(1973) Directed by John Hough; Written by Richard Matheson (based on his novel, Hell House); Starring: Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt and Roland Culver; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill): "Is there anything you’d care to tell us?"
Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall): "What’s to tell? The house tried to kill me; it almost succeeded."
While there’s no shortage of haunted house movies, good ones are a scarce commodity. To show ghosts or not to show ghosts, that is the question (my apologies to the Bard). There’s a constant push-pull between suggesting and showing supernatural phenomena. Both are valid approaches, in the right hands. On one end of the spectrum is Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which proves it’s not what you see, but what you think you see that’s terrifying. In the opposite direction lies William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960) – its whole raison d'être is about seeing the spirits (hence, the “Ghost Viewer” gimmick). Somewhere near the Haunting side of the spectrum resides director John Hough’s* The Legend of Hell House,** based on Richard Matheson’s 1970 novel, Hell House. Hough admired Robert Wise’s restrained touch in The Haunting (1963), and wanted to create that same level of atmosphere, relying on suggestion above visual thrills. Transplanted from the novel’s New England setting to the British countryside, The Legend of Hell House was filmed at Wykehurst Place*** in Bolney, West Sussex, England (the same location where 1972 productions All the Colors of the Dark and Demons of the Mind were also shot).
* Fun Fact #1: According to Hough, among the movies he’s directed, the following titles are his favorite (listed in order): The Legend of Hell House (1973); Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974); and Escape to Witch Mountain (1975).
** Fun Fact #2: This was the second outing with producer Albert Fennell and star Pamela Franklin, who both worked on another landmark ghost film, The Innocents (1961).
*** Fun Fact #3: Only the exterior of the Gothic Revival mansion appears in the film. The interiors were shot on a set in Elstree Studios. Hough noted that rooms on the set were much larger than the rooms in the actual house.
Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), a physicist, is challenged by elderly millionaire Mr. Deutsch to assess the veracity of alleged supernatural activity in the infamous Belasco House. Known as the “Mount Everest of haunted houses,” the imposing mansion was built by eccentric millionaire Emeric Belasco, known as the “roaring giant.” The house became the epicenter for all manners of debauchery (“Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?”). Barrett intends to find the secret of Hell House, and with the aid of his custom-built machine, rid the place of its malevolent energy once and for all. Along with his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), Barrett brings along two psychics, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall) and Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), to provide a counterbalance to his inquiry. Despite his rational, empirical-based approach, he soon discovers that he’s not immune to the house’s influence.
Dr. Barrett is so smugly confident in his scientific approach, he’s unwilling to accept any interpretations that don’t conform to his narrow definition of supernatural phenomena. He includes Fischer and Tanner, seemingly only to downplay or ignore their observations. His device serves as an extension of his ego (something his character shares with Belasco), with his anticipated success merely an opportunity to gloat over his colleagues – a triumph of science over the unexplained.
Although not a formal member of Barret’s research team, his wife Ann (Edith in the novel) is more than a passive participant. An ardent supporter of her husband’s career, she’s blindsided by the strange goings-on in the Belasco house. Her character is alternately frustrating and sympathetic. She defines herself by his accomplishments, but she’s little more to him than an appendage. Their relationship is typified by a scene where he deflects her offer for help with his machine, condescendingly intimating that it’s beyond her understanding. Meanwhile, she represses her own ambitions and desires, which the house exploits. Her sexual frustrations come to a head when she tries in vain to seduce Fischer.
If Dr. Barrett represents the exploration of the tangible, Florence Tanner is his philosophical antithesis. Tanner views her mediumship not as a mere profession, but a spiritual calling, based in her feelings and beliefs. She describes herself as a psychic medium, but as she gets closer to what she believes to be the answer (or perhaps steered further from the truth), her psychic gifts become physical. Despite her colleagues’ doubts, Tanner persists in the belief that she’s in contact with Emeric Belasco’s deceased, eternally tortured son Daniel. Much like Barrett, her unshakable belief that she’s on the right path proves to be her undoing.
Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall) is a burnt-out once child prodigy (known for his unparalleled talent for detecting and manifesting psychic phenomena). He carries a heavy burden – of the last team of psychic researchers to investigate the house, he was the only one to make it out alive. Now, he’s a broken man, dubious of Barrett’s convictions, and the doctor’s blind faith in his machine (“You do not fight this house.”). Still traumatized by his past experience in the Belasco house, he purposely holds back, reluctant to open himself up to the forces that dwell within. McDowall’s superb performance anchors the film, as a man grappling with his inner demons, torn between self-protection and facing the trauma that nearly destroyed him.
A common thread running throughout the film is a clash of differing philosophies, between the obstinate, unwavering Dr. Barrett’s adherence to science, versus Tanner and Fischer’s reliance on the intangible as their evidence. To Barrett, the house’s disturbances can be attributed merely to electromagnetic radiation, the residual, unfocused energy from Belasco and his guests, but to Tanner and Fischer, there is an unseen intelligence at work. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Without spoiling the films conclusion, Richard Matheson (who adapted his own novel for the screenplay) provides a case to support both points of view, where Dr. Barrett and Florence are at once refuted and vindicated.
The filmmakers utilize a barrage of traditional, albeit effective, devices to create an atmosphere of unease: whispered voices, shaking tables, creepy lighting, and inventive camerawork.* An early electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson further contributes to an otherworldly, disconcerting experience. Of course, none of these elements would matter if the actors weren’t up to snuff, but the excellent cast rise to the task. It’s a mostly faithful adaptation of the novel that occasionally pulls its punches (the film version does away with the sexual tension between Florence and Ann), but ultimately captures the main themes of the source material. I can excuse a somewhat underwhelming ending (which attempts to wrap things up into a neat box), because it’s what The Legend of Hell House gets right that sticks with us. It’s unnerving and spooky, with as much to say about the here and now, as with the spirit world. As with all great stories about hauntings, it’s not about the dead, but the living, and the baggage they bring along.
* Fun Fact #4: According to Pamela Franklin, Hume was a perfectionist, who enjoyed experimenting with different lighting equipment. He allegedly took so much time setting up the shots that the crew started hiding his lights.
Sources for this article: Shout Factory DVD commentary by Pamela Franklin; “The Story of Hell House: An Interview with John Hough”; Hell House, by Richard Matheson