Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas in: ‘The Legend of Hell House’ (1973)
The Legend Of Hell House is a 1973 horror film about a physicist and his wife who lead a team of mediums into the Belasco House, which is supposedly haunted by the victims of its late owner, a six-foot-five Satantist.
The most widely known and famous ghost story in the English Language is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It grew out of a routine of Dickens, telling ghost stories around Christmas time; it was so successful that Dickens tried to top it with an anthology called The Haunted House. He did not invent this Holiday tradition. As the song says, “They’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long long ago” … that song being, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” written to be performed by Andy Williams in 1963 by Edward Pola and George Wyle. Wyle also later wrote the impossible to get out of your head theme song for Gilligan’s Island.
So the spirit of Christmas is not purely one of tidings and good cheer. It’s not even really counter programming to take some time out for less sacred spirits this time of year. Now there are obvious choices for viewing, like Black Christmas and Silent Night Deadly Night—both films I enthusiastically endorse for opposing reasons. But I’m here to suggest you cuddle up with a film that doesn’t get talked about as a Christmas fear factory, The Legend of Hell House, based on and adapted by the great Richard Matheson from his more simply titled Hell House novel and directed by then florid and now almost forgotten John Hough. Both the novel and the film announce each consecutive day that events occur on ending on Christmas Eve just in time for the survivors to get home to listen for Santa’s supernormal—a phrase Matheson prefers—reindeer hooves on your rooftop.
The Shining, the film not the book, took this device from Hell House (Stanley Kubrick was always keenly aware of preceding work in any of the many genres he dove into and either mastered or got credited for mastering) John Hough in an interesting interview on the current SCREAM FACTORY Blu-Ray release notes this was not often done at the time. In the novel each chapter instead of a title has a time and date—the year being 1970. This gives you a sense of reality, like a news report or newspaper, and also what is lovingly in Hollywood called a Ticking Clock against which all the events are hurtling inevitably towards.
The film does too, starting on FRIDAY, DECEMBER 17TH 4:08pm which is the moment the fun/horror begins. This Xmas factor struck me most once, years ago, when I stayed up late the night before Christmas and found one of these times and date stamps to perfectly align with me at that very moment. Just a quick aside here, on New Year’s eve you can sit down to watch the Poseidon Adventure and time it out so that midnight falls for you at the same time the tidal wave to hits the ship, or you can also line up your required yearly viewing of The House On Haunted Hill so midnight falls just as you get your mini coffin packing heat in that film, it’s so amusing….
So why not watch Hell House in these days ramping up to Christmas. (I will probably drop ‘The Legend’ part of the title from here on out).
There are two basic types of haunted house tales. The first is about people who move into, usually at an irresistibly low price, or inherit, for free, a haunted house. They disbelieve it at first, and then confront frightening things, etc.; the father of these in lasting literary merit is The House Of The Seven Gables by Poe contemporary and Bradbury progenitor Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne considered it to be his best novel, though then and now it tends to take second place to the YOU-MUST-READ-IT-AT-SCHOOL, The Scarlet Letter. Here the legend of the house is vividly laid out at the start and the curse and mystery of how the descendants will be given blood to drink plays out with time out for a scene about learning how to hypnotize chickens—Hawthorne preferred this novel because he felt it allowed him to more widely express himself, including humor.
The potential pitfall to this type of haunted house story is always … okay, so the main characters come to believe the house in haunted, the solution is they leave. Yet they never do. I recently saw a film worth seeing, adapted from a 1940 novel, called A Place Of One’s Own about an old couple, one of whom is convincingly played by a young James Mason, who get an offer they can’t refuse on a house that turns out to be haunted and taking possession of a young woman living there with them. TCM showed it so look for it there. I won’t spoil the film but there is a great screen where their reasons for staying are brilliantly laid out, essentially, the couple accepts the ghosts as a debt they owe the same way they pay the debt on the mortgage as part of having—therefore the title, A Place Of One’s Own.
