The Legend of Hell House
In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobwebbed production values have much more in common with Hammer than the decade’s incoming new wave of horror. The characters are stock types and the cast is at least half-comprised of faces you’d consider traditional choices (stage actor Clive Revill; Roddy McDowall, whose rare appearances in the genre belie the feeling that he could be a natural successor to the likes of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing). Director John Hough, an ITC veteran, worked on The Avengers before moving into films; his sophomore effort was Hammer’s Twins of Evil (a guide to the general sensibility showing here). Cinematographer Alan Hume was both a veteran of The Avengers and numerous Carry On… films, and several of the small cast (Peter Bowles, Michael Gough, Ronald Culver) and producer Albert Fennell worked on the series too. This is a film produced out of the background of traditional British film and television; it was never going to be ground-breaking.
And yet Hell House ought to be seen as a post-Hammer piece, with one foot trailing in the past as it nurses a contemporary setting and approach to its subject matter. As such, it distinguishes itself from typical Hammer or Amicus fare (be it period vampire movies or portmanteaus) in certain significant respects . Prolific writer Richard Matheson provided the screenplay, based on his novel Hell House. He also wrote the screen version of The Devil Rides Out, five years earlier. There are some tonal similarities between the two films, but Devil’s main claim to fame, as good as it is, comes from the twist of casting Christopher Lee as the hero. The investigation of a haunted house formed the basis for the earlier (and much better regarded) The Haunting (1963), itself based on the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, made by the BBC in 1972, took a low-key, no-frills approach to investigating psychic phenomena (although it wasn’t quite so restrained in some of its characters’ reactions). So it’s not as if this was fresh territory. And Matheson has little interest in the rigours of scientific inquiry, merely the trappings; his language is rarely more than jargon (be it physics or supernatural).
But the semblance of verisimilitude goes a long way. The subtitled reminders of time and date punctuate each incident at the house, lending the appearance of a scientifically documented, procedural approach. It also serves to heighten the atmosphere; every time we are updated, we expect an event to occur imminently, even if one does not (Stanley Kubrick would employ this device to surreal effect in The Shining). And the sound design of the film is a clever and creepy, courtesy of former BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-conspirators Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson (surely an influence on John Carpenter). The divide between sound effects and music is never all together clear and their sonic contributions are immeasurably important in punctuating otherwise fairly hackneyed, or even slightly silly, signs of spooks (slamming doors, smashing crockery, gusting winds). The ominous electronic heartbeat that introduces us to the house informs us of both its living nature and the repressed sexuality that will drive events.
Admittedly, anyone discovering Hell House today will probably level the charge that it isn’t very scary. I’d be hard-pressed to dispute that the attack on Florence by a possessed moggy is anything less than unintentionally funny. But, when it comes to the requirement for palpable scares, I may have different criteria for judging horror movies to others. It’s a genre I tend to approach selectively (such that certain subgenres will find me. If the premise is a strong one, the horror need not be overt; the aforementioned The Wicker Man is a good example of this. Hell House is unlikely to have you on the edge of your seat, but there’s something very seductive about the psychic investigation format, the faux-realism of the date and time stamps informing us of the team’s progress, the trad-horror trappings of a gothic mansion besieged by billowing fog/dry ice and the ominous electronica on the soundtrack. These elements furnish it with the glow of a movie that could have only been produced at this point in time and, depending on your disposition, you will just as feasibly embrace the result as ridicule it.
And the counterbalance to potential disappointment over the lack of frights is that the film is enormous fun. From the rudimentary poltergeist effects to the dedicated investigators assuming expectedly adversarial roles based on their disciplines, Hell House manoeuvres through familiar territory to a thoroughly daft final reveal.
At the request of a dying millionaire, physicist Lionel Barrett (Revill) investigates a famous haunted house that was once lived in by depraved “Roaring Giant” Emeric Belasco. Barrett’s wife Edith (Gayle Hunnicutt), mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and physical medium Ben Fisher (Roddy McDowell) accompany him. Each will be paid £100,000 for their troubles, but they have a limited period in which to assess the house (the five days leading up to Christmas – a curious choice as there is no apparent relevance in the film, although it seems there is in the book). Fisher is the only survivor of a previous investigation in which eight people died.
