Legend of Hell House, The (1973)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-08-28 01:39

Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: John Hough
Starring: Roddy McDowall, Gayle Hunnicutt, and Pamela Franklin

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"What did he do to make this house so evil, Mr. Fischer?"
"Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, beastiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?"

In the forty years since its release, The Legend of Hell House has been rendered an ironic curiosity; released just on the precipice of The Exorcist, it unwittingly represented a dying breed, as its particular brand of classical ghost stories would become an increasingly dusty relic in an era ruled by escalating schlock and gore. But if not for writer Richard Matheson’s decision to tone down his own novel, this adaptation perhaps could have been at the forefront of more forcefully marrying the classic style with the incoming luridness. Instead, the rather shocking Hell House become a comparatively mannered—but not altogether stuffy, mind you—entry in British horror, a canon which was only just beginning to catch up with the rest of the Continent.

Considered the “Mount of Everest of Haunted Houses,” the Belasco house looms ominously in the world of parapsychology. Originally owned by Ernie Belasco, a self-proclaimed “roaring giant” and millionaire with a rumored penchant for holding Caliguan parties, the mansion has remained dormant since its eccentric tenant’s passing. A similarly odd millionaire (Roland Carver) has become obsessed with studying the house’s paranormal activity and enlists a team to investigate: led by stuffy physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), the team also includes a pair of mediums (Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowall), plus Barrett’s tagalong wife (Gayle Hunnicut).

Bringing a loved one to a notoriously haunted house is never a good idea, but Barrett—in his infinite skeptic wisdom—isn’t fussed by the notion and is convinced the house’s activity can be chalked up to electromagnetic energy gone awry. As Barrett, Revill not only represents the film’s staid, stick-in-the-mud center but also the exact sort of mentality that’s often under fire in these sorts of films. In this character, one witnesses the underlying horror of this movement: where many of the 70s shockers aimed to unsettle through debasing religion, this strand of haunted house movie often attacked logic. What is surely cannot be, and the sense of prim-and-proper order is disrupted. A place for everything and everything in its place, including an electromagnetic device that will restore the laws of nature within the house.

In this respect, Matheson’s decision to pare down his lurid novel shrewdly alters the dynamic into something admittedly familiar yet compelling. Rather than foreground and exploit the house’s sordid history, it simmers on the backburner, creating an air of mystery and elevating Belasco’s enigma: just how deep into the black arts was this guy if he was able to somehow endure after death? His rumored abilities hover over the proceedings in menacing fashion and exert their influence in calculated, increasingly disturbing bursts: first, he manages to direct the investigators’ attention to a voice recording. By the end of the second night, his spirit has compelled Barrett’s wife to disrobe and seduce McDowall’s character.

More overt and vicious happenings occur as the film progresses, but it’s the film’s brooding atmosphere that leaves a stronger impression. Veteran Brit director John Hough transforms this Victorian haunt into a living, labyrinthine creature via impressively couched camera angles that give the impression that the home is spying on its visitors. Between the unnerving god’s-eye-views and the various other oddly perched shots, it feels like surveillance footage of the damned—it’s almost as if Belasco were buried away somewhere eavesdropping on these folks from beyond the grave. It’s almost a cliché to declare the house to be the star of a film like this, but it’s especially true of The Legend of Hell House, as the Belasco manner is a terrific exercise in mise en scene: a seemingly endless arrangement of corridors and spooky chambers, the surroundings seem to gradually enclose its inhabitants as they dig deeper into its bowels.

They aren’t altogether expendable either: McDowall is quietly effective as the “physical” medium who survived a previous stay at the Belasco mansion. Adored with thick-lensed glasses that accentuate his sheer terror, McDowall subtly communicates the house’s horrifying history through a restrained performance that sometimes says more than any of the film’s (many) expository bits that illuminate Belasco’s unseemly deeds. Complimenting him is Franklin as the “spiritual” medium whose faith does come under fire during her stay, with her crucifixed fate providing a wry hint of the silliness that bursts forth during the film’s climax. After some rather preposterous attempts at misdirection, the mystery is laid bare for a rather pyrotechnical finale that at least reserves one of the film’s more disturbing images when the calcified Belasco is revealed.

While a more faithful adaptation of Hell House may have provided more audacious jolts and allowed the film to keep up with its schlockier contemporaries, Hough’s take makes for a compelling epilogue to this movement (which, to be fair, wouldn’t stay dormant for very long). More a spiritual successor to The Haunting (appropriate, given Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House inspired Matheson’s tale), The Legend of Hell House is the logical extension of this genre’s creeping into the chaotic 70s, where order and logic were consistently breaking down. Indeed, the pseudo-documentary conceit here that has the film meticulously tracking the lapsing of time seems like a gradually futile attempt at reining in chaos.

Some of Matheson’s luridness (especially the erotic stuff) creep through, but Hough’s restraint even here turn The Legend of Hell House into something of a meta-textual exercise, as this classically fashioned haunted house tale is consistently warding off modern intrusions in the way of autoerotic perversions and ghastly sexual encounters. Hough discusses the film’s Anglo-slant in a 28-minute interview that serves as the centerpiece of Scream Factory’s recent Blu-ray release, which also features a commentary from Franklin (though it seems to have been repurposed from an older interview. A theatrical trailer, radio spots, and a photo gallery round out the disc, which also naturally improves upon the now decade-old DVD release’s presentation. With its feet planted awkwardly in two different eras, The Legend of Hell House eventually finds its footing in a classical mode; however, it doesn’t completely stave off the looming spirits of the age, making it perhaps even more intriguing than a completely faithful adaptation. Buy it!

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