So years pass and eventually Shirley Jackson comes along and writes The Haunting Of Hill House. The book steals the vivid history of the house set up from Hawthorne but has a twist that creates the second kind of haunted house story. One in which a group goes to the house specifically to confront and prove or refute the very existence of ghosts. Now before Jackson and the subsequent the film of her book, there is The Uninvited book and film and before that is The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James, the latter of which Jackson certainly knew as it takes what we’d call a modern approach of questioning if ghosts are actually a type of hallucination of a deranged mind instead of something supernatural.
Jackson’s book, like James, is one that became embraced as literature—and therefore rather looked down upon by fans if I dare call them that.
The film made from her novel shortened the title to just, The Haunting came out and, like the lengthened titled, The Legend Of Hell House, did ok box office business at the time but made a deep and widening lasting impression on those who saw it. Critics, if I dare call them that tend, then and now, to dismiss Hell House as being a sexed and gored up version of Jackson’s superior original—as I’ve pointed out, I wouldn’t use the word original in a case like this, with such a wide ghostly history.
Writer Matheson set out to, and these are in part my words and in part his, to write a better version of The Haunting, or add all those words to the title if you like.
The Haunting, Robert Wise’s film, is a brilliant use of camerawork to scare people. On his commentary track he says he considers it his best film visually as a director. In adapting the book with screenwriter Nelson Gidding they began to believe there weren’t really ghosts at all in the story and called Shirley Jackson to ask her if her ghosts were real or of the mind. She said, no they are real. I credit her with telling them this and not hiding in the ambiguity that some creators embrace.
Filmmaker John Carpenter in one candid moment expressed dislike for the film, really the film’s story, though later I saw him with Robert Wise at a screening where he praised it. And it deserves praise but here’s the problem with it, the characters gathered to prove the existence of ghosts by hanging out at the house and drinking a lot. This sounds like a good time, but how is this going to prove anything to anyone? Fortunately the many set piece scare scenes work well and the film should also be seen as Wise’s own tribute to his first boss Val Lewton and the psychological and suggestive horror films where Wise worked his way up to being a director.
Hell House’s author is Richard Matheson, whose most widely known work is the monster on the airliner wing episode of The Twilight Zone and/or for his now romantic cult movie, Somewhere In Time. Steven Spielberg fans should and would add Duel to this list and then you’d quickly get to his witty and scary screenplay that became The Night Stalker TV series.
His largest and longest mainstream success came with being part of The Twilight Zone writing team, chosen by creator Rod Serling himself. After the end of that show’s run he became a full time feature film writer for the classy Hammer Film rip-off movies done by AIP, most being adaptations—or masquerading as, Edgar Allen Poe films. Somewhere during all this he was writing the novel Hell House but, unlike his other novels, it took him years to finish it. This may be a reason for its many virtues as well as its potential Achilles’ heel of an ending.
By Hollywood and snooty literary standards, Matheson would be considered a pulp writer of science fiction and monster stories. Matheson though took the genre seriously and his stories are novels are about things, other worldly things. He also adapted most of his own filmed material, be it from a short story or a novel. He did this well and for most of his career which is something Stephen King can’t claim—King crediting Matheson as an influence on his own work. The best of the good lot of novel to screenplays he’s responsible for, I’d say is of his transcendent novel The Shrinking Man made into a fine film The Incredible Shrinking Man. Matheson himself didn’t like most of the filmed versions of his scripts. Hell House he typically dismissed and later came to accept if not embrace.
With Hell House, Matheson tells a story about real world evil and the after this world ghosts it creates, none of this mammsy pammsy, are they all in your mind stuff. This is a story that says right up front in all caps, GHOSTS ARE REAL, so what are you going to do about it? It takes Jackson’s premise and treats this as a real and dangerous job—not an excuse to drink and hang out—in the belly of the beast with deadly ghosts.
