The Legend of Hell House (1973)

“How did it end?”
“If it had ended, we would not be here.”
In some circles, Richard Matheson is a highly-praised name. However, those circles are often the same who bemoan the fate of his novels in film translation. Those circles tend to be small, being as few could identify the author behind The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and I Am Legend–much less that all three were based on the same source novel (itself sharing the name of that third adaptation), changed to great degree in all instances, with not a single one retaining the true meaning of the very title of the book. It’s with this in mind that I turn an utterly boggled mind toward the “Fox Flix” trailers chosen to adorn the DVD of one of the few filmings of his horror novels that Matheson has not expressed open dissatisfaction with: Batman: The Movie (1966), Bedazzled (2000), Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Big Trouble in Little China. Cheese, comedy, horror-comedy and intentional cheese. What on earth were they thinking? The film itself is, while maybe a bit unintentionally campy, hardly portrayed as or visibly humourous. And yet there almost seems to be enough of a theme to suggest the choices were deliberate. Then again, maybe it was simply minimalist thinking of the worst kind: Michael Gough played Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), so that explains the first, the second and third involve vampires and the devil (ie, the supernatural) and the last…is from a well-renowned horror film-maker? In any case, those have no relation to even the way that Fox themselves portray the movie in menus and cover art.

Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) decides to serve himself and physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) by exploring the idea of “life after death,” through the usage of The Belasco House, known as the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.” Barrett brings his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and Deutsch sends, additionally, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall, who had been making something of a name for himself as the apes Caesar and Cornelius), the only one to survive a previous attempt to spend time in the Belasco House and a self-described medium, and Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a minister and another medium. Barrett derides supernatural explanations as nonsense, bringing a machine of his own devising that will purge the building of ‘electromagnetism’ (once a go-to explanation for many things supernatural). Fischer remains in this only for the money, having seen what the House can do and has done, while Tanner believes she can do something for the spirits of victims she believes are amongst those haunting the House. These motivations are all in opposition to each other, as it is a clinical problem to Barrett, a threat to Fischer and a project for healing to Tanner. These thoughts are eventually the defining traits of each character as the House beings to work its wiles on all of them.

As both a novel (Hell House, by Matheson, of course) and a film, there is endless comparison to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Robert Wise’s adaptation thereof, The Haunting (curiously, an inversion where the longer book title is cut short instead of lengthened, as it is here). While both Hauntings could both be considered restrained and polite, The Hell Houses are neither. The film is deliberately “watered down,” as the book’s events would thoroughly guarantee an X rating, as well as nausea and outright vomit from all but fans of the work of Jörg Buttgereit (one of which I am not), but is still stronger on both major taboo elements–sex and violence–than The Haunting. Nothing is truly explicit, which is hardly a surprise considering the age of the film, which came out a year prior to The Texas Chainsaw, notorious for its “graphic violence,” which, in actuality it lacked. Sure, Herschell Gordon-Lewis had started the subgenre of “splatter” with Blood Feast, and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead had its own elements, but it was still a good bit of time before graphic effects became a relatively standard trope (and eventually, for many, a tired one) of horror films. So, for a mainstream film, it was still reasonably violent for its willingness to show blood and its portrayal of sexuality as Tanner suffers a twisted form of psychological torture contrasted with her own sexual nature.

Much ado is often made of the ending’s revelation. It isn’t a horrifying, enormous, gigantic, roaring secret,¹ but that’s almost the point. It’s petty and stupid because that’s the basis for much evil in the world, especially the worst kinds of violence–the need to show control, dominance and power over others where little exists. By the end, though, it’s clear, through this revelation, that, despite an early framing around Revill that Franklin and McDowall have stolen the show. Both act in the extreme, ranging up and down and side to side in any and all moments, bouncing here and there and all over, covering and attempting to make up for the elements of their lives outside these terrifying events. Fischer is especially haunted–in either an ironic or “meta” fashion–by his previous time in the House, where he purports that it almost succeeded in killing him. He’s tortured by knowing its power and his arrogant assertion that he knows how threatening it is–especially as he insistently remains despite his attempts to convince everyone they are at risk and that he only wants to get out. Revill and Hunnicutt end up relatively bland in the end, with Revill’s rote insistence on “scientific explanation,” which may or may not carry weight, but that denies any and all supernatural elements for the explanations.

¹If you’ve seen this movie, you’re welcome for that one.

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