The haunted house has always been one of the elemental settings in horror – the materialization of externalized evil – and is enjoying considerable success today through the likes of The Conjuring multiverse. When horror entered the ‘70s, ghosts became passé as audiences clamored for more visceral thrills that reflected the current societal concerns; despair marbled with a bit of hope became the name of the game, as films like The Exorcist presented strong opinions regarding faith in the face of crises. Six months earlier however saw the release of The Legend of Hell House (1973), a somewhat traditional yet exceptional spookshow with just enough ‘70s pessimism to fit in nicely with the decade’s mores.
Released by 20th Century Fox in the U.S. mid June, Legend received mixed reviews from critics; some admired its somewhat restrained scares and performances, while others felt it didn’t lean enough into the lurid material from Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House (’71) which he himself adapted for the screen. But even without playing the more lascivious notes, The Legend of Hell House offers plenty of deviant vibes.
Physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill – Dracula: Dead and Loving It) receives a very lucrative offer from a reclusive millionaire to spend a week in the infamous Belasco House, considered the “Everest of haunted houses”. The benefactor makes the rules though, and hand picks Barrett’s two companions for the trip: a young mental medium, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin – The Innocents), and a noted physical medium, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall – Fright Night), who famously survived a night in the house 20 years prior. Barrett agrees to the terms, brings along his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt – Eye of the Cat), and with the promise of a large cash windfall just for compiling data, they set off for the house.
As we are in a horror film with the ultimate setting, things go south quickly; upon entry both Florence and Benjamin feel all sorts of bad juju, and Barrett uses Florence in a séance to manifest what he believes to be just energy, and not some malevolent spirit. Florence’s experience is different though; she feels Belasco’s son working through her, and both she and Ann are seduced by the lascivious entity and in turn they try to seduce the emotionally bricked off Benjamin. After Barrett is nearly killed by the invisible terror, he sets up a device that is supposed to rid the house of all negative psychic energy. If only it were that easy…
The Legend of Hell House is clearly based upon Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), which in turn was based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959); a group of psychics battle unseen forces as well as their own crumbling psyche. Legend still reverberates today because the focus for the most part is on the psychological, instead of being propped up by stilted and dated effects; The Haunting does the former to great effect, whereas its’99 remake suffers from fx-itis. Yes, Legend does feature the requisite (and easy to do) sheet pulls, falling chandeliers, thrashing and being thrown about, punctuated for maximum impact between much hand wringing and growing paranoia amongst the unfortunate guests.
Like Jackson and Wise’s work, Legend is about the effect more than the cause; much is made of the origins of Belasco’s haunting – Florence believes there are many entities at work, Benjamin is less certain – but this is closer to a McGuffin than an eternal truth. The baggage we bring is heavier than any thrust upon us.
Not that Barrett et al don’t face physical manifestations of evil; the film is littered with a sense of doom around every corner, in every room, until finally there is some welcome release. (Welcome for the viewer that is; the characters are less keen.) Director John Hough (The Incubus) gives the film a smothered, oppressive feel even in such a vast vessel; he never shies away from a close up on the terror ever present in our protagonists’ eyes, and he and cinematographer Alan Hume (Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors) put in just enough Gothic posturing to sate the Hammer crowd through the framing of our two heroines. Both Hunnicutt and Franklin are stunning beauties worthy of the attention, and Franklin especially shines as the very sympathetic psychic who wants to help the dead find peace.
But some spirits are hard to tame, and even harder to represent faithfully; talk is made of Belasco’s sins – cannibalism, necrophilia, orgies, Tupperware parties – but Matheson has chosen not to port over the shocking descriptions from his book, which is probably for the best. I haven’t read it, mind you, but I’ve heard it goes beyond Benjamin’s sordid laundry list of Belasco’s activities; I have the feeling that Matheson and Hough felt the film would stand a better chance with audiences if insinuation won over degradation. If only they knew what was about to transpire in theatres a short time later.
But they couldn’t possibly know, so most of the forceful energy is given over to Revill’s theatrical yet effective take on the non-believer, and a surprisingly reserved McDowall as the psychic trying to protect himself from the evil that he knows is all too real. (Except for the silly finale, where Roddy noisily taunts the spirit about his height and nearly drains the film of its entire kinetic splendor.)
The Legend of Hill House is all the better then for its incongruity; it doesn’t quite sit with the more staid strains of Hammer nor the exploitation boom about to blossom (and if The Exorcist isn’t exploitation, it sure as hell was marketed as such). Instead, it simply stands as one of the best haunted house films of its era, unencumbered by trends passing and coming. As they say in the world of real estate: location, location, location.
The Legend of Hell House is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955)