He lays out a clear and present motivation for this. A Dying rich newspaper man—think of Citizen Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst—has bought a famous haunted house—think of Heart’s Castle, and hires a group of the best in the paranormal/ghost business, to go explore it. Why? Because the dying man, in fact in the novel it’s revealed he dies before the end of the story, wants to know if there is life after death before he dies himself. He specifically says he’s fine learning there is no such thing also; he just wants to know the facts. (In the film it’s not as clear that the man is dying as in the novel)
The Belasco House is the place they will go because it’s the only place in the world where life after death hasn’t been disproved. The man who built it is/was a modern day hedonist and sadist Emetic Belasco. Unlike Seven Gables and The Haunting, the full details of what happened to give Hell House its name are revealed as the story gets going. This is a virtue as far as not having a fast paced beginning lead to a slower paced modern day retelling of the same type events as can happen with Hawthorne and Jackson’s structure.
The group chosen to go spend a week in Hell House is similar in number to The Haunting’s but specifically we have, the true believer: a religious virgin, the skeptic; a non-spiritual scientist, the cynic; a former psychic now an in-it-for-the-money only survivor of a previous attempt to explore the house. And finally the newcomer/outsider; in the form of the scientist’s wife. Now these are all TYPES chosen to be in conflict with each other, the challenge is to make them different human beings as well.
Here’s a strong thing about this approach, it’s easy to take a bunch of ignorant kids and put them in your haunted house and have them be scared by what happens. But here you have a group of experts, they know more about what’s going on than the audience does. The script doesn’t explain the details of how a séance works; it is just presented to us as a lab experiment and it is believable because of that. When these characters, who know more than we the audience do, get scared or confused, we feel really up a creek, instead of feeling superior and yelling at the screen the way audiences do at poor dumb characters telling them. “Don’t go in there!”
Matheson wanted super stars and real life married couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to play the narrow minded scientist and his sexually overlooked wife. He got Clive Neville and Gayle Hunnicutt both good actors but hardly names. His executive producer took the script with him, from the aforementioned AIP, to start his own producing career. This man was James Nicholson, whose new solo career would be tragically short; he died of a brain tumor two months after Hell House began shooting. In another interesting-to-mention-similarity the novel is, like The Haunting set in the United States and the film like The Haunting was shot in England. Matheson though wisely, sorry for the pun if you noticed, changed the script so that the story all takes place in England, unlike the not-very-convincing British Boston of Robert Wise’s film.
Heading up the crew for Hell House was up and coming John Hough who came in part from the internationally successful English show The Avengers which had an out-of-time and space feel to it that Hell House the film also has, probably because co-producer Albert Fennel (some report that Nicholson was already dying and had very little to do with actual production) and art director Robert Jones also came from that series. Besides its staff of up and coming British television crew, it also features tried and true pros like editor Geoffrey Foot who edited a film for no less than David Lean and Tom Howard doing photographic effects, who is considered a special effects pioneer and whose credits include 2001: A Space Odyssey.
At lightning speed the movie is breathlessly set up and the characters are entering the house before we know it. There is only the barest amount of dialogue and the two psychics have no lines and are shown being picked up in short punchy scenes. The religious virgin steps into frame with a rather phallic church steeple behind her—for those of you who doubt this interpretation look at the fondling of the phallic candles in director Hough’s previous film Twins Of Evil. This character in the novel is a spinster minister who takes the job in part so she will have the money to give to her church as a Christmas gift—they are to be picked up/rescued from the house at 5pm on December 24th. Played perfectly by Pamela Franklin, known first as a child actor and who is in a classic ghost film The Innocents, in the film Matheson correctly changes her character into to being what the scientist character calls “practically a child, her characters pure and chaste Christian faith and mental medium abilities will all be challenged and broken. The other psychic, played also by a child star actor, and starring chimpanzee in the still on-going Planet of the Apes Franchise, Roddy McDowell, is introduced alone at a rather grimy train station in two very impressive moving camera shots; this too sets the stage perfectly for his character’s place, more properly his out of place, in the world of the story.
