Movie of the Week: The Legend of Hell House (1973)
One of the 70s horror movies which seems to have gathered a following in recent years is The Legend of Hell House. Even though it is another movie I remember seeing at the Chief Theater in Enid, Oklahoma when I was about 10 years old, I didn't remember much about the movie itself except that it was really creepy. Therefore, I had no expectations about whether it would or wouldn't stand the test of time when I recently re-watched it.
In a way, it's sort of timeless. I mean, it doesn't matter in what era it takes place. It's just another haunted house movie representing the particular time in which it was made; in this case, 1973. The only thing that distracts from this timeless quality is the big, clunky machine the characters place in the house to rid it of its ghosts. Interestingly enough, this out-of-place piece of fake equipment makes the movie feel older than it really is.
The set up in The Legend of Hell House is that an eccentric millionaire hires physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) to investigate "survival after death" in "the one place where it has yet to be refuted," an old mansion he calls, "the Mount Everest of haunted houses." The house was originally owned by Emeric Balasco, whose "drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, beastiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies" made the house evil.
Barrett takes to the house his wife, Edith (Gayle Hunnicutt), a spiritual medium, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who also happens to be the lone survivor of a previous investigation. Barrett is the scientist who believes there is nothing but electromagnetic energy in the house that they can simply suck out. It is of course the believer, Tanner, who manifests psychic activity while in the house.
Richard Matheson supposedly toned down the subject matter when adapting the movie from his novel. This may be why it all seems somewhat underdeveloped. However, it is surprisingly more sexual than I recalled. Twice, Edith experiences erotic visions and throws herself at Fischer. But these are long, drawn-out scenes that include acts like caressing a statue before coming on to any actual human beings.
The story is rather ho-hum (and a little confusing); however, the visual style is terrific. Directed by John Hough, who also made what is perhaps my favorite Hammer Films movie ever, Twins of Evil, The Legend of Hell House is composed of mostly brief scenes that begin with a time stamp, giving it a documentary feel. The shot compositions are interesting and unique. Oftentimes, the camerawork is fluid, taking the experience of spending a week in a haunted house to another level; in a way, it's like we're there, too.
Oddly, the exterior shots are sometimes more foreboding than the interior shots. Outside, it's dark and foggy and the wind is blowing. Inside, it's better lit and the cinematography is crisper. Watching it, even through the end, I decided I would rather be inside the house than outside.
The Legend of Hell House was not produced or released by AIP; however, it was originally in development there until it was given to James H. Nicholson when he left. Ultimately, it was released by 20th Century Fox, giving it a little Hollywood sheen. I do not know how it did at the box office; however, any success was likely overshadowed by the release later that year of The Exorcist, which was a box office bonanza.
I, unfortunately, did not gain any newfound love for The Legend of Hell House by watching it 45 years later. While extremely effective in what it does, it just doesn't do enough for me. Oh, well, as Florence Tanner says, "The Lord certainly does move in mysterious way." To which Benjamin Franklin Fischer replies, "So does this house."
Written by Richard Matheson Based on the novel Hell House by Richard Matheson Directed by John Hough Starring Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough (uncredited) Released June 15, 1973 RT 95 min. Home Video Shout! Factory (Blu-ray)