When tackling a haunted house story one of the more troubling aspects to tackle is why the residents don’t simply “Get Out” instead of hanging around while the walls drip blood and ghostly forces are trying to tear their faces off, and the two best literary examples of this would be Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and Richard Matheson’s “Hell House” and both of these have been suitably adapted to the screen. Today we will look at the big-screen adaptation of Matheson’s take on one of the most popular subgenres of horror.
What would one do if an eccentric millionaire were to offer $100 thousand pounds to investigate the “Mount Everest of haunted houses?” That is the dilemma facing physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) when millionaire Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver), the current owner of the notorious Belasco House, wants proof of “survival after death” in “the one place where it has yet to be refuted.” That dozens of people have met with horrible fates while in that house – including two past investigative attempts that resulted in eight deaths and only one survivor– is something that should give anyone pause but not so with our good doctor Barrett who wants to prove that the house is simply a battery that stores residual energy and that takes a living person, not a malevolent spirit, to manifest paranormal happenings.
Lionel isn’t alone in this particular exploration of the Belasco mausoleum as he is joined by his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), who is emotionally withdrawn and not someone who should be visiting a place of pure evil for any reason, and despite Lionel’s better judgement, he allows her to accompany him and that this poor decision bites him severely in the ass should be a shock to no one. Now, good ole Lionel isn’t the only investigator in this group as Mr. Deutsch provided the same cash offer to a mental medium named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and another medium, albeit of the physical variety, named Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall) who just so happens to be that selfsame survivor from the previous investigation twenty years ago.
The team has one week to come up with some concrete evidence – the story takes place five days before Christmas so one must assume Mr. Deutsch wants his answers as a Christmas gift – and my big question is “Were they paid in advance?” We later learn that Fischer was only there for the money, that he’d planned on keeping his psychic abilities closed off and would then simply take the money and run, but what exactly was in their contract? If Barrett didn’t come up with any sort of evidence would they not see a dime of that money? I’d certainly want a little cash upfront before entering a house that has apparently killed people, who am I kidding, I’d never set foot inside Hell House for all the tea in China, but when the end credits roll we never do find out if Mr. Deutsch was ever going to cough up any of that dough.
When our tiny group settle in for their investigation we are told a little bit of the house’s backstory, that Emeric Belasco (Michael Gough), a six-foot-five perverted millionaire known as “The Roaring Giant” and was a twisted man who held parties that included sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism and participants were also known for drug addiction and alcoholism. After a massacre that left all inside dead, and Belasco missing, it is now believed that the place is haunted by the tortured spirits of his victims. Needless to say, Disney’s title as “The Happiest Place on Earth” is still fairly secure. Things get off to a rough start when Florence begins to manifest physical phenomena inside the house, despite her not being a physical medium, with tables bouncing up and down and chandeliers dropping in for the kill but is Fischer who perceives that the house is using Florence as a conduit and that she should leave immediately. This doesn’t sit well with her or the house and soon we get Florence channelling a spirit she believes to be the murdered son of Belasco, and he’s not happy with Fischer’s appraisal, “Who the hell do you think you are, you bastard? You might have been hot stuff when you were fifteen, but now you’re shit!”
With The Legend of Hell House director John Hough created a veritable playground for spooks and spookiness and unlike Robert Wise’s adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House” there is no ambiguous nature to the hauntings in this movie, we do get some serious psychological moments but it’s clear early on that some serious evil shit is actually occurring and we’re not talking just some atmospheric caused delusions. That the screenplay was provided by the book’s author certainly helps in this area and though Matheson toned down the graphic violence and more intense sex scenes of his novel there is still quite a bit on display here. Hough and cinematographer Alan Hume breathe a wonderful sense of dread and claustrophobia within the walls of the Belasco House and even if Ann Barrett’s unhappy married life is a little thin on the script side of things, such as the house causing her sexual exhibitionism never quite being explained, but the quartet of talented actor all bring their “A” game for this outing. Add to all that the hauntingly electronic score by composer Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson and you have a true horror classic on your hands.
Note: Barrett has developed a machine to negate paranormal energy which makes him somewhat of a grandfather to the Ghostbusters.
The whole reason behind this particular investigation is nothing more than an excuse to get people inside this haunted house but despite that, it does a good job of pitting science against the supernatural and succinctly illustrating the arrogance of supposed learned men. Overall, this is a beautifully shot spookfest and all involved should be proud of the result and this is a journey into terror is one I heartily recommend.
Note: Soon after the completion of this film director John Hough teamed up with Disney and gave the world The Watcher in the Woods, which is another atmospheric horror film that is fun for the whole family.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Movie Rank - 7/10
When it comes to horror films the “Haunted House” subgenre is my favourite and Richard Matheson’s The Legend of Hell House is a great example of how to do one well.