Legendary writer Richard Matheson has had his hand in dozens of Hollywood productions, whether it has been as the imagination behind many of the more memorable episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or as the creator of screenplays for movies like I Am Legend or Duel. In 1973, Matheson’s most frightening book was brought to the big screen, and The Legend of Hell House turned the haunted house genre on its ear.
In The Legend of Hell House, Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill from C.H.U.D. II – Bud the Chud) and his wife, Ann (Scorpio’s Gayle Hunnicutt), are sent to the “Mount Everest of haunted houses,” a place called the Belasco House, to investigate the possibility of life after death. The house was owned by a huge sadist of a man named Emeric Belasco, and has been the scene of several murders and mutilations over the years. Joining the Barretts at the house are a talented young mental medium named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin from The Innocents) and a physical medium named Ben Fisher (Roddy McDowall from the Planet of the Apes movies), who is also the only survivor from the last Belasco House investigation. Once the team arrives at the house, Florence immediately begins to channel the spirits of the house. She claims that the house is haunted by Emeric’s son, Daniel Belasco, and vows to try to set him free. Meanwhile, the house seems to be attacking Dr. Barrett while Ann is possessed in her own right, suffering from erotic impulses and coming on to Ben, who has completely shut off his psychic gift in an attempt to keep the house out of his mind. Intent on helping Daniel, Florence finds a skeleton chained behind one of the house’s walls. Believing it to be Daniel, she and Ben bury it outside and give the remains their last rites. Even with Daniel’s body at rest, the house does not let up, continuing to attack the visitors. When Dr. Barrett brings in a machine that will supposedly rid the house of any spiritual residue, the spirits of the house get angry, and may not let any of the intruders get out alive.
The Legend of Hell House was adapted for the screen by Richard Matheson from his own novel “Hell House“. While Matheson stripped away a bit of the sex and violence from the source material, the script stays fairly true to the book, making it one of the most terrifying haunted house movies ever made. The film was skillfully directed by John Hough (The Watcher in the Woods) who, through creepy settings and wonderful performances, crafts a horrifying movie while still earning a PG rating.
Much of the effectiveness of The Legend of Hell House is due to the expert photography of experienced cinematographer Alan Hume (who also shot Return of the Jedi as well as several of the James Bond films). Hume uses a great combination of bright colors filtered through fog or spiderwebs to give the house a homely yet unlived-in look. He also uses exaggerated lights and shadows to bring the audience’s attention to certain elements of the painstakingly created production design of the house. Finally, just about every camera shot uses some sort of motion, giving the viewer the feeling that the house has come alive around the characters. The Belasco House in The Legend of Hell House is like another character in the film, and Hume’s photography makes sure that it is treated as such.
The music in The Legend of Hell House plays a big part in bringing the house to life, as well. Done by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson (the pair who did the music for “Doctor Who”), the soundtrack is completely electronic and sits somewhere between a musical score and a sound effects loop. The mechanical sounds and layered textures fill the scenes with a creepy ambience that is both unsettling and intriguing. Eerie moog lines coupled with percussive thumping seem to be coming from the house, making the music much more than just a mood setter; like Hell House itself, the score is animated, taking on a life of its own.
One of the more curious scenes in The Legend of Hell House occurs when Florence is attacked by a possessed cat. The scene is shot partially with a real cat and partially with a prop, and edited together so that it looks like Florence is actually wrestling with a ferocious feline. The sequence sounds silly, and would be if not executed as skillfully, but the tasteful mix of quick shots, slick editing and nice acting by Pamela Franklin works well. In a film full of scares, the cat fight could have been a real distraction; instead, it fits in perfectly with the rest of the demonic activities in The Legend of Hell House.
Richard Matheson’s voice has left an indelible mark on the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres of filmmaking and his stories have been made into quality movies for decades. Although an under-the-radar classic of his, The Legend of Hell House takes one of his scariest tales and turns the intensity up, pumping new energy into the tired haunted house motif and terrifying viewers without grossing them out.