Jimmy Terror, owner and writer of the great blog Dr. Terror’s Blog of Horrors, is a busy man. When he’s not posting homemade video games for Friday the 13th or documenting the entire Halloween television-viewing experience on his own blog, he’s doing Dead Air for The Liberal Dead or writing for a number of other freelance institutions. It’s honor that he could take some time out to write a guest post for this year’s Halloween Fifteen. Below, he tackles The Legend of Hell House, one of the greats in ’70s supernatural horror.
Jimmy Terror’s Take
The Legend of Hell House: The Hammer/AIP Baby; Neither Hammer Nor AIP
The ghost story has made a comeback or is in the process of making a comeback. You need only look to this past summer’s hit, The Conjuring or perhaps the Insidious Chapter 2 to know that ghosties are hot once again. As a fan of this particular brand of horror, growing up on Ghost Story, The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill, I hope for a long, drawn out cycle with plenty of titles and good old fashion spooks getting the scares sans some of the tropes of the J-Horror tradition of the most recent ghost cycle. That brings us to John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House, a movie that was milked form the loving words of Richard Matheson, is similar to The Haunting and more specifically The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and whose origins may not stem from where you think. It isn’t an Amicus picture (and I feel comfortable including Amicus due to its similarity to Hammer). It isn’t a Hammer picture. It isn’t an American International Picture.
Created by Academy Pictures Corporation and later distributed by 20th Century Fox, The Legend of Hell House story may sound more than slightly familiar to you. Assemble a crack team of paranormal researchers, send them into a house to prove that the house is or isn’t haunted and wait for the ghosts to not only prove their existence, but being to kill. No, that’s not Robert Wise’s The Haunting though The Haunting from 1963 is one of my favorite horror pictures of all time. This is a tale devised by Richard Matheson; author of many a Twilight Zone and creator of influential horror and science fiction. While The Legend of Hell House may appear at face value to be a carbon copy of the Shirley Jackson work or Wise’s interpretation there of, it is actually much darker in feel and in ghost origin. It’s more like the Marquis de Sade decides to possess an old house to continue his Libertine lifestyle than the somewhat lighter hearted affair than its predecessor. I’m not the only one who has noticed this of course and in my research I found quite a few sources that agree with that the sexual nature of The Legend of Hell House or at least Hell House is the striking difference, but I believe there’s more.
The Haunting was made by MGM and released in 1963, about ten years before The Legend of Hell House would take the screen. Hell House comes courtesy of Academy Pictures Corporation. While it may appear to have all the hallmarks of an Amicus, Hammer or AIP picture sans maybe a few star actors, this movie stands on its own way from other genre picture of its day. No Chris Lee or Cushing. Instead you get Roddy McDowall, a fantastic horror actor who doesn’t often get the chance to play the dominant force in a picture as an aggressor. He’s usually meek, though very intelligent and given to hide from his own shadow. Not so in The Legend of Hell House. Pamela Franklin, famous for her role in The Nancy and The Innocents (another prominent ghost story of this early cycle) stars alongside McDowall and would late go on to Satan’s School for Girls. The movie isn’t shot on a Hammer stage. There’s no Ingrid Pitt. This is a movie with its own star system in mind, its own locations. Distinct from Hammer. Distinct from Amicus. It’s not a portmanteau picture. It doesn’t mimic the Hammer star system. It’s important to note that Michael Gough of Hammer fame does make an appearance, but not as a leading man. While it is somewhat more obscene and gratuitous than a Hammer or Amicus picture (or maybe it’s on par with Hammer’s 1970’s obscenity formula), it doesn’t stoop to the level of AIP’s out and out disregard for quality at the sake of blood and boobs on screen. There’s clever camera work and effects that, while gory and sexy, don’t feel like exploitations reels.
The Legend of Hell House contains one scene so strange and gory (though most likely not to modern audiences) that it has stayed with me since I saw this movie at a much younger age, featured in a horror anthology picture book. Candles askew. The crushing blow of a chandelier. The blood. The awkward, contorted pose of a man no longer alive and smashed. That’s just describing the still. When taken in conjunction with the tension build from the actual movie and then editing choices made to reinforce the startling nature of the kill, I am still off put. Enough to enjoy watching Hell House with more frequency.
