The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Kinky, intense, and memorably rendered, John Hough’s filming of a Richard Matheson screenplay, drawn from Matheson’s own novel, plays with the motifs of classic haunted house tales, especially Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, whilst blending a pseudo-scientific spirit similar to that of Nigel Kneale, and presaging Matheson’s own deepening interest in life-after-death occultism. It’s also one of those transitional films in the genre, a deliberately corrosive take on the old-fashioned haunted house movie, charged with the full regalia of modern concerns, sex and violence nudging away the metaphors and taking over the dramatic landscape, but still retaining familiar structures and tensions before a more anarchic, reductive style of horror arrived. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) is the parapsychologist commissioned by interested industrialist Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) to investigate the multifarious mysteries and dangers of the world’s only truly, not yet debunked haunted house, the mansion that had belonged to one Emeric Belasco (Michael Gough), a monstrous magnate whose perversions and sadistic egotism led him to turn his house into a fortress that was the scene of debaucheries and murders, before he was finally bricked up somewhere within the structure to maintain overlordship over his home from beyond the grave.

Barrett camps out in the mansion with his wife and assistant Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) and two reputable mediums, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and Benjamin Franklin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), a dichotomous pair in their personalities and varieties of receptivity. Fischer was the soul, sane, physically intact survivor of a previous attempt to plumb the house’s mysteries when he was a teenager, and he is a physical medium who determines to keep himself mentally intact by resisting reading the house at all costs, terrified with very good reason of the forces within, long enough to collect the money Deutsch will pay. Florence is a good-natured empath, naïve, religious and with a touch of the flower-child to her. She’s determined, nonetheless, and finds herself struggling to convince the others that she’s in contact with a son of Belasco’s, who she believes is trapped as a spirit within the house, since being chained and walled up alive in the basement decades ago. Whether she’s right, or being manipulated, or has perhaps found a perfect avatar in the house's potency as a psychic weapon to enact her own pent-up frustration, becomes an important question after Barrett’s dismissal of her beliefs results in a near-fatal cascade of telekinetic assaults on him. Slowly, Florence’s hopeful theory that multiple spirits are in thrall to the insidious remnant force of Belasco’s personality gives way to the colder, less romantic fact that Belasco is the house’s only entity, toying with the people who have entered the space for his own cruel amusement. Casting Franklin, who had made her film debut as a child actress in Jack Clayton's Henry James adaptation The Innocents (1961), plays on presenting her in an entirely different type of very adult part, and likewise tips a nod to that film and its concept of the truly haunting evil lying in the repression of sexuality and the egotistical manipulation of children.

Hough wields the familiar imagery of the jutting, foreboding gables of the house rising out of thick veiling fog, a prowling black cat hinting at the malevolent presence lurking within, with unembarrassed relish. Soon a glutinous air of threat and eroticism entangles both the females of the party, Florence coming to realise the ghost she believes to be Belasco’s son is demanding some sort of erotic experience with her, and Ann is subject to spells of intense, almost trance-like lustiness that leaves humiliatingly exposed before both Fischer and her husband. Simultaneously, the men are unable to meet the women's needs, as Barrett becomes increasingly stiff-necked and resistant to ideas and explanations that don't fit with his, and Fischer, in holding off the house by necessarily distracting himself from the consuming pains of the people around him, renders himself useless in draining off the tension that is consuming the others. Like the same year’s The Exorcist (Roger Ebert has theorised that William Friedkin's film and its source novel had roots in Matheson’s earlier speculative writing, with its dedication to explicating the irrational in a firmly realistic context; and Matheson’s influence on Stephen King is similarly crucial), Hell House attempts to delve with felicity and force into the latent paranoia over female sexuality and familial travesty inherent in the haunting/possession motif, complete with a similar device of innocent Florence possessed by the spirit of evil, spouting foul language and mocking insults. The narrative's incisions into these themes is less filtered than The Exorcist, if less slick and successfully moody, for that film took refuge in veiling Catholic angst, the pre-pubescent state of its endangered female, and a less defined invasive, controlling villain. Belasco, another grand genre villain modelled after Aleister Crowley, has constructed his ego-empire as a trap for the neuroses and misperceptions of the people who enter it. He’s able to fool Florence into giving herself up as a sexual martyr to him under the impression she’ll be giving Belasco’s son the gift of earthly delights, so he can flitter away satisfied to the spirit world.

