Directed by John Hough, 1973. Starring Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt. 95 minutes.
The crew: a physicist with an interest in parapsychology and two mediums. The laboratory: Belasco House, also known as “the Mount Everest of haunted houses,” also known as “Hell House.” The goal: prove the existence of life after death in either one week or four days, whichever comes first, and that’s assuming everybody doesn’t die in the attempt…
The Legend of Hell House isn’t an American International production, but it’s damn close: it was one of the two films produced by AIP co-founder James Nicholson between his departure from AIP and his death in 1972, and it was written by Richard Matheson (based on one of his novels, simply entitled Hell House), who wrote a number of screenplays for AIP during the ’60s and ’70s, in particular for Roger Corman’s series of Poe “adaptations.” I’ve long admired Matheson’s work, both in prose and on screen and TV; he wrote The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which is probably the second-most pants-shittingly frightening thing I’ve ever seen. (I first saw it when I was eight; now I’m thirty-six, and I still can’t as much as look at screencaps of the gremlin without getting the jibblies. The most pants-shittlingly scary thing I’ve ever seen? Poltergeist, specifically the face-peeling scene. To this day I can’t watch that movie all the way through. Saw that when I was eight, too. Some things just stay with you.)
Not having read the novel, I can’t speak for its quality, but I can say that the screenplay is not one of Matheson’s finer moments. Backstory and character motivation are the most obvious bits. Clive Revill (who used to be in The Empire Strikes Back, but isn’t any more) plays the physicist; he’s so stuffy he can’t bring himself to say he’s searching for proof of the existence or non-existence of the afterlife. He insists on talking about “survival of personality.” (Pseudo-scientific British horror movies of the period are full of stuff like this.) He’s also looking at Hell House to provide a successful test run for his invention, a sort of psychic degaussing machine. (His theory is that what many people consider “hauntings” or “psychic phenomena” are in fact the side-effects of massive amounts of what he calls “electromagnetic radiation.” No, I’m not making that up. He figures that when he activates the machine, the radiation will dissipate and the phenomena will cease.) So he’s trying to prove a theory, but he’s also planning on destroying the evidence. Uh?
Then there’s the mediums, one of whom is played by Roddy McDowall. McDowall is a “physical medium” who was also involved in an earlier attempt to either investigate or exorcise the house (it’s unclear which). He’s initially described as the only survivor of that attempt, although it later turns out that he was part of a team of five and there was only one confirmed fatality. So his status is amended to “the only one to escape alive and sane” although an earlier conversation establishes that he wasn’t sane when he escaped, and the mental health of the other survivors is never established. Uh? He believes “the house tried to kill” him once, “and nearly succeeded,” so screw what his role in the team is…why did he even agree to go back at all? His only role in the story, at least until the last ten minutes, is to constantly tell everybody how wrong they are about everything.
There’s also the other medium, who’s played by Pamela Franklin. She is referred to as a “mental medium.” She’s young and believes that her abilities were granted to her by God. The difference between mental and physical mediums is never elaborated upon; it’s only stated that only physical mediums can manifest physical phenomena, not mental ones. (Isn’t the act of channeling a spirit, by its very nature, a mental process? How does one channel a spirit solely by physical means? Automatic writing? Ouija boards? Franklin gets two “channeling” scenes but McDowell never does, so the difference is never explained. As with radiation and electromagnetism, one gets the feeling that Matheson either doesn’t know what a medium actually does, or doesn’t care.)
Oh yeah, Clive Revill also brought his wife along for the shindig. Not sure why.
Belasco House’s provenance is equally ridiculous. It turns out that the house was built in the early 20th century by one Emeric Belasco, who used the house as a center for what McDowell describes as “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies” (once you’ve covered sex with animals, sex with corpses, sadism and blood drinking, what other “sexual goodies” are you left with? Carrot-fucking?). The haunting of Belasco House dates back to an incident in which 27 people died during some sort of event (details are never provided; I’m assuming it was some sort of orgy containing some of the above-mentioned activities and possibly carrot-fucking, but for all I know, it was a poetry reading); Belasco was presumed dead, but his body was never found. (Note how Belasco is always assumed to have died during this incident; nobody seems to have hit upon the idea that he might have survived and went into hiding.) Belasco was a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, whose ill-tempered nature masked a horrifying secret…a secret which I’ll not spoil here, other to say that it’s a bit on the lame side, and the resolution of his issue gives the ridiculous pop-psychology of Legion a run for its money.
All of this makes Hell House sound like it’s not worth watching, and I really can’t recommend it to general audiences, but it does have a few things going for it. Most notable is the score, a series of electronic dark-ambient pieces composed and performed by “Electrophon Ltd.”, a partnership consisting of ex-BBC Radiophonic Workshop boffins Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. Their score is a bit different from most horror scores of the modern age: instead of gaudy and bombastic, it’s subdued and weird, never driving the movie but instead underlining it.
Similarly, apart from a few shouty moments (everybody gets a shout in, but it’s Franklin and McDowell who do most of the yelling), the performances are somewhat low-key. It does seem like the best way to make the movie work is to overplay the roles, but even the purplest of dialogue (“How did it end?” “If it had ended, we wouldn’t be here!”) benefits from a low-ham approach to the acting. Everybody’s taking their roles seriously (Franklin in particular deserves praise, and McDowall’s always great, isn’t he?), nobody’s here on a lark.
Weird that such lurid material works best when played totally straight, but that’s how things go sometimes.
Moment of Zen
Miss Tanner’s first “sitting.” “I don’t know you people. Why are you here? It does no good. Nothing changes, nothing…” (This dialogue was sampled by Orbital for their song “I Don’t Know You People,” which appears on The Middle of Nowhere. I’m also informed that Skinny Puppy sampled it as well.)