The Legend of Hell House Film Review
In keeping with our tradition of closing our doors on All Hallows Eve, the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I examine something dark and seasonal. Another by the notable sci-fi, fantasy, horror scribe Richard Matheson. This one could well be described as a by-product or follow-up of something Rachel and I reviewed 364 days ago: The Haunting.
No surprise Shirley Jackson’s exalted haunted house novel has proven to be influential for a number of reasons, and important to writers who’ve followed her through the decades. Recognizable in the works of both Stephen King (The Shining, obliquely in Salem’s Lot) and Matheson’s Hell House, which will have our focus today. More graphic and bloody re-interpretations, surely. Inasmuch neither were Mrs. Jackson, and are definitely male, not a revelation.
The wordy one will peruse that 1971 novel, which served as the basis for its 1973 film adaptation. Retitled as The Legend of Hell House, and done by a British film and television director coming into his own back then, which I’ll examine. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
Hell House by Richard Matheson
A brief synopsis of the film: A dying millionaire by the name of Deutsch has engaged physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett, who has an interest in parapsychology, and two psychics — spiritualist and mental medium, Florence Tanner, and Ben Fischer the physical medium — to investigate “survival after death”. In the most well-known place for it — the Belasco House. Originally owned by another millionaire with a reputation for sexual perversity and sadistic desires, the manor believed to be haunted by numerous spirits. Victims of Emeric Belasco, who disappeared years ago soon after a massacre there. Amid the four-person expedition (Barrett’s wife accompanying), Mr. Fischer the only surviving member of previous probes. Fully aware of the dangers in taking on the depraved and murderous “Roaring Giant” on his own turf. So, the question is: who will survive their stay in Hell House?
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“Welcome to my house. I’m delighted you could come. I’m certain you will find your stay here most illuminating. Think of me as your unseen host, and believe that during your stay here I shall be with you in spirit. May you find the answer that you seek. It is here, I promise you. And now, auf Wiedersehen”
I tend to think this horror sub-genre can be split into those of “ghost stories” and “haunted house tales.” I know, you can’t have one without the other, seemingly. A difference without a distinction, but hear me out. The emphasis of the former, like in A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Sixth Sense, or Ringu, is primarily with the spectre. Where the spirit resides less the point in contrast than with the latter. Good haunted house yarns give off an atmosphere of dread with their scares. Permeating everything within its foundation, especially those visiting.
It works because they, and viewers, are literally in the belly of the beast.
While The Legend of Hell House may not exactly be in the same class of something like The Haunting (or those among you enthralled with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), it’s nevertheless one of the better ones to creep you out on a dark and stormy night. Or even in the daylight — which was where I happened upon it on a local TV broadcast one Saturday afternoon during the 70s. This British film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s response to Shirley Jackson’s most famous tale, involving four people and one house, patted along at a faster, more thrilling, clip.
“The unsettling tales of Emeric Belasco’s acts of debauchery and evil at Hell House were loosely based on stories involving occultist Aleister Crowley.” ~ IMDB
Certainly, meting out callers’ worst fears in a legendary abode in a far bloodier, more lustful manner this time around. Richard Matheson gave it a manly rejoinder. The result more consumer rather than connoisseur in his telling of the tale. Emphasizing the psycho-sexual aspect over the psychological. Typical, as female readers or viewers gathered. John Hough’s translation, using Matheson’s own screenplay of his novel, a decidedly toned down version than what he shocked readers with in 1971.
Foregoing the award-winning Shirley Jackson’s, and Robert Wise’s, slow-burn treatment for The Haunting of Hill House by a wide margin.
“It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.”
Credit the spook story’s effectiveness to director Hough at the helm, who’d go on to do Dirty Harry Crazy Mary, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Watcher in the Woods following this. Treating the material with respect, and incorporating a fair amount of technical innovation with the production. Obviously, taking into account its British cast, changing the original story’s New England setting to a fog-strewn location in the land without “New” in its name. Mirroring to an extent what Robert Wise did for The Haunting1 a decade before.
Most assuredly giving the edgier material a vivid treatment, especially visually.
That’s the fun of it, even though nothing here is played for laughs (or camp). Hough, I believe, knew this was a direct complement to not only author Jackson, but more notably Robert Wise’s cinematic translation. Where Wise used razor-sharp black and white photography, the darkest shadows, and distinct contrast in art direction, The Legend of Hell House incorporated a colorful, more garish scheme in its palette. In wardrobe and set design for its divergence, care of production designer Robert Jones and some splendid cinematography by Alan Hume.
Not to mention the amount of nude paintings and sculpture all about — old Emeric way more bawdy than whatever “walked there… walked alone” in puritanical Hill House.
