70s Rewind: THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
A small group of people; a house where things go bump in the night; a desire to document what's happening. In 2011, those elements form the basic ingredients for Paranormal Activity 3, which opens wide across the U.S. today, the latest in a franchise best described as "stare at the screen for a long time before anything horrifying happens."
But in 1973, those elements were also the basic ingredients for The Legend of Hell House, a much more "in your face," traditional horror movie. Adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel, the film follows an investigation into the paranormal activity at an abandoned mansion in the UK known as "the Mount Everest of haunted houses," a place where eight people have died in previous attempts to get to the bottom of things.
The group, financed by millionaire Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver), is composed of physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), psychic medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowell). Fischer is also the sole survivor of the most recent paranormal investigation, years before, but he's lured back by the large paycheck that awaits each member of the group if they are successful in bringing back "facts."
Given only five days to complete their investigation, they must work fast, which suits Barrett just fine. He is a rigorous man of science, and is positive that the paranormal phenomenon that's been reported will prove to have an explanation grounded in reality, at least as he understands and accepts it.
As the group walks into the house, Florence immediately feels the presence of ... something ... and so does Fischer. Barrett sizes it up immediately as electromagnetic energy, for which he has equipment to detect and record. He wants Florence to have a "sitting," or seance, mainly so he can observe, but Florence begins to have physical manifestations of the energy, or ghostly presence, or what have you, and it appears to be directed toward Barrett.
That kicks off a battle between Barrett and Florence, in which Ann is a potential object of collateral damage, while Fischer absents himself for any responsibility. As Florence is drawn into deeper involvement with the psychic forces that swirl through the house, Barrett remains unperturbed. He is, after all, a man of science, and remains focused on completing the investigation in a satisfactory manner.
The Legend of Hell House is very much an "old school" horror production; there's nothing minimalist about it, no doubt that there is something extraordinary taking place within the house, and no shortage of physical manifestations of paranormal activity. What continues to make it nerve-jangling today, however, is the great energy and zeal with which director John Hough (pictured, right, in 2009; photo credit: copyright Gareth Walters) and cinematographer Alan Hume hurtle through the proceedings. Containing the action within a large mansion with large, shadow-filled spaces, with all the windows boarded up, allows for an excellent variety in shot composition and camera movement.
Richard Matheson's script displays a keen sense of story, balancing the action with well-drawn characters who are, yes, types, yet behaving in a manner that is recognizably human. The four lead actors also balance each other out. McDowell is outstanding, but Revill is very strong, and so is the top-billed Franklin. Hunnicutt has the least to do -- it's "the girlfriend" role -- though she ends up contributing more than mere decoration.
Hough began in UK television in the 1960s, working his way up to assistant director on The Avengers and then moving into the director's chair. He made his feature directorial debut with the Hammer production Wolfshead: The Legend of Robin Hood in 1969, moving onto the thriller Sudden Terror, Hammer horror Twins of Evil, and adventure flick Treasure Island (with Orson Welles) before tackling Hell House. He was just 31 when the film was released.
He next did the great road movie Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, followed by Escape to Witch Mountain and a host of other pictures, horror and otherwise, through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Matheson was an old hand at this point. Hell House, published in 1971, was his ninth published novel, of which six had (or would be) turned into movies. He was also one of the core writers for The Twilight Zone and responsible for some of the best-remembered episodes ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," "The Invaders," "Steel"). Two years before, he'd written the script for Steven Spielberg's Duel, and before that, he'd worked on several horror movies for Roger Corman. Matheson remained incredibly busy throughout the 70s, only slowing down somewhat through the 80s and 90s, even as more and more of his stories and novels were adopted for new films, most recently with Real Steel.
Released in the U.S. on June 15, 1973 (the same day as Battle for the Planet of the Apes), The Legend of Hell House made a modest amount of money theatrically, reportedly $2.5 million. Six months later, The Exorcist would obliterate box office records and redefine expectations for horror movies, but in that summer before, The Legend of Hell House could reside comfortably in theaters for weeks.
20th Century Fox released the film on Region 1 DVD in September 2001 and on Region 2 in June 2003; those bare-bones editions are still in print. It's also available for U.S. viewers to stream instantly on Netflix, which is how I watched it; it looks very fine.
As noted above, The Legend of Hell House is still nerve-jangling, especially if you're watching alone, late at night, and wondering what those strange noises are, emanating from the shadows behind you.