The main titles run over spooky shrouded in smoke day time exteriors of the house itself. Now director John Hough could be said to mostly be a camera director, though in a commentary track on the blu ray of the film Pamela Franklin gives him high marks for interacting well with all the actors. Hough, for one, likes to use wide angle lens. Alfred Hitchcock disliked these because I think he felt they distracted people by changing the way the world looks—he liked lens that saw things with the perspective on the human eye. Hough will use the so called distortion of the wide angle lens to powerful effect in Hell House but there is a shot in this first scene that shows a weakness to this approach, a shot of the house from below that seems to be featuring, even starring, the purse on the foreground not the house in the background. It looks like product placement for the purse—to my knowledge this is just an accident though who knows.
The interior is a set, Hough as a camera style director likes the freedom of being able to place a camera anywhere you want because on a set you can just remove walls ceilings floors, do anything you want. The design of the interior main floor is interesting with almost treelike features for the woodwork—Hough points out that this look was stolen for the remake of The Haunting-which indeed it was.
The camera moves around, stalking our characters in these early scenes, Hough says this is to show it as “checking them out” a point of view of the evil spirit of the house. Another thing, borrowed from the original HAUNTING film, is the use of statues in the corners of frame looking in at the characters, surrounding them.
With the first glimpse of the interior we get is by flashlight of a Satan-like bust with open mouth. At several moments in the film the camera shoots over the shoulder of a piece of statuary in the foreground. The house’s windows were all bricked up to shut everyone and all the evil activities within—this is a creepy idea and also makes for a more convincing interior set as there is no outside views that require faking through windows.
The almost entirely enclosed interior setting of the action in the film isn’t a problem for Hough as director, just as it wasn’t for Sidney Lumet in Twelve Angry Men or Hitchcock with Lifeboat. Hell House doesn’t feel like a TV movie though it plays well on television as the actors during dialogue scenes are usually in close ups, frequently moving ones, and then in extreme close up—or shown in profile. Profiles are used often in this film, I can’t quite see some a pattern or deeper meaning—but it does isolate the lone character, usually in the engulfing darkness of the house. Hough’s style is distinctive, in his more recent films this style or any at all, has all but vanished for whatever reason—I mentioned that he could be seen as forgotten to today, it’s like he’s forgotten himself as well by now.
Other key contributors to the look of Hell House is director of Photography is Alan Hume who though hardly new to film or to horror films even then, who would go on to shoot very big Hollywood films, Hough further points out how Hume is able to make like, but not matching, colors blend together within scenes and that Hume was able to move the camera around and work out in-camera tricks.
This is all true and additionally there are very specific color schemes used in the film. The large dining room is blue and McDowell is dressed in blue as well—as if perhaps blending into the house itself as he first reveals as much backstory of the house as we get. His character is the only one who has been in the house before and he seems content to stay outside of the action as long as he can.
The history of the house is a fictional version of the later real life event of Jonestown—a cult leader who died alongside his followers. Real life predecessors to Matheson’s villain are Aleister Crowley and probably the Marquis De Sade (Shortly before the Novel was finished Matheson wrote a screenplay of a film made about De Sade though he took his name off the finished result). Belasco locked up a number of people in the house where they basically debouched themselves to death—or were caused to do so by Belasco, in the dark interior. Belasco himself was never seen again. (There is by the way a fine fairly recent film about Crowley, called, what else? Crowley)
Matheson in general strips down his book to the bare bones of the plot—over strips it in spots, and the dialogue is not his best. The weakness is a sort of shorthand arch style to the way they speak—perhaps this is his take on how these Brits speak. But at times the characters sound like one person talking to themselves. Less is more as far as the film’s dialogue, but the less is more or less the same at times.
Not always however. The scene of them first entering the house with the chipper eager-to-please Franklin character talking too much and then cut off by the skeptical scientist is well written dialogue, especially the short cryptic and cynical punctuations that McDowell’s character challenges the others with. The scientist comes up with this pompous I don’t believe in religious spiritualism type statements and McDowell pauses for a moment and counters with “Do you?” I’ve found myself using these short lines in real life when dealing with pompous bores; it’s one of those things you can take home with you.
