The Legend of Hell House directed by John Hough
Although a certain Wiki site lists the existence of 135 haunted-house films — and I’m sure there must be more, with a new one being released, it seems, every few months — the Big 3, for this viewer, have long been 1958’s The House on Haunted Hill, 1963’s The Haunting and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House. The first, a William Castle-directed picture that has long been a baby-boomer favorite, is undeniably scary, although much of the picture’s ghoulish occurrences, as it turns out, are man-made machinations in the furtherance of a sinister scheme. Robert Wise’s 1963 film is considered by many (including myself) the single most frightening film ever made, although nothing blatantly horrible is ever shown, and the film’s uber-creepy happenings just might all be the product of Eleanor Vance’s (Julie Harris’) deranged mind.
And then there is the ’73 film, which, I get the feeling, is often dismissed as a poor cousin of its 1963 forebear, but which a recent viewing has once again demonstrated, to this viewer, to be the most harrowing, nerve-racking and possibly edgiest of the bunch. In The Legend of Hell House, which Richard Matheson scripted and which was based on his 1971 novel Hell House (Matheson had already written a very scary haunted-house short story called “Slaughter House” in 1953, as a sort of warm-up), not only are the hauntings incontrovertibly genuine, but bloody, horrifying and murderous, as well. As it’s referred to in the film, the Belasco House, aka Hell House, is “the Mt. Everest of haunted houses” … and for good reason, as it turns out!
In The Legend of Hell House, as in The Haunting, a quartet of investigators goes to an abode with a very bad reputation to investigate the paranormal. Here, dying millionaire Deutsch (Roland Culver) sends the team off to ascertain if there really is such a thing as “survival after death.” The team consists of a physicist, Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), who is accompanied by his beautiful wife, Anne (Gayle Hunnicutt); a mental medium, Florence Tanner (former child actress Pamela Franklin, top billed here); and a physical medium, Ben Fischer, the only survivor of a previous Hell House investigation (Roddy McDowall). Barrett believes that the house’s spectral manifestations are the result of “mindless, directionless” energy forces that can be dissipated with a new scientific gizmo of his, whereas Tanner is very much a proponent of the theory of “multiple surviving personalities” being responsible for all the terror. But whose theory is correct?
I’ve got to tell you, The Legend of Hell House is, quite simply, everything I think a great horror movie should be. Director John Hough, who had already helmed Twins of Evil and would go on to create such “psychotronic” favorites as (the Disney horror films) The Watcher in the Woods and Escape to Witch Mountain, here utilizes off-kilter camera angles, extreme close-ups and moody lighting to engender a decidedly menacing atmosphere, while the great lensing of DOP Alan Hume and the wonderfully eerie, mostly electronic score from Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire only add to the deliciously nasty feel.
All four leads are just marvelous, and are given ample opportunities to shine. British actress Franklin, who had previously pleased viewers in such spooky films as The Innocents, The Nanny and Our Mother’s House, is just terrific in her ectoplasmic scene, and when fighting a demon-possessed cat, and when having sex with an invisible spirit; just try to NOT feel chilled when you see her giggling face, postcoitus. New Zealander Clive Revill is fine throughout, and never better than when reacting to a particularly violent dinnertime poltergeist attack. Gorgeous Gayle Hunnicutt, the only American in the cast, gets to have a few lustfully possessed, somnambulent interludes that should just amaze you, and Brit Roddy McDowall … well, he just about steals the show, for this viewer. Just look at how excellent he is while chiding scientist Barrett from atop the staircase — “You do not fight this house!” — and while engaged in mortal combat with the Belasco spirit. This is some kind of Oscar-calibre work here, at least of the Supporting Actor category. Just remarkable, really.
As for Matheson’s The Legend of Hell House screenplay, yes, it does excise much of the sex and violence from his horrifying novel, but even still, is grimly effective. And as for Hell House itself, it just might be the most convincingly scary, from an architectural standpoint, of any of the houses in my Big 3. House on Haunted Hill‘s modernist abode (actually the Ennis House, in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles) was certainly striking, as was The Haunting‘s Hill House (actually Ettington Hall, now the Ettington Park Hotel, in Stratford-upon-Avon), but Hell House, with its carved gates, gargoyled pillars and Gothic towers, really does look like the real deal (Hell House is actually Wykehurst Place, in Bolney, West Sussex). This is a house that tells you, at first glimpse, that all visitors will certainly be in for a rough ride!
Two words of advice for all prospective viewers of this splendid horror film, one of my all-time faves. First, turn up the volume, as there is a LOT of almost subliminal mishegas transpiring on the soundtrack. And second, have a nice, hot cup of herbal tea at your side, both to calm you down and to fight off the chills that will assuredly be coursing down your spine. Trust me, you’re gonna need it!