The oppositions are established almost immediately. Lionel, the scientist, appears to be the lead, the her-type, despite being sceptical of theories concerning “surviving personalities” and “controlled multiple hauntings” as suggested by Florence, the second lead. He does not deny the effects of the phenomena (be it the movement of physical objects or ectoplasm – which he pronounces as the organic externalisation of Florence’s thoughts) but claims that it amounts to “mindless, directionless power” of an electromagnetic nature. He’s even brought a whacking great machine with him, which, once assembled, will suck all the unwanted energy from the mansion. During the early stages Ben takes a back seat to the debate on beliefs, while Edith seems like a fourth wheel.
So one of the pleasures of the film is that expectations concerning the characters are subverted. We expect either Lionel or Florence to be proved correct, so the eventual reveal that both are wrong comes as a surprise. And it may not be a twist quite of Psycho proportions, but I doubt that anyone going in would expect the survivors to be Ben and Edith. Ben stands out as reticent, fearful, bookish and bespectacled (with milk bottle goggles that enlarge his eyes significantly); a weakling. He’s exactly the sort of character ripe for a nasty demise before the first act is over. And the stirrings of repressed sexual desire in Edith make her a similar likely target (any woman getting all sexy doesn’t usually stand a chance).
But it turns out that Lionel is not just scientifically detached, he is also emotionally remote (he slumbers while Edith lies awake, her desires unsatisfied). His inability to entertain ideas outside of his comfort zone ultimate leads to his death. His reaction to the machine registering energy once more (“I don’t accept this. I do not accept this”) is the character’s signature moment, and the last thing he says. You wonder that he allowed his wife to join the party, and the initial reluctance he expresses in this regard is one of the few moments that sets his blinkeredness in relief. Florence is afflicted in a different way, too open and credulous towards what she believes the spirits are telling her until it is too late. It’s a refreshing twist that the battered underdog (Ben) emerges as the hero, and not by proving he is a man through some clichéd macho feat but by confronting his fears.
Revill brings an air of starchy certainty to Lionel, quite unlike the fun he was clearly having in Modesty Blaise a few years earlier. His shock at the sight of Ann flaunting herself at Ben is the one point where he shows weakness; his Achilles’ Heel. Matheson’s novel was more pronounced in exposing the Barretts’ marriage problems (Lionel had directed all his passion into his work, was afflicted with a limp as a result of polio and was impotent), as it was generally with the libidinousness. As the adaptor, Matheson removed much of the overt sexual content (citing producer Stanley Chase’s objection that orgies would seem passé to a modern audience; this seems a remarkably clueless assumption, although that’s not unknown with producers). It’s questionable whether the film suffers from this restraint (it was a PG in the US, somewhat surprisingly - although, maybe not given the general slackness in censorship at that time - and an X in the UK). A strong erotic undercurrent runs throughout; making it more overt might well have unbalanced it as much as the indiscriminate sex and nudity did in the later Hammer fare.
Florence’s invitation to (what she believes to be) the spirit of Belasco’s son to make use of her is unsettling enough without the need to go as far as the novel. Franklin’s performance is easily the standout; she’s a beguiling presence, so earnest and commanding that you believe her until told otherwise. She made her debut in another ghost story, the masterful The Innocents, 12 years earlier. Her best-known role came as the freethinking Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but she gave up acting at the beginning of the ‘80s after becoming trapped in an endless cycle of crappy US TV series. It’s a great shame, as the promise of her early work wouldn’t have been overlooked so easily today; she’d most likely have earned Kate Winslet roles and status. The most haunting moments of Hell House are the ones featuring her vocally augmented channelling and her unnerving, unhinged laughter following her carnal encounter with the spirit.
Florence: I don’t know you people. Why are you here? It does no good. Nothing changes. Nothing. Get out or I’ll hurt you. I can’t help myself. God damn you, you filthy sons of bitches. God damn you. I don’t want to hurt you but I must get out of this house. I must, before I kill you all.
Anyone familiar with Orbital’s Middle of Nowhere album will recognise the first half of that quote, sampled on the track I Don’t Know You People. Florence’s is the film’s first death (although both come during the final act) and, even given her freak-out attempt to destroy the machine, it comes as a shock (“She had to destroy my beliefs, before they destroyed her”).