Some have said Matheson and the film only use pseudo-science as an excuse for the scares. The film in fact starts with what in the movie distribution/exploitation lingo is called The Square Up which is a block of text from an expert telling how all this is real. In this case The Square Up is from Tom Corbett—who was a real psychic—you can see him doing his thing in Frank Defelitta’s first ever network show about ghost hunters The Stately Ghosts Of England, made a few years before Hell House. Corbett’s statement here is about how all the phenomena depicted are either probable or real in this film. Now you can say that the whole field of mystics and psychics is faux but Matheson and the film are seriously playing by a set of rules, not just making this stuff up. (Matheson’s later books delve more deeply into pure mysticism.)
That’s the way the two séance scenes are depicted as real, filled with little details, like the veiled curtain that surrounds the medium, it has bells attached to it, which in this case ring when the others come to help her when she is shaken out of a trance. But nobody explains the bells are there to separate the psychic from possibly using outside wires or such to perform tricks. The way the second séance is filmed (all in red light) includes what today we’d probably call found footage zoom ins. These heighten the immediacy and create a sense of real event being recorded by, not staged for the camera.
Most of the effects in the film are done on as practical effects on set, the one optical effect is the creation of ectoplasm, the effect holds up rather well and again little jargon is used to explain it. The spirit possesses the medium and speaks through her several times in the film just pre-exorcist but still jarring in context is some of the profanity used by the spirit. The scene is shot in a way with close ups of mouth and a profile silhouette so we can think we are seeing another person speaking, it is no longer specifically Franklin. After the shocking end of this second séance—a good jump scare, there is a wonderful shot of just her eyes opening in the otherwise mostly dark room. This shot asks the question just whose eyes are these now?
Now you can credit the director for all this, but it’s almost probable some of these key visual ideas were scripted. Matheson would write camera direction into all his scripts. He knew he wasn’t supposed to, but couldn’t help it—and this is part of why the filmed versions would let him down. He had it all so clearly in his mind’s eye that it couldn’t possibly be exactly the same when actually done. I haven’t read his script for this film to know for sure where the ideas came from—as most good films are good collaborations it’s likely more than one person is to thank. (Just as in a bad film is conversely a bad collaboration—or no collaboration at all.)
The séances stop as it appears Franklin’s character is now a physical medium not just a mental one—again terminology not explained in the film. But her spiritual nature is also going to become physical=sexual. Remember her character is at the start all spiritual, specifically Christian—she wears a crucifix along with other babbles suggested by the costume designers as she noticed that psychics tend to wear lots of jewelry. Poltergeist events are happening outside of the séances, attacks on the scientist Nevill. Franklin’s character leaves for her room which is vivid red and has a mirrored ceiling and she’s dressed in a reddish pink bathrobe emphasizing that she belongs in and or to this room—it looks like a brothel bedroom for this virginal character—and that’s no accident as some spirit is out for and eventually rapes her in it. When we see her next with the rest of the group back in the blue dining room she still have this reddish robe on and it stands out starkly against the color scheme.
Several scenes involving her start with reflections—one in a tea kettle, probably all done to show a distorted view of her as she seems to be the focus of the house’s worst attacks, including by cat. Cat attacks are usually pretty laughable in films, this one being one of the better done of its type, the first shot of the cat entering her room and hissing at her is chilling. The wildest and most seamless effects and camera work almost entirely revolve around her characters disintegration.
The scientist, injured retires with his wife to his room, which is a royal purple color. Here a change from the novel is a problem. In the novel the scientist is actually referred to crudely by another character as a cripple—all this has been dropped from the film. With his bad leg and possibly degenerative health issues, his wife has become more of a maternal figure to him and her own reason for going to this Mount Everest of Haunted Houses is to help him, she has abuse issues in her past as well-but all this is lost in the film. Doing this makes the scientist purely a mental presence/intellectual enforcing his role in the story.
