Film Review: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.
This is the warning that introduces the film The Legend of Hell House. Adapted into a feature film by Richard Matheson from his own novel, it is one of the seminal haunted house films of all time. The novel itself was a response to Shirley Jackson's masterwork of quiet haunted house fiction The Haunting of Hill House. This, itself, spawned another major haunted house feature, The Haunting. Where the latter film and novel are based in quiet subtlety, the former--our subject today--is based on extremity and misdirection. The plots are very much alike; the approaches are quite different.

Four paranormal investigators--Physicist Lionel Barret and his wife Ann, mental medium Florence Tanner, and physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer--are each offered 100000 pounds sterling to find physical proof of life after death. Their source is the most haunted place on the planet: the Belasco Estate, aka Hell House. Two disastrous investigations occurred there before; Fischer is the only investigator to have come out with his mind, body, and life intact. The investigators are to live at the Belasco Estate for one week in order to claim their reward.

I refuse to go into plot details beyond the premise of this film. It's a disservice to know anymore about the story than that before viewing. I've even read the novel recently and did not remember everything that was going to happen. Matheson's adaptation of his own novel is magnificent. He understands that film and novels need different styles of dialog. Only certain scenes were direct adaptations of the text--a controlled psychic sitting, a theory from one of the psychics, and I believe the big dinner scene. The rest were the same ideas said in much less dense ways to be more accessible for a film audience. This does not mean the story is dumbed down; it simply means that Matheson wisely put the emphasis on keeping a story moving that is equal parts science-driven drama and suspenseful horror.

The physical design of this film is what sets it apart from so many other haunted house pictures. Florence Tanner's bedroom at the Estate is the best example. Every time you see the room, the camera reveals something brand new. It's obvious, in retrospect, that the room has always looked like that. Art Director Robert Jones staged such a magnificently detailed bedroom that the director John Hough did not have to rely on certain static angles. Pan the camera a little too the left and you see a painting of a naked woman; rise it up and see the mirrored ceiling only visible in one scene; pan right and see the entrance to the bathroom. Each room in the mansion is detailed enough to handle subtle shifts in perspective that keeps the audience a bit on edge. Much like nothing in Hell House is ever the same twice for the investigators, nothing in the film ever quite looks the same for the audience.

The electronic/acoustic scoring is in that same moody, ambient style that constant Dario Argento collaborators Goblin worked in. It's music, yes, but it's more based in creating emotion--distress, fear, anguish--than being particularly structured or tuneful. You'll recognize it instantly if you hear it again, but you'll struggle to remember anymore than a feeling or particularly clear drumbeat past viewing. Delia Derbyshire (the woman who created the all electronic arrangement of the original Doctor Who theme song) and Brian Hodgson (the man who created the sound of the TARDIS in the original Doctor Who) wisely straddle the line between their electronic wheelhouse and more traditional haunted house scoring. The opening theme is filled with muted trumpet and blasting bassoons over a vibraphone. The vibraphone becomes analog synthesizers and the trumpet and bassoon become snare, bongo, and conga drums for most of the rest of the film. It's an odd choice that sets just the right tone for this film.

Sadly for the legacy of The Legend of Hell House, it was released a few months prior to the breakout horror film of 1973: The Exorcist. It actually predates The Exorcist in many of its more iconic elements--a young girl speaking in an unearthly demonic voice, statues moving in the shadows, graphic violence and sexual language brought on by otherworldly influence--but is, in fact, connected only by coincidence. The Legend of Hell House filmed entirely in England while The Exorcist filmed entirely in America. The two source novels also came out the same year and were published by rival presses. For my money, The Legend of Hell House is a more engaging story for actually pushing its extreme horror elements into shocking and believable moments of plot development. The difference at release was purely subject matter: haunted houses were old fashioned while exorcisms were new and shocking. The production qualities are equally high; it's just a matter of which flavor you like more.

Every horror fan should see The Legend of Hell House. So much of what we has become standard in the genre was pioneered in this feature. It is still shocking for what it managed to get away with almost forty years ago. Some modern films still can't get away with what this film did. It is a testament to the artistic quality and sophisticated presentation that the violence, language, sexuality, and effects sequences do not feel gratuitous or unnecessary. They become essential to the mystery of the Hell House.

Rating: 9/10

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