Ann: You… me… that girl… Lionel… all together… naked… drunk… clutching… sweating… biting…
Ann brings with her the lustiest reaction to the house, beginning with her discovery of an array of erotic literature and continuing with her imagining of a copulating statue of Pan coming to life. It isn’t long before she’s appearing to poor impassive Ben (twice) begging for some action. The effectiveness of these scenes come largely from Hunnicutt’s bewitched playing, but it’s unfortunate that her character is purely reactive; we know nothing of her background or interests, she’s defined purely by Lionel and the sexual yearnings he fails to satisfy. Hunnicutt is astutely cast, with the kind of Bond girl looks that belie her acting skills and emphasise Lionel’s myopia and single-mindedness. Like Franklin, she was never rewarded with the kinds of parts she deserved, but a decade later made for a memorable Irene Adler opposite Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes.
Florence: Who the hell do you think you are, you bastard? You might have been hot stuff when you were fifteen, but now you’re shit!
And then there’s the wonderful Roddy McDowall. He’s an endlessly watchable actor, his ubiquity in American TV of the ‘60s and ‘70s standing as an unfair stigma against his charisma and talent. And he’s a shrewd choice for the unassuming hero, frequently typecast as untrustworthy and/or spineless and possessed of an enduringly fey asexuality that still lends him boyishness in his mid-40s. McDowall’s screen history informs us that he won’t survive the house. But it also makes the sight of Ann (and Florence) repeatedly offering herself to him, to an uncomprehending response, knowingly amusing.
Ben: The house tried to kill me. It almost succeeded.
Ben’s role initially is one of the ill-fated prophet of doom. His warning to Florence proves accurate (“You’re the one who should leave this house. You’re the one who’s being used, not me”). That he is withholding his abilities as protection suggests that, when he inevitably opens himself up, something nasty awaits. Indeed, there’s a scene where he does so (prior to the clearing) having been goaded by Lionel who accuses him of taking the money and running; he screams in terror and writhes in agony in front of a hearth.
McDowell has that rare ability to tread the border between seriousness and camp, and he straddles the divide in an enormously enjoyable fashion here. His salvo aimed to provoke Belasco at the climax, decrying him as a “funny little dried up bastard” and calling his mother a whore, as gusts of supernatural wind blowing him across the mansion’s church, is a scream. Elsewhere you hang on his every word as he recounts what happened in the house 20 years before. Outside of his latex-shrouded performances in the Planet of the Apes films, this would be his best role until he playing Peter Vincent in the late ‘80s Fright Night movies.
Ben: Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?
Revisiting Hell House, it’s a little surprising just how undefined the activities that went on in the house remain. We learn that 27 bodies were found when it was opened up in 1929 (it was built in 1919), Belasco’s not among them. Matheson leaves most of the details to the imagination. One might argue that the less is more approach yields dividends, and Hough tends to this method; he frequently shows characters’ reactions rather than what they see or experience. But there’s a lingering feeling that we don’t learn enough of Belasco to allow us to understand how he became such a demonic force, certainly not when we’re finally informed of his rather unlikely motivating force. When Ann speaks of “all that debauchery and vice”, you can be sure that a modern version wouldn’t miss the chance to leap into a flashback, or show Ann in an ecstatic reverie as she perceives herself becoming a part of those events. Most comments from those familiar with the novel attest to its copious sex and violence; it’s more than possible that any filmmaker remaking the movie, aside from relocating it to the novel’s New England setting, would over-indulge those elements to the point of missing the wood for the trees. And there are those who consider the book guilty of this anyway, that it might have been better served by a little restraint. Apparently Matheson came round to the film, recognising its merits rather than bemoaning how it fell short of his novel (to be fair to him, he put the blame on his own choices rather than Hough’s direction).
And a version more tonally in line with the source material unfortunately wouldn’t change the ending, which sucks all the air out of the room. We learn that motivating factor for Belasco’s monstrous behaviour (including his penchant for crippling his victims) was his diminutive size. He wasn’t even five foot tall and “so despised his own shortness that he had both his legs cut off”, replacing them with prostheses. Maybe it works better on the page, but the sight of horror veteran Michael Gough playing a corpse, glass of wine in hand, is underwhelming even without his bizarre pathology.