Instead he is slightly injured and his wife almost instantly starts drinking and reading some of the impressive collection of sexually deviant books on the shelf in their bedroom, alcoholism being previously listed as one of the many evils that occur in the house. This opens her up to come on, with dangerously perverted desire, to the cynical McDowell character—who we usually see in various parts of the house and only once briefly in his own room which is green-a color related to Belasco as we learn at the film’s end. (Green symbolically is related to fertility and environment as well as money and greed—all certainly related to Hell House’s master Belasco)
The house has figured out the various issues each character has and is out to destroy them with those. This type approach has almost by now become a cliché now, but it still works.
With the other two “investigators” being beat by the houses power, McDowell’s character is shamed into using his suppressed psychic abilities to help. He does so while alone in a brilliant scene made out of nothing. He sits in a chair, screams and falls to the floor contorted—that’s it you could see it all done in one shot and being silly. Here is where a great use of the wide angle lens is used by Hough. McDowell does a wonderful job of seeming to open up his mind to the house—this seems almost unplayable as in the novel you go into each character’s minds frequently. With him it describes him using his mind to reach out like fingers into the house. At any rate as McDowell is attacked by the house he suddenly screams and lunges forward as he gets extremely close to the lens—almost like an effect in a 3D film, while also keeping it mostly in focus. Next he falls to the floor the wide angle lens makes it look like he’s falling from a great height and as he spastically contorts on the floor he seems very small amid the large furniture and oppressive objects of the house around him.
The story from the start sets theories on what ghosts are and how to deal with them as connected each character and in opposition to each other—these are actual theories about ghosts. The scientist sees the house as a battery for energy that is what is left over from the horrid events that took place there. He is having a machine built by their rich benefactor that will in essence discharge that energy and destroy it. The religious psychic wants to save the tortured spirits souls. She and the other psychic split on if there are multiple hauntings in the house or just one –that one being Belasco.
Her chief psychic link is with one specific spirit, and very convincing corpse that she leads them to in the basement. She says this is Belasco’s son—the other characters the audience are left to question if this is true or false. But after the two psychics bury the body he still comes to her in her room begging her in a pathetically whispering ghostly voice to love him—of course we see where this is going. She is actually fooled or fools herself into thinking, she can release him by showing him real physical love—praying to God for understanding her use of her body in this way, she disrobes in a sexy but silhouetted shot and gets into bed. Something gets in with her and as she opens her eyes to see what she feels entering her she sees the festering corpse on top of her. It’s truly horrifying—but not in the film. Or was it?
There was for a long time an IMDb comment that claims, though brief, you did, as in the book, see the corpse, though that seems to be debunked by someone who claims to have talked to the director about it and to have worked at the studio when the film was released.
In all the versions I’ve seen she opens her eyes and screams and we have an abrupt time shift to them discovering only the aftermath. She is face down and bloodied on the bed—suggesting sodomy. They roll her over and in something almost as horrifying as the missing corpse shot she turns and laughs at them and looks at them all in filthy manner. The reveal of the corpse is really shocking and horrifying in the book, I’d argue it is the Psycho shower scene of the story, and I don’t feel the moment has the impact it should in the film.
The electrical device the scientist says will save the day arrives—in true AVENGERS style there are virtually no extras in this film, we see only the truck drive away and then cut to the large bland looking device inside waiting to be turned on to drain the house of its powers. Now all the characters desperately converge for the last time. The scientist looks drained himself—the house playing on his own ego making him believe in being right beyond and above any evidence to the contrary, though this element is mostly lost in the film.
Clive Revill has a fine moment with a short simple line of being right said to his wife, it seems to sum up his whole character and the moment in a totally real way. Then comes another odd time shift—two differing internet sources claim there is more material missing involving his fate—I don’t want to give it all away. The film has been steadily gaining steam and increasing the tension, heading toward the final confrontation with Belasco in the house’s satanic church in hell, as Franklin’s character describes it.
Now is the time to issue a SPOILER ALERT, if you haven’t seen the film you probably want to skip the rest of the next long paragraph as it relates to the unsatisfying, perhaps even laughable, final solution to the mystery of the house.
