Movie Review – The Legend of Hell House (1973)

In 1963 American director Robert Wise released The Haunting, based upon Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Telling the story of a small group of investigators who spend time in a supposedly haunted house, The Haunting has rightly been deemed the quintessential ghost movie, praised for its restraint and its employment of psychological suggestion. When horror fans wish to suggest that “less is more” when it comes to cinematic terror, that what is created in the viewer’s mind is always more frightening than what a filmmaker can show, they point to The Haunting as the prime example.

Nevertheless, within a decade the American landscape – cinematically, politically, and socially – was severely altered. Social mores were changed by counterculture, the conflict in Vietnam, and the sexual revolution. Enter into this fray the prolific and legendary American author Richard Matheson who, inspired by Jackson’s original tale, publishes the novel Hell House in 1971, and adapted it to a screenplay which would become 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough.

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The basic premise is the same – a small group of paranormal investigators spend time in a presumably haunted house – and some have even called it a rip-off, but I feel it’s actually more of a tribute. It begins with inspiration from Jackson’s understated tale and runs in a more visceral, literal direction. The novelization was set in Maine and contained many graphic passages that were actually cut for the film version, which is set in England, yet The Legend of Hell House remains a colorful, more boisterous entry when compared to Wise’s masterpiece (though actually tame when one considers that The Exorcist was released the same year). Whereas The Haunting purposefully subdued its sexual elements, especially in regard to Theo’s orientation, Hell House is overt in its exploration of erotic tension as the spirits here do far more than simply hold your hand at night. As Ann Barret (Gayle Hunnicutt) seethes through clenched teeth, barely able to contain her lustful desire as whatever is in the house affects her sleep, “You… me… that girl… Lionel… all together… naked… drunk… clutching… sweating… biting…” There’s never a doubt that a supernatural force is at play, assaulting the investigators and playing upon their weaknesses.

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Many of the effects still hold up, especially one in which the physicist is attacked at the dinner table and flames shoot from the fire place. The cinematography explores odd, disorientating angles, uses frequent close-ups and makes a habit of introducing characters on reflective surfaces. Much like Hill House, the Belasco haunted Hell House becomes its own character as the camera sweeps across its interior. The sets are cluttered with gaudy Victoriana, making even the most expansive enclosures feel pressing and claustrophobic. Color, too, is used in interesting ways, such as the use of red whenever we see the medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin). The cast is solid, and Roddy McDowall as Benjamin Franklin Fischer chews the scenery in the finale’s monologue. Franklin is great as Tanner, and her presence here is quite fitting as she had played the role of Flora at age eleven in another classic ghost movie, 1961’s The Innocents, based on Henry James’s gothic novella The Turn of the Screw (1898).

In the end, The Haunting is still a better film and remains the quintessential ghost movie, but The Legend of Hell House is a fun, effective haunted tale in its own right, and not merely a sexed-up clone. It’s fast-paced and still quite creepy if one can look past the occasional goofiness. In the end, it scratches a different itch than The Haunting and is more often my go-to haunted house flick. When I want something contemplative and classy, I’ll go to Mr. Wise. When I want sex and flying objects, Mr. Hough is who I turn to. As Fischer says of Emeric Belasco’s vices: “Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?” Yes, please do!

Grade: B

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