In contrast, I rather like the daffy pseudo-science explanation whereby his soul resides within led-lined walls so as to shelter from the intrusive device he foresaw would one day enter the house. Ben charitably credits both Lionel and Florence with being half right in their theories. It wasn’t a mindless force or multiple hauntings; it was one (and Lionel was correct in terms of the efficacy of his machine). I’ve seen it suggested that the cat shown at the end indicates that Belasco’s spirit is still at large but, since we already saw a possessed cat meet a messy end, I suspect it’s just there for aesthetic purposes (unless Belasco possessed any feline in the surrounding area). For Matheson’s purposes, electro-magnetic radiation is as verifiable in psychic phenomena as it is in the physical world. It’s at least a plausible touch that the humans need to leave the building when the machine is switched on.
Although the story of this film is fictitious the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only within the bounds of possibility, but could also well be true. (Tom Corbett – Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty)
The opening invitation, asking the audience to see the events as plausible, looks like Matheson is straight-up taking the piss (Tom Corbett is also the name of a ‘50s science fiction hero, a “space cadet”), but as recently as 1996 he attested that all the happenings in the book were based on actual occurrences. It’s always useful to be able to cite sources to justify artistic licence because, as we have noted, the last thing Matheson really seems to care about is his tale standing up to rigorous analysis; it’s all about the appearance (which makes it a wonder he gave his legless antagonist a pass). Hence he throws in occasionally quotations from the Bible, to add an air of ancient attestation to the evil at work (“If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out”).
If it weren’t that Hough’s direction carries with it the artifice of Hammer, during the opening scenes we might have been fooled into thinking this was a serious-minded exploration of strange phenomena. The approach to recording and analysing evidence has that air (and the scene where ectoplasm is produced has an irresistible matter-of-factness to it), but unlike the ambiguity of The Haunting, Hell House quickly embraces the creative potential of the haunted house phenomenon. Anyone hoping for something more considered would probably take as big a knock from what transpires as those who expect The Prestige to deliver the ultimate in stage sleight of hand. It would fair to say that Matheson doesn’t need to convince anyone; he’s an author so telling a good yarn comes first.
The common assumption seems to be that Matheson based Belasco on Aleister Crowley, but I haven’t seen this substantiated. De Sade certainly seems to be in there, but Matheson’s character could probably take in any historical figure who took pride in depravity and debauchery. Crowley is often associated with the number 23 (unfortunately a number now forever entwined with Jim Carrey), and those interested in the subject can find the background to its significance with a quick Google search. Or pick up Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger for a thoroughly good read. Ever since reading about it, instances of 23 in movies invariably catch my attention. If they weren’t so inexhaustible, I’d probably document them; as it is, you’ll probably find one cropping up least once in any given film. Here, the less than spectacular 8.23am appears on one of the subtitles; more markedly, Belasco’s date of birth is 23 March 1879 (in the real world, production began on 23 October 1972 and the German Blu-ray release was 23 March 2012).
Hough and Matheson don’t waste their time getting to the meat; Hell House comes in at a little over 90 minutes. Stylstically too, Hough’s approach tends to the straightforward. He favours low angles, employing a wide-angle lens to increase the sense of exaggeration and heightened reality (particularly effective with the exterior shots). Establishing long shots are sometimes used to promote the sense of the team being watched by an unseen force. Hough is also fond of composing close-ups with his actors either side of the frame; he stages an entire conversation between Lionel and Ben this way, and the effect is striking and intimate. Hough’s steady approach means that the occasional flourish (a corridor spinning as Florence runs along it; Florence in a trance, a chiaroscuro effect picking out her eyes; copulating shadows on a bedroom ceiling) stands out. On the downside, he’s unable to lift the standard poltergeist effects out-of-the-ordinary. Hough would go on to direct a number of live-action Disney movies during the ‘70s and early ‘80s but his career never really took off.
The Legend of Hell House is best viewed as an engaging, spirited product of its time. Any comparisons with its more illustrious horror bedfellows of 1973 will find it wanting, but it has an energy undimmed by the passing years. It never falls victim to the repetitions and sometime tedium of many of the later Hammer films, and even offers the occasional surprise in terms of character fates and nuances. Hell House more than deserves its place amongst the more celebrated haunted house movies.
Spookily enough, the news of Richard Matheson’s passing has been announced as I complete this review; I can feel the ectoplasm leaking from my fingertips as I type. The Guardian obituary dismisses the film as “lacklustre” but I’d urge you to make your own thorough investigation.