For those of you staying, the church set is the most obviously and anachronistically so, 70’s element in the film, but that’s not the problem, and it’s a problem in the book and in the film. Matheson felt that in the book there was time to hint at and set up the ending better than in the film; I actually feel the film works better than the book in this regard—though I read the book first as it took me years to find a copy of the film to see. McDowell sells the scene with acting skills more convincing than the words he’s saying. The key idea is that each character, the true believer and scientist were partly right even if ultimately wrong and McDowell, the beaten closed off former psychic, resumes his power and reclaims his ruined life by confronting Belasco and beating him. He knows this from various hints, barely laid out but done so more obviously than in the book McDowell’s character knows Belasco’s secret ultimate shame of being, you got it, short. Yeah that’s right, he figures out Belasco suffered from what is known as Napoleon complex—the theory is Napoleon, being short, could only prove he was a man by taking over most of Europe. In this case Belasco, known as the roaring giant, is short as well as being a bastard child and probably impotent. He covered these defects by hedonistic sadism and Satanism and ultimately killing all his followers and vanishing. Having all these secrets yelled at him causes the house to blow its last symbolic fuse. The hippie color stained glass behind the altar explodes and behind it (sort of like the reveal of the Wizard Of Oz) they find Belasco as a man in green sitting in a green chair with a glass of brandy in hand, as if he’s waiting for them—in fact, he is dead and what’s more is Michael Gough in an unbilled cameo. There is another haunted house film THE EVIL that has merits which ends unsatisfactorily with Victor Buono in a chair though at least he’s still alive and talking. Okay, I love Michael Gough as much as the next guy or as much as the next guy should but his persona isn’t of a towering Satanic mastermind. A perfect choice would be Christopher Lee or I don’t know Christopher Lee – I have no idea if they asked him or what. Or cast someone famously short a perfect choice for the time would be Michael Dunn=Dr. Loveless on the Wild Wild West Series—a uniquely talented man who in real life became frustrated with being cast because he was a little person, so much so it probably quickened his own end. There is a reveal showing that Belasco actually wore artificial legs, having cut off his own legs and having these put on to be tall. Though this is a dramatic idea it doesn’t hold up too well. Another idea, wisely dropped from the novel is that Belasco died of thirst despite having a drink in his hand, in the novel it’s a jug of water. There is also in this unfortunate scene an unfortunate shot where Gough is clearly moving—director and DP not using the way to solve this which is to shoot the person in slow motion which gives them an unnatural stillness—you have to shoot it this way not in post or do it as a still frame as that is revealed by the grain of the image freezing and being distracting. Now while writing this I just met a man who claims to be a psychic and he told me something that made me think of this as a possible solution to this. He said if you were crazy while alive your ghost will be when you’re dead and so he consults with psychiatrists all the time to help figure out how to let their spirits pass on. So what could possibly save all this would be to focus the story more on what’s going on with all the characters as they relate to their own egos and how those deluded aggrandizing views ultimately destroy them and how bursting Belasco ego then destroys him too. But for now it comes off as, so the guy was short? WTF? In book and film the two characters with the least ego problems are the survivors. The final good final shot of Belasco is another of the film’s many close up profile here revealing either lots of pancake makeup on the ossifying corpse, or perhaps the suggestion that the corpse is a fake as we lightly hear his name ushered in a scant whisper over the image.
Okay, long paragraph but those who want to decide for themselves just how much of a letdown the previous scene is can now rejoin us. Plenty of good or even almost great movies have endings that don’t work. The Abyss—I personally can’t accept the lameness of The Day The Earth Stood Still ending. Several, or even most, of Spielberg’s film’s that end clumsily—as in the endless documentary shot of survivors putting flowers on Schindler’s grave. The Empire Strikes Back – with its Battlestar Galactica join us next week non-ending, which I do accept if with a minor grunt in the wake of the best Star Wars film.
