“My intention was to write a haunted house novel,” Matheson told Douglas E. Winter in Faces Of Fear (Berkley, 1985), “and once I had set the premise that this was the most horrible haunted house in existence, I couldn’t very well do otherwise than make it as horrible as I could. I had to let out all the stops. To say that this is the most evil house in the world, and then to have leprechauns running around, would have been silly.”
— From Gaunlet Press’ Hell House limited edition hardback (1996) and Matthew R. Bradley’s introduction.
“Isn’t it just another so-called haunted house?” she asked, using his phrase.
“I’m afraid it isn’t,” he admitted. “It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses, you might say. There were two attempts to investigate it, one in 1931, the other in 1940. Both were disasters. Eight people involved in those attempts were killed, committed suicide, or went insane.Only one survived, and I have no idea how sound he is — Benjamin Fischer, one of the two who’ll be with me.”
—Except from Richard Matheson’s Hell House
(Warning! Mild Spoilers to Matheson’s Novel Contained Within!)
It was the mid to late 70s when this film crept into my childhood and scared the living shit out of me. Up here in New England back then we had the WPIX channel out of New York and on that channel there was Chiller Theater. Chiller Theater is where my brother and I bumped into many a horror flicks that, at least, for me, left everlasting impressions, most, I must say, for the good.
I can’t remember the exact day Chiller Theater used to air, but it was proceeded by The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969) and Space: 1999 (1975-1977). My mother and my grandmother were the ones that loved Chiller Theater and it came on right around our bedtime. I was more into science fiction movies, but horror flicks did beckon me especially when a monster was involved. Even though Chiller Theater marked the end of our nightly TV watching, sometimes my mother would forget to rush us off to bed and we would catch a good twenty to thirty minutes of whatever horror flick was on at the time.
And then there were times when one of these movies would begin and I could just tell either from the visuals or the creepy music that this was going to be an especially scary movie and would actually remind her that it was time for us to hit the hay.
But even being put to bed did not end Chiller Theater’s influence on me. Our room was right next to the living room and for a while there was no door on it. Even though we couldn’t see the TV we could hear it, and there were many times what I heard scared the shit out of me just as much as if I were right in front of the TV watching it. There were also times when I was seduced by this fear and wanted to know what the hell was going on. This twisted curiosity led me to creep out of our room, through the hallway and up to the corner of the living room where I could just barely see the television. I could never clearly see what was transpiring on the screen, but nevertheless felt compelled to linger at the doorway and try to make out the images. I would only slink back to our room when I heard either my mother or my grandmother get up; the bathroom and my grandmother’s room were on our side of the house.
It was one of these nights when my mother “forgot” to send us to bed that I saw roughly thirty minutes of The Legend Of Hell House. Right from the start it was clear this movie was one of those flicks I should have reminded our mother about our curfew, but I didn’t. Come to think of it now I may have even seen more than thirty minutes, just because I have a memory of seeing that scene where Roddy McDowall was in his room and he freaks out after he tried to open his mind up to the house and that scene was a lot later in the movie.
The musical score made an impression on me as well; it was appropriately creepy due to the almost tribal vibe it has with the drums. But what really scared me about this film were the haunted house phenomena, specifically the poltergeist-like activity. For me what makes a good movie about a ghost is the phenomena, if the movie has to cast an actor to act as the spook, it’s no longer frightening, which is why The Uninvited (1944), The Changeling (1980), The Haunting (1963) and later on Stephen King’s Rose Red (1999) mini-series and most recently The Conjuring (2013) work for me. They’re all about the supernatural activity, keeping the operator of such activity unseen and/or within the shadows.
Director, John Hough’s The Legend Of Hell House is based on a novel by famous fantasy/horror/science fiction scribe, Richard Matheson, in which a millionaire by the name of William Reinhardt Deutsch recruits four people, three, technically, one is the wife of another that tags along, to find evidence of life after death. He chooses a notorious haunted house for these people to search for it in—the Belasco House in Maine (in the movie version you get the impression it’s somewhere in England rather than America), appropriately nicknamed, Hell House.
The main characters are Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), a scientist, his wife, Anne (Gayle Hunnicutt)—Edith is her name in the novel—a spiritual medium by the name of Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and a physical medium by the name of Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall). Pamela Franklin’s character, as I recall, is the only one that is different than her novel counterpart. In Matheson’s novel she’s much older.
Fischer and Hell House have met before. As stated in the novel and in the movie, more detailed in the novel though, there were two previous investigations made of the house, one in 1931 and one in 1940 (in the movie the ’31 date is never specifically referenced and the ’40 date is changed to ’58). Fischer was part of the ‘40/’58 investigation. In the novel he was a sixteen-year-old boy, but his age at that time is never indicated in the movie. Both investigations resulted in madness and death, with only Fischer coming out of the second one alive and mentally intact.
All four will be paid handsomely for their participation, if they complete it, and they have a week to come back with irrefutable evidence of the afterlife.