Indeed, this spirited haunter didn’t just target the weakest of the visitors (as done to fragile Eleanor), but went systematically after all of them, especially the women. Physical and mental. Again, how very male. The irony for the characters in the tale was they’re all partly wrong in their assumptions and beliefs coming into Hell House, and partially right. The fun for the audience, those who enjoy such frightful stories, was figuring out what was what. Like most haunted house tales, they’re essentially locked room mysteries. The curious visitors usually the victims, as well.
Only those who figure it out, survive, and those that don’t, well…
Again, Shirley laid the premise. Four investigators, this time represented wonderfully by Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, and Gayle Hunnicutt, enter a haunted house to figure what makes it tick. With dire results. In a varied career spanning all sorts of genres, this is my second favorite Roddy McDowall performance in a horror flick — Fright Night being first. Doesn’t so much scene-steal as present the audience with a once powerful medium reduced to nothing more than the thoroughly burnt-out individual. All care of Hell House.
An anguished remnant given summation so well in the third act exchange between he and Barrett:
“Yes, I know the score: you do not fight this house! Look, Hell House doesn’t mind a guest or two. What it doesn’t like is people who attack it. Belasco doesn’t like it; his people, they don’t like it, and they will fight back and they will kill you. So, listen to me. You just leave that damn machine alone and you spend the rest of the week resting, doing nothing. When Sunday comes, you tell old Deutsch anything he wants to hear and bank the money. If you try anything else, you will be a dead man, with a dead wife at your side!
He won’t listen, will he? [Barrett’s wife shrugs no]
I was the only one to make it out of here alive and sane in 1953, and I will be the only one to make it out of here alive and sane this time.”
In fact, the entire British cast in this small intimate troupe were first-rate2. Playing off their scientific and spiritual rivalries, believer vs. non-believer motivations, expressing natural tensions, in an unnatural setting. Working well within the constraints Matheson placed before each, reiterating some of his groundbreaking ordered analytics in horror novels he first introduced with I Am Legend a couple of decades before. This time through Clive Revill’s haughty Dr. Barrett persona. The formidable Belasco House set standing in more than well for the unseen host behind it all providing the chaos.
[insert scary conniving laughter here]
There was a lot technically in The Legend of Hell House that made it striking. Its practical physical effects still hold up rather well, if you don’t look too closely at the black cat mauling scene. Sound effects, too, along with the distinct and evocative electronic score by Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, unquestionably upped its moodiness. Finally, it deployed some of the earliest use of both hand-held camera work and the timestamp framing device (carried over from Matheson’s novel to give it a chronicled texture). Overall, an innovative approach to the haunted house theme.
Echoing the Jackson/Wise adaptation almost ten years later, the film had a lot going for it. Atmospheric and downright scary at times, Richard Matheson effectively encapsulated the five days from his novel into a tight script. Keeping its excesses in check (believe me), which was nicely and briskly executed in its 95 minute runtime by the filmmaker. Granted, Florence Tanner succumbing to the worst idea ever (way before the one used in Splice) was pretty jaw-dropping, but standard for a horror flick. And under a mirrored bedroom ceiling, at that!
Still, it did bring forth profane possession onscreen a full six months before The Exorcist, which was released in the same year.
Easily, one of my favorite haunted house films, and why I suggested it for our series. A clear homage to The Haunting and its source novel by a writer and a British director of some repute. While it may be on a slightly lower tier than Wise’s ’63 effort, or The Changeling and The Innocents3, it has nothing to be ashamed of. Also gave me a chance to examine the new Blu-ray Disc released by The Shout Factory this year. Definitely worth it, I’d say. The film’s eerie glory, with a new bright transfer that kept its shadowy detail intact, was better than ever.
The foursome’s introduction to Belasco’s domain at the start of the film, with its fog-shrouded walk up to Hell House by the unlucky few, still chills all these years later.
It’s a testament to what British filmmakers successfully undertook for one of the better genre flicks that decade. Now more than forty years old, The Legend of Hell House remains, conceivably, a coarser, more corporeal treatise of the haunted house film4 than what others’ imagined. Blatantly provocative comparatively, though those mentioned do carry, milder, sexual undertones. The Haunting‘s feminism subtext need not apply, here, but what else can you expect from us guys? Surely, says something about those with a ‘Y’ chromosome. But we have our uses. Like killing spiders or keeping company when you’re forced to watch something like this. 😉
Time to put another review season, our fifth(!), in the books (or film can as it were), taking our customary short break from the parallel post series of ours.
Till January 2015, auf Wiedersehen…and don’t call me Shirley.