A very important suggestive tool throughout this film and in original The Haunting as well, is what we call today its sound design. The music and sound effects are blended in a way that you can’t often tell one from the other. All this is the work of part of a group Electrophone Ltd., an experimental electronic music group; principally credited on Hell House to Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. The music is mostly created with tape loops not with keyboards or instruments in a normal sense of the word. Today we call this sound sampling. This being all analog there is a warmth to these manipulated sounds and music that makes it feel more internal, like natal gurgling. There is a short brass figure—too short to be called a melody, and a low clarinet—or that’s what it sounds like, that serves as a sort of opening and closing paranormal theme. The opening sequences of the team of investigators coming together is the most musically driven by a sort of percolating bass line—it really is like the baseline to the Dr. Who TV theme music—arranged by Delia Derbyshire. Same goes for the sound effects crew who worked on Dr. Who and this film. But it doesn’t sound dated and much of it is almost invisible—white noises. This is not to say there is no use of or understanding of themes—when our religious psychic appears the baseline suddenly and subtly adds in a church organ part. It all is almost a one of a kind score. The sounds for the various ghostly voices and possession voices are also well crafted and uniquely distorted. I think they have manipulated Pamela Franklin’s voice for her possession scenes rather than dub them with someone else. All this being said I actually prefer the 4.0 surround mix created (some have argued that it’s a fake surround mix) for the 20th Century Fox DVD release to the mono (which is the original) mix now on the Shout Factory blu ray release.
So now with the final wordless moments of the film, we see Hell House’s survivors exiting the house just a minute shy of their pick up time on DECEMBER 24TH 4:59 pm. There is a chilling fantastic shot and resumption of an opening music cue, of the cat with the mist shrouded house behind it. The novel doesn’t have the cat, who we saw dead earlier, but has nice brief, mostly internal thoughts, from each survivor showing us that their Christmas present is a new life, a better one than what they had before the hell of the house. The psychic then mutters something the wife doesn’t hear at first which are the words, “Merry Christmas.” This is pretty much the way Dickens’ A Christmas Carol ends as well. Why this final line was dropped but the countdown to Christmas was kept is puzzling.
I say it can be part of your very scary Christmas. There is the original DVD release of it and a more recent Blu ray. The Blu ray looks good but does have some mismatched skin tones from shot to shot, and all the crucial approaching Christmas dates footage all looks several generations down from the clean original. (This is a problem that besets many older films to video versions—the James Bond film versions found a way to fix this but unlike Belasco the secret seems to have not been revealed to others.)
The commentary track by Pamela Franklin is worth a listen but it’s oddly edited and is clearly way out of sync with what’s going on on screen. Also as an extra there is the aforementioned longish interview with director John Hough which is interesting—though they don’t ask him about the rumors of missing scenes. Also the audio on the Blu Ray has a steady scratchy background noise, the result of a scratched optical audio track.
I think these issues could have been cleaned up more, but still a good release of a worthy film. The film also shows up now and again on TCM and or Foxes’ movie channel but they probably won’t run it between now and Christmas, like they should. Or actually go directly to the source as the novel is readily available.
A final word about director John Hough, he went on to work, as he explains thanks to this film, on two scary films for kids at Disney, the Witch Mountain films—featuring Christopher Lee, and then a very interesting near-miss film The Watcher In The Woods – a film remade this year for television, and a film that deserves a blu ray which should include the release of Hough’s own edit of the film—which also has multiple endings. The most damaging part of that movie is the typically shrill yet thin acting from non-actor Lynn Holly Johnson—but hey, you get Bette Davis in it too.
Could Hell House be remade and its few problems fixed? A remake has been considered for years. Well, yes it could, but a remake would probably just make matters worse, especially as the Spielberg production The Haunting remake proves likely. One of the worst remakes of all time, that many say Spielberg very much guided into the mire of CGI nonsense.
Writer Richard Matheson now has gone on to wherever Belasco went after life and one very good adaption of his early ghost novel The Stir Of Echoes exists amid some train wreck adaptations like the 3rd version of I Am Legend, The Box and What Dreams May Come. Other works of his exist to be made or remade but none will probably fill you with Holiday fear like The Legend of Hell House does—and that’s a good thing, all year round.