Simply knowing that John Hough worked on Twins of Evil (a Hammer production) and then went on to create The Legend of Hell House suggests the reason why The Legend of Hell House feels like a Hammer movie. Hough cut his teeth on Hammer style and formula. He then adapted what he learned from the Twins of Evil experience and created his own storytelling motifs. Hell House is sexy and dirty just like Twins of Evil. He’d later go on to do Escape to Witch Mountain and a truly creepy little picture called The Watcher in the Woods, a must see for ghostie fans. Another reason for Hell House feeling like an AIP production is due to former AIP man, James H. Nicholson, in the producer’s chair.
So now that we have escaped the ghost horror remake cycle of the late 90’s early 2000’s, and we have blockbuster movies made for no budget scaring the panties off theater patrons, it
is in your interest to revisit The Legend of Hell House and some of the other classic ghosties form the period. Make sure to include Carnival of Souls too, and by all means make sure you read Hell House by Matheson.
Enjoy the creeped out synthy music. Enjoy a movie that truly feels like AIP meets Amicus meets Hammer in a cage match with ghosts inside. Is there any wonder Edgar Wright seems to have taken a few notes from Hell House for his faux trailer, Don’t (though it may be only coincidence of subconscious).
The Moon is a Dead World’s take
The Legend of Hell House is based off of a story by Richard Matheson, and to keep things linked to the original novel, he also pens the script for the film. You might have seen Hell House paired with I Am Legend in an oversized paperback collection right before the Will Smith adaptation released in theaters – that’s where I first read about the ill-fated Hell House with its devilish manifestations and its sexual deviancy. The novel is a very good read, but the John Hough-directed The Legend of Hell House is a chillingly accurate depiction of Matheson’s original intent, and for a film made in 1973, it still has the power to spook audiences with its quiet exploration of a creepy haunted house.
The film stars Clive Revill as as Dr. Lionel Barrett, a scientist who sets out to prove that Hell House’s manifestations can be destroyed by a computer that negates the electromagnetic radiation humans give off naturally. He’s a skeptic, a man who believes that science can overcome what the human mind at first does not understand, and although he employs a couple of clairvoyants to help he focus the spiritual power of the house, he’s also sort of mocking them under his breath.
Barrett’s wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) tags along, much to the chagrin of Lionel, and she becomes engrossed in the house herself. She’s not really a scientist, but she seems to understand Hell House much the same way the clairvoyants do. Florence (Pamela Franklin) and Fischer (Roddy McDowall) are our two paranormal investigators, with Florence labeled as a mental medium and Fischer a physical one. The latter investigator had previously explored the grounds with a group of ghost-hunters, only to be the sole survivor after the others killed themselves or were crippled by the house’s terrible psychic power.
Hough begins The Legend of Hell House outside of the grounds, setting up the aura of the house for the audience. We hear some of the bad things that have happened there, we pull up to the gate of the home and see just how foreboding it looks standing on its hill, but the real terror of the place is waiting for us inside, because Fischer doesn’t expound upon what happened to him until much later in the film. Hell House focuses primarily on the overwhelming massiveness of the manse – it’s a huge house, and it’s very old, so the eerie features of the drafty hallways, cobwebs, and paintings give the audience the sense that Hell House is a place that has fallen into a rut in time.
There are a number of uncanny similarities to Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed novel The Haunting of Hill House, and most striking is the way Hough crafts Hell House into an imposing force. But the other immediately thrilling aspect of the film is the soundtrack – a thumping, whispery dirge is played through most of the film, and a sole oboe line remains a haunting characteristic of the house’s theme. The sound effects are fantastic – whistling winds, grunting whispers, and clatters from various areas of the house put the viewer on edge.
The dark chapel, though is where The Legend of Hell House makes its mark on horror. As the characters progress slowly through the chapel, the viewer is left with a growing sense of dread – something is not right in here, and Jesus should not be dusted with cobwebs and surrounded by portraits of orgies. The cold setting is perfectly unsettling, as it should be.
Hell House has a surprising focus on a number of themes, including sexual deviancy, impotence, and the ambitions of the power-hungry to become God-like. That’s a lot of stuff to be packing into an hour and a half, but the film juggles it well because Matheson’s script realizes that all of them link together. The villain of Hell House, Emeric Belasco, is driven by these motifs, and his downfall comes from the realization of his flaws.
For a drafty haunted house film, The Legend of Hell House is immensely effective – moreso, in fact, than many contemporary ghost stories. That’s because the film doesn’t rely on scares involving special effects or ghosts; instead, the terror is shown in the actors’ expressions, not explicitly on-screen. The score only adds to the intense scenes, making Hell House a perfect start to your Halloween celebration.