Parallel Post Series
- Tales From Earthsea
- The Andromeda Strain
- The Bourne Identity
- Empire of the Sun
- The Name of the Rose
- I Am Legend
- The Right Stuff
- – 2013 posts
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts
- Using Wykehurst Place, in Bolney, West Sussex, after looking again at The Haunting‘s Stratford-upon-Avon manor in Warwickshire. ↩
- Richard Matheson actually wanted Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who were still married at this time) to star in this film. Still, Michael Gough does make an interesting (uncredited) cameo in the film. ↩
- While we’re at it, let’s add Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) to this list, shall we? ↩
- The only film that surpasses this take of the haunted house in blood and gore is Event Horizon. ↩
15 Responses to “The Legend of Hell House Film Review”
I’ve always really liked this film and this is a great look at it, well done (have not read the book yet though – I understand it is sexier …) – Hough certainly makes the most of it and it is probably his best movie along with the later Hammer excursion, TWINS OF EVIL – must watch this again, thanks!
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Thank you very kindly, Sergio. Now that you mention Twins of Evil, I need to try and get my hands on that earlier Hough film.
One of my favorites. There is a lot of detail in what you have here, I’m going to come back and do more than just scan but there is a really good movie here. In case you are interested, this was on the original KAMAD project:
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Excellent! Will head over and peruse your review, Richard. Always enjoy your takes, my friend. Glad to hear a number of people look back in fondness of this movie. Love its cast and treatment of the material. Thank you so much 🙂
Wow that’s quite an impassioned and exhaustive piece here Robert! I’m definitely a fan, though I agree it is not quite on the level of THE HAUNTING or THE SHINING. But its a reasonably cerebral and shuddery piece that is well acted and richly crafted. I haven’t watched in a while though, and your terrific review is some very fine motivation!
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Indeed, Sammy. This has held remarkably up well for a number of years now. Story, cast, and craft (well put) make for terrific haunted house tale paid homage and made a name for itself. Thank you so much, my friend.
Happy to see certain aspects were toned down, it’s means I’ll actually give it a view. I definitely did not want to see what I was reading!
side note for the first commenter: don’t confuse sexy with violence. The book is violent, not sexy!
And, my goodness, I hope this isn’t a manly version – or essentially male – as I would have to avoid any claiming that title for the rest of my life. 😉
Another wonderful review, Michael! I just love your style. Thanks for another great year!
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I hope you do. I think its tone down treatment will be at least entertaining, especially given your reading of the source novel. I think I remembered hearing somewhere it’s R-rating (here in the U.S.) would have been an “X” if filmmakers depicted more of the book’s story. It’s a solid adaptation with a fine cast of British actors, and like “The Haunting”, a wonderful scary set and atmosphere made it so much fun.
Indeed, another great year of book/movie reviews for us. And thank you for it all, Rachel. 🙂
Oooh this sounds intriguing, that is if I have the guts to watch it, ha! As you know I like British actors and sounds like they deliver once again here. The atmospheric horror does intrigue me more than just blood and gore though.
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It’s a great British cast and an intriguing, atmospheric experience, Ruth. I know horror is not a favorite yours, but this is an absorbing film that moves pretty quickly. Most of the blood and gore was left in the novel. Many thanks for the read, comment, and share, my friend 🙂
I just watched this after a very long time of not re-visiting it. I watched it on Amazon Prime and had a blast with it. Great mood and atmosphere in spades. Also, it manged to creep me out big time and I don’t recall being that scared watching it, ever! I need to get that Shout Factory blu ray for sure. I thought the cast (including Gough in that weird cameo at the end) was incredible and I am glad that Burton and Taylor didn’t end up in this. It would have had a whole other vibe. Gotta track down that novel by Matheson, too.
I have been a fan of Pam Franklin’s since The Innocents and she stole every scene in this flick. Roddy was through the roof as well especially in the final act. I’m glad you spotlighted this one. Sorry it took me so long to get to it.
This was an awesome piece! Very insightful and in depth. I learned a few things, here, Michael. Great job. Thanks!
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Thank you very much, Vic. Glad to hear you screened this again, and that you’re a fan of the film. This one got hold of me long ago and has not loosened its grip to this day. Yes, Pam Franklin is great in this. Watched her again in The Innocents for October, as well. Great to have you join in with this. We’re in agreement, my friend. 🙂
Well written and a professional review, never heard of this film but it seems worthy.
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Welcome! Thank you very kindly, Ashley.
[…] (and stood up well to the likes of all great haunted house fare out there, The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House great examples); and a music soundtrack so representative of the grandiose Kubrick. The classical […]