches on well is the crossover point where science and theology can meet, in regards to the supernatural, life beyond the grave. This journey into a terrifying haunted house is one of metaphysics, exploring how disbelief, in many forms, can work against oneself. As a matter of fact, you can look at the movie as whole in the way of allegory about selling short the afterlife.
Why? Because there are no concrete answers.
Hough’s direction is wonderful and he puts the screenplay by Matheson to film well, using many effective techniques in drawing the viewer into this haunted place. Running the gamut from science to religion, Matheson spins a wicked web of depravity, ghosts, as the figure of Emeric Belasco – based on the nasty modern wizard Aleister Crowley – looms evilly over every character to enter its doors.
Does great evil leave a stain on the place where it occurs?
This is a central thematic question to the story. Essentially, the question of good and evil, as one doesn’t happen without the other. It’s a polar opposite relationship. Using the characters, Matheson creates a perfect storm for such a dichotomous clash. On one side, there’s Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), he rationalises and tries adapting the idea of spirits into a scientific process. On the other side is Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a medium; she believes that mediumship is a form of “God‘s manifestation in man.” In between them, somewhere, may lie the truth. What I dig is how Matheson has the house, and all its forces, come down upon each person in a different way. Such as Dr. Barrett, whose lack of respect for spirituality is how the house messes with him, and in opposition Tanner is physically attacked, manifesting that supposed spirituality through a black cat clawing her to bits among other things. It’s really perfect writing. Back and forth, Dr. Barrett argues with Tanner, despite mounting proof, how her manifestations are “organic externalisation” and that his machines need to give them the needed proof, nothing else. Back at him Tanner yells at one point: “We‘re not machines, we‘re human beings.” Ultimately, even with scientific evidence of haunting, how does this help to derive the reason for a haunting? Detecting presence is one thing, determining reason and rationale is an entirely different thing. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Most everybody loses, except those without a clear side and decision on the matter. That speaks directly to the idea that there are no answers, regardless where you stand. But don’t fully discount either side of the line in the sand, or else beware.
The film’s visual and aural aesthetic combined is its strongest point. Chilling atmosphere. The score alone can make you feel unsettled; sometimes a kinetic, tribal-like percussion punches in the background, sometimes it’s low and guttural woodwinds. Every shot is drenched in fog, shadows, darkness. You really feel as if you’re standing side by side with the characters, draped in the blackened spaces of the house more often than not. There are wonderful looming shots of Hell House from low angles that make it feel even bigger than it is already, as well as the black cat creeping in the foreground out front – every last detail is dark, moody, and worthy of superstition. More audible eeriness comes in the form of erotic sounds in the night; they’re not sexy, rather they’re unnerving, like the whispers of a mad man instead of passionate noise. All these elements swirl together in a genuinely scary vision of the haunted house sub-genre.
Each revelation inside the house is stranger, more depraved and macabre than the last. With each other, the Hell House myth grows stronger. Once there’s a corpse discovered in the cellar it all points to quite a nasty history, confirming the dirty deeds of the house’s builder Belasco. My favourite moment is still the literal cat fight. Though one of the Scary Movie flicks lampoons this scene, it’s still a legitimately stressful and almost nerve grating sequence. The last shot is hair-raising: Tanner stands back on, bloodied scratches carved in deep along the skin of her back.
Hough’s best work is how he puts us in the physical space of the characters. In a film like Robert Wise’s The Haunting, the characters inhabit a very psychological space. Here, it is physical, and the manifestations of Hell House feel more visceral. Their emotions are amped up, as we spend so much time closed in on their faces, up front and centre for their performances. This is helped by spectacular work, most of all from Roddy McDowall and Pamela Franklin. Haunted house pictures are a dime a dozen. They’re much better with excellent roles filled by equally excellent actors.
Nobody can tell us what happens after life when we venture into the great beyond of death. Nobody; not religion, nor science. We know what happens to the physical form, but what happens to the soul, or that essence of our humanity? And what if our humanity is lacking, replaced by heaping doses of evil? What happens then?
The Legend of Hell House considers ghostly haunting by hedging its bets on every angle. Matheson does a pitch perfect job of pitting science against religion against straight up belief in the horrors of the afterlife. Within that framework, he explores dichotomous characters who are each assaulted by the spirit world in ways speaking directly to their belief, or lack thereof. A quality look on the concept of haunted houses.
This is one of my favourite haunted house flicks ever, up there with Wise and his classic, Burnt Offerings, The Sentinel, and The Changeling (among others). Don’t sleep on it. Creepy, fun, frightening, wild. It’s got so much to show you! And yes, there are a few little gruesome bits to chew on.