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August 8, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #188 - The Legend of Hell House

The Legend of Hell House sits near the top of my short list of classic horror movies that not enough people talk about. To me it has always felt a little like this one is lost in the shuffle, hidden beneath other haunted house tales (like The Haunting) and other films of its time period (like The Exorcist). I understand the greatness of those films (although I do seem to have more concerns with The Haunting than most do), but I have a hard time agreeing with anyone who doesn't think this movie belongs in the conversation when it's a conversation about the best horror movies ever made. (In fact, last year I ranked it as my 35th favorite horror film ever - which, considering how many horror movies have been made, is pretty high praise.)
Starting out by claiming that a movie is one of the best of its kind is a bold thing to do, but I wanted to make this point right off the bat - The Legend of Hell House strikes me as one of the most truly successful horror movies that exists. Thanks to a bold script by Richard Matheson - that is adapted from his own novel, Hell House - it's always amazed me just how well this film bridges the gap between the traditional haunted house tale and the more diabolical, sadistic face of horror that was rising up in the 1970s. Matheson once made vampires a science in I Am Legend, and with Hell House he managed to tackle the supernatural with a similarly result-based approach.
The plot is simple - one house, plenty of spooky events, and four characters in search of an answer - but the methods are unique. Matheson introduces three conflicting approaches from the people who enter Hell House, and much of the story is a struggle both to understand the haunting and to understand how to deal with the haunting. The group that is paid to study Hell House is comprised of a physicist (and his wife) who is only interested in a rational explanation of the situation, a spiritual medium who is mostly interested in the supernatural equivalent of "hugging it out" with the haunters, and a cynical, physical medium who is also the only known survivor of the house.
The latter character I mentioned is Benjamin Fischer, played by the great Roddy McDowell, and he is one of the most well-written characters in the annals of horror. As the film begins he appears as if he'll follow a similar route through the film as Elisha Cook, Jr. once did in House on Haunted Hill - the scared survivor who exists only to talk about how evil the house is - but his character arc is a fantastic change of pace. Every character in the film goes through a lot while subjected to Hell House's terrors, and the film does a fantastic job of literally putting us in the face of the character as they react to their surroundings. And, at least to me, the central piece of the film is Fischer, who moves through the film presenting his fear in a logical and increasingly understandable manner.
The women in the film shine too, with young Pamela Franklin (who starred in another of the all-time great horror films, The Innocents, as a child) making the spiritual medium a sympathetic character and Gayle Hunnicutt turning the seemingly timid wife into a unhinged, psychosexual being when influenced by the spirits at play. Both characters help sell Matheson's twisted vision, and as the film moves forward it should become very clear to the viewer that Matheson wants us to feel uncomfortable in Hell House. Hunnicutt pulls this off extremely well in a pair of scenes where the forces in the house prey on her sexual frustrations, which are just a couple of the moments where our characters get a little too sweaty while dealing with the house.  The spirits at work in this house take immense pleasure in possessing these characters, and the film's depictions of these moments are definitely gripping.
The film builds to an ending that has been maligned by many for its randomness (and/or simplicity), but I've always found it to be a rather fascinating way to end the story. It makes sense while dealing with the film's balance between science and the supernatural, and it allows the remaining characters to close their arcs perfectly. It's not necessarily going to scare many viewers - and it does take the intensity of the film down from the heights of earlier scenes - but it feels like it fits to me. As a wise detective might say, the simplest answer is often the right one - and Matheson understands that here.
Combining this ending with the uncomfortable and unpredictable film that precedes it only strengthens the impact that The Legend of Hell House has on me. It looks like a conventional horror film, but Matheson's script and the direction of John Hough - who always seems to be doing something with the camera's perspective of the characters and the sound design that keeps Hell House feeling tense - provide a new twist as the film goes on. To me, all of these things make The Legend of Hell House the quintessential haunted house movie, and make it a movie that any horror fan needs to revisit often.

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