The Legend of Hell House

“The house tried to kill me, it almost succeeded.”

Movies come into my life in many ways: recommendations from friends, critic’s reviews, studio marketing, or just plain dumb luck. The Legend of Hell House (1973) came to my attention in the form of audio samples on Skinny Puppy’s 1985 album, Bites. Their music often deals with the darker side of humanity and sound bites like, “Church in Hell,” and “Touch me, or I’ll find somebody who will,” piqued my interest in this underrated gem. Several years passed before a friend acquired a tattered VHS copy—purchased at the local Goodwill—and, in the middle of a cold Indiana winter, a group of us sat on the cold floor of his unheated house and watched as the secrets of the Belasco house unfolded before our eyes.

The plot is simple enough: Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) has purchased the Belasco house, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses,” believed to be haunted by the deceased Emeric Belasco.  In life, Belasco boarded up the house’s windows to keep anyone from seeing in (or out), then invited his guests to partake in everything from deviant sexual acts to cannibalism. Deutsch is willing to pay £100,000 apiece to the quartet of individuals he has charged with providing proof (or disproof) of life after death after a one week stay in Hell House. 

Two previous attempts to investigate the house have resulted in death or madness. The only person to make it out alive (and relatively sane) is a physical medium by the name of Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has agreed to revisit the house 20 years later. This time he’s joined by mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), physicist Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill), and Barrett’s wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt).

In movies of this ilk, the skeptical scientist usually ignores the obvious supernatural elements, dismissing them to his peril. However, Dr. Barrett doesn’t reject the paranormal; he just feels there is a practical explanation for these unexplained events. This gives his character depth while keeping the audience guessing as to whose theories are the most sound. While Miss Tanner is open to suggestion (as long as it fits her preconceived notions), Ann is truly open and gets more than she bargains for.  The only one who really knows what they’re up against, Fischer keeps his mental guard up and with good reason.

John Hough is one of the few directors to have both Hammer horror—Twins of Evil (1971)—and Disney family fare—Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)—on his resume. While much of his 1980s output wasn’t as well received—think Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988) (or better yet, don’t)—there’s no denying his contributions to the previous decade.

Franklin had been a horror staple since she first appeared in The Innocents (1961) at the tender age of 11.  A dozen years later, her youthful good looks made her the ideal candidate to portray the naïve yet willful Tanner.  Hunnicutt’s mature beauty adds to her appeal as the wife who’s just tagging along; not particularly fearful of the paranormal, but she’s never encountered anything like Hell House. Revill’s extensive experience both on the stage and screen make him a great fit for Barrett, bringing conviction to his role of the stubborn, overconfident pragmatist.  McDowall—best known to horror fans as Peter Vincent in the 1985 horror classic, Fright Night—shines as the reluctant physical medium who knows that the Belasco house doesn’t mind a few visitors, as long as no one tries attacking it.

Oddly enough, both McDowall and Revill’s most famous mainstream roles were in sci-fi movies that kept their mugs out of sight. McDowall portrayed Cornelius—and later Caesar—in the Planet of the Apes films while Revill lent his voice to the Emperor in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.

Lauded for his classic apocalyptic novel I Am Legend, a number of classic Twilight Zone episodes, and several Roger Corman 1960s Edgar Allan Poe gothic thrillers, Richard Matheson penned The Legend of Hell House screenplay based on his original 1971 novel, Hell House.  While a fan of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Matheson didn’t like the idea that the reader was left unresolved whether the ghosts were in the main character’s imagination or not. He wanted a haunted house that was truly haunted and therefore based much of his book on recorded paranormal events.  There are clear similarities to Jackson’s work (two men and two women investigating the house, one is skeptic, another is either crazy or a medium, etc.), with a much darker and more sexual approach taken.

Toning down the book’s liberal carnality for the big screen awarded the film a PG rating, but one has to wonder if it hurt more than it helped (witness the success of The Exorcist a few months later). Even with its libido throttled back, The Legend of Hell House remains more provocative than most haunted house films, with Hough ably hinting at more than actually meets the eye.  This mix of sexuality and horror is part of what makes the film unique, and Matheson smoothly blends these elements like cream and honey. The Belasco house doesn’t just want to kill you, it wants to touch a moral nerve by blurring the boundaries of appropriate behavior.

Cinematographer Alan Hume—who would shoot Return of the Jedi (1983) and a string of James Bond flicks in the 1980s—lurks around corners and shoots from low angles giving the Belasco house a distinct personality. Hume isn’t afraid to linger, letting the action occur within the frame.  Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, who also worked in the sound and music departments on Dr. Who, provide a haunting ambient score that adds a layer of mystery and horror. This, combined with Robert Jones’ flawless set design, adds the perfect finishing touches.

Despite its underrated status, The Legend of Hell House was parodied in 2001’s Scary Movie 2. (Sadly, the possessed cat scene is just as laughable in its original form.) However, Hough and his associates were wise to rely on practical effects in most situations, making this folly the exception and not the rule.  

The secrets of the Belasco House are many (I doubt anyone has ever guessed the film’s divisive ending), but after my initial viewing on that cold winter day I knew I had just witnessed something special.  Yet, like the mystery of Emeric Belasco, The Legend of Hell House has managed to stay hidden in the shadows for far too long.

This essay originally appeared in the 2013 horror anthology, Hidden Horror: A Celebration of 101 Underrated and Overlooked Fright Flicks.