The narrative works then like a pressure cooker that sees the characters’ ever-so-slight misreading of each-other and the situation spiral into tragic explosions of violence. Fooling, perverting, and gradually tearing Florence to bits is Belasco’s chief delight, of course, whilst Florence is desperate to prove herself competent and rational in the glare of Barrett’s increasingly dismissive, smouldering masculine contempt and Fischer’s moral and metaphorical impotence. Franklin’s superbly sustained performance is a great part of the film’s cumulative effect, increasingly bedraggled and near-crazed, covered in unholy stigmata. She is left giggling like a madman after her attempt satiate the spirit with her body sees her get the rudest of possible shocks, but refusing to cop out of the dangerous situation, even when she knows she is likely to die. Ann, in turn, is ripe for an inversion of repression, moving from chipper second-fiddle to her husband's stalwart cleverness, to sweating and shivering with untapped passion, as she prowls about in horny hypnosis, fondling the breasts of a feminine statue before coming on to Fischer. Fischer himself is too neurotic and damaged to be of use to either lady, at least until the climax. Everything seems to wind inwards towards the dark heart of the house, the chapel, the place Florence, even with her perpetually prominent crucifix, can’t venture into: the image that the film builds to, that of Belasco seated within a hidden chamber of the chapel, seems in this context to reflect the similar revelation of God as a spider of madness within the wall in Bergman's Through A Glass Darkly (1961). Meanwhile Matheson’s story attempts to portray the spiritual versus scientific contest as one infused with other conflicts, between masculine and feminine energy, sexuality and sterility, blind faith and nihilism, whilst aiming to finally privilege both perspectives in a new paradigm.

Hough’s another interesting director who managed some good early work in the horror genre but whose career never really went anywhere: having debuted with the seriously uneven but in many respects admirable Twins of Evil the year before, he moved on to this generally classier piece of work. Hell House has a potential that might have come to purest life in the hands of a great expressionist stylist like Mario Bava or Dario Argento, to construct a truly enveloping sense of space and architecture as erotic and emotional trap, which remains only stolidly present in Hough’s hands. On the other hand, his concentration on psychological stress achieves its own authority, and Hough’s use of the house itself as a weapon, characters pinioned under crushing weights and riddled with the psychically directed household objects, anticipate the way Argento uses similar objects as sources of torture and pain in Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1976). The production is clumsy in places: the big clunky machine with which Barrett tries to cleanse the house of residual psychic energy looks like a lost Doctor Who prop, and Franklin’s wrestling match with an evil cat (animal attacks are almost always a weak point of horror films) is likewise more amusing than scary. Some of Hough’s hammy camera effects, spinning about or dangling from the ceiling pointlessly, do over-emphasise the film’s forward rush into pure hysteria. Hough’s creative use of distorting perspective lenses, especially in his epic close-ups, which render the perspiration-flecked pores and anxious lines of his actors’ faces battlegrounds of the ethereal yet wearing psychic war being fought, is much more effective in building and sustaining the fraught atmosphere.

Hell House, for some of the reasons I’ve spoken about, doesn’t hit classic status, but it does execute some riveting scenes, including that in which Florence lies crushed and bloodied under the colossal crucifix that Belasco drops on her in the blackest of jokes, dying but now fully aware and defiant, knowing that in killing her Belasco has exposed his own weakness. Even better is the finale in which Fischer, horrified by Florence and Barrett’s deaths, finally refuses to run away and instead begins to intuitively unravel the mystery of Belasco, realising, with beautiful thematic resonance, that Belasco's vicious, eternity-defying egotism and misogyny was sourced in physical inadequacy, manifest in the ultimate bodily frustration, having had his legs cleaved off and replaced by false ones to make himself look taller. McDowall’s terrific performance, up until this point full of neurotic, restrained energy, repetitively making gestures with fists and tense fingers that emphasise his efforts to keep his body and soul together, explodes into exultant mockery of Belasco, the heretofore unstoppably evil spirit now knocking him over repeatedly in the most childish of tantrums, until his power collapses entirely, allowing the final penetration of Belasco’s hidden mausoleum and the revealing of Belasco’s corpse, embalmed in sitting position, still sporting his wooden legs. The final revelation is absurd on one level, but it fits in well with the idea of Freudian anxieties and bodily horror provoking emotions strong enough to last far beyond death, and Fischer’s victory is one of the best-realised heroic moments in the genre.

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