This is one that really dates me, takes me back to the days of Fear on Friday (remember that, anyone? ) in fact but, what makes John Hough‘s The Legend of Hell House (1973) so stick in my memory was that it was one of the first late-night horrors that I saw as a teen that seemed to have something more to offer than moldering corpses, heaving breasts and stakes through the heart – in short, it was my first truly ‘grown-up’ ghost story, hence why revisiting it (as I did just the other day) is such a pleasure.
As I was to grow into fully fledged appreciation, in fact love, of the horror genre, it came as no surprise to me when I later learned that the film’s screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, from his own novel, Hell House – Matheson, for the uninitiated, is one of the horror/sc-fi/fantasy genre’s true remaining icons, with legendary works to his name such as I Am Legend (but you can forget the 2007 Will Smith travesty), The Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come and Duel, and it is his obvious understanding of how the horror genre is supposed to work and what it can achieve at its best that elevates this film into a tense, literate and fascinating examination of the supernatural.
Director Hough (Incubus (1982), American Gothic (1988)) gives the narrative a documentary feel from the outset – physicist Dr Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) has been commissioned by elderly magnate Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) to find ‘the facts’, namely about the possibility of a life after this one. One of the few places on earth where such investigation might yield meaningful results is the mansion formerly belonging to one Emeric Belasco, the ‘roaring giant’ who built it in 1919 and then proceeded to fill it with ‘drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, beastiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies’ before disappearing, seemingly off the face of the earth.
And speaking there is physical medium Benjamin Franklin Fischer (an excellent Roddy McDowall), who was the only person to survive the previous attempt to investigate the house in 1953 – eight others were killed, crippled or driven insane by their experiences. Accompanying the two men are Barrett’s wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) and mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin). Barrett has brought the two mediums along for an alternative perspective, but he actually believes that the house can be ‘beaten’ by science. Will he be right, do you think?
As is so often the case with the horror genre, the films that take it seriously are those that succeed, and Matheson’s tight, literate script, combined with fine characterizations from the cast (particularly McDowall’s jangly, nerve-jangling interpretation) are what makes this work so well.
And its denouement, which involves an excellent, unnerving (and uncredited, heh, heh, heh) cameo from Michael Gough, is a belter. Why not take your own trip down memory lane, just make sure you turn the lights out. Watch The Legend of Hell House for yourself here.