Hell House is nicknamed as such for the previous owner, Emeric Belasco, was a sick deviant who reveled in all sorts of things like necrophilia, vampirism, murder and cannibalism. All who enter are subject to mental, emotional and physical manipulation and seducement by the evil forces that still dwell within. Barrett’s ultimate goal is to cleanse the house by creating a counteractive electro-magnetic radiation field that’s supposed dissipate the current EMR field that presently wreaks havoc in the dwelling. This is his belief. He does not believe in ghosts per say. Fischer and Tanner do, though. Tanner pays the biggest price in the movie, and in the novel, for she is the one that’s mostly targeted and in the end possessed.
The mystery of the house has more layers in Matheson’s book; the movie simplifies it, thus making the pool room, the sauna and the tarn (lake), that figure prominently in the book, non-issues in the film and have been totally excised out of the narrative. Barrett’s eventual death, if I recall, happens in the pool room and an EC Comics-type corpse makes some kind of appearance in the sauna in the novel.
The book is also laced with a lot of hard R-rated sexuality. Take for instance the discovery of the chapel, the Christ statue in the book sports and enormous erection and the photos hanging all around are very pornographic. This unholy hard-on is also how Tanner is killed. In the movie the rock hard dick is not present and she is killed when the statue falls and crushes her. In the book the statue falls and she’s impaled, right between the legs, by the dick. There is sexuality in the movie but it’s been toned down to a PG kind of thing by Matheson himself who wrote the screenplay.
Here’s more from Matthew R. Bradley’s introduction in the 1996 Gauntlet Press’ limited edition of Hell House concerning the novel’s explicitness and then how it translated to the movie version:
Like the explicit violence, the sexual element in Hell House was unusually frank for its day, and forms an important part of the ghostly manifestations. According to a prepublication review of Hell House in Library Journal, “the perverted sex . . . is spelled out here rather than implied as in the classical manner,” and while Matheson says he was not consciously trying to break new ground in genre fiction, he notes that “it preceded The Exorcist, which had a lot of sex in it. I don’t usually write that stuff in my novels. But once you’ve set the concept, the premise, you’ve got to stay with it, even if it means you’re going to end up writing stuff you never wrote before. Or will ever write again…”
The sex and violence were toned down somewhat to maintain a PG rating, reportedly at Nicholson’s [James H. Nicholson, executive producer] insistence, though Pamela Franklin does have a brief nude scene as she disrobes before getting into bed. “If I’d had my choice, I probably would have just put everything in it,” Matheson says today. “I guess it was pretty racy for 1973. Now it’s probably a children’s picture.”
I ended up finally reading the book in the summer of 1999 and I loved it just as much as I was scared by it, just like how the movie affected me. Coincidentally that same summer cable ran the movie and I jumped at the chance to record it. Up till then I had all these distorted memories and finally seeing it made me suddenly realize I had initially seen the entire thing way back during those Chiller Theater days. Well, partly seen, and the rest listened to through distorted imagery bred from my hiding place at the living room doorway. Apparently I lingered there for the entire running time.
Ah, good times indeed.
20th Century Fox first put Legend Of Hell House out on DVD back in 2001, an overseas blu-ray release occurred in Germany, by Koch Media, in 2012, and now thanks to Shout! Factory’s genre sub-label, Scream Factory, on August 26th we here in the US will now have our own blu-ray of this superb movie.
The 1080p 1.85:1 high definition widescreen transfer is exceptional. I was mostly struck by the colors, which pop now and you can really see the rather beautiful contrasts between some of the rooms, the walls, the architecture and the clothing on the actors.
Audio is stereo (DTS-HD Master Audio) only.
Subtitles exist but only in English.
As for extra features you get an Interview With Director John Hough (28:19) where he talks about filming and photographing Hell House and touches very briefly on his other films like The Incubus (1982) and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988). Regarding the former he took that film solely because he wanted to work with John Cassavates and considers the latter to be a low point for him for scenes were inserted into it he didn’t want in. He also states he wants to direct a sequel to Hell House.
The next best extra on here is an audio commentary by actress Pamela Franklin. It’s stated on the back of the blu-ray as an ‘audio interview,’ but stated as an ‘audio commentary’ in the main menu. Both are correct, for it’s clear that she’s responding to questions as she watches and comments on the movie. Every so often you can hear her address someone else in the room, and they respond, but the questions she’s asked cannot be heard, the audio cuts in only as she speaks.
As the commentary goes on, however, you can tell her replies are out of sync with the pacing of the movie. She’s begins commenting on scenes that appear later in the film. Regardless, she touches base on a lot of flicks she starred in, including the fan favorite, Food Of The Gods (1976), which she states was the last movie she did. She retired soon after that.
You also get a Photo Gallery of roughly 47 photos of screenshots, lobby cards and posters; and some Radio Spots and the movie’s Theatrical Trailer.
Recently news broke that Fox intends to remake Hell House and frankly I’m all for it. I’m for any remake of a film that has deviated from it’s source material, and I’d like to see how close they come this time to Matheson’s book.
(Note: there is reverse cover art for this title, a variation on a theme of the poster cover art shown below)