By Scott Ross
When at 16, I made the acquaintance of Stephen King, with ‘Salem’s Lot, I enjoyed it enormously for what it was. But the book paled next to Richard Matheon’s 1970 masterpiece Hell House. Encountered at 15, the novel took the top of my head off, what with its classic haunted manse, its bickering specialists in the occult, its periodic supernatural explosions and, especially (oh my god!) with that obscene crucifix in the chapel. I read ‘Salem’s Lot again a few years ago and found it more or less anemic. Very young work. Yet a similar revisit to Hell House a year or so ago proved to me that Matheson’s novel is one of true standard-bearers of the genre. While appreciating that one can never experience a cinematic or literary (or indeed any real) shock with anything approaching the power of the initial encounter, re-reading this quintessential spook story convinces me that Matheson’s are the real goods, which on a second helping may pale slightly, but will never pall.
The inevitable movie, scripted by Matheson, is — especially considering the American International pedigree conferred on it in the person of its producer, James H. Nicholson — remarkably understated, hewing to the novel in most particulars (minus, naturally, that priapic crucifix, which was no doubt the first element of the narrative to go by the wayside) and eschewing piled-on atrocity; what is only sensed is far more unsettling than what is exhibited on-screen. The only curious aspect of the film is its misleading title. The legend of the Belasco mansion, commonly called “Hell House,” occurs well before the events depicted in the story, during the satanically sybaritic reign of its owner… and in its aftermath, 25 years before Hell House, when the first group of researchers is torn to tatters by Emeric Belasco’s vengeful shade. I can only assume that title was an imposition by schlockmeister Nicholson.
Credit must be given to Nicholson, however, for uniformly perfect casting: Pamela Franklin, compassionate as she is tremulous as the mental medium; Roddy McDowall, in his histrionic prime as the tormented sole survivor of the otherwise decimated previous psychic detectives; the splendid (and criminally under-used) Clive Revill, tightly-coiled and chilly to the touch as the all too analytical parapsychologist; and Gayle Hunnicutt, lustrously beautiful and eminently shatterable as his somewhat neglected wife. (Sadly, the producer died before his movie’s premiere.)
Transposing the action of the novel from New England to Great Britain and working with what is fairly obviously a limited budget the director, John Hough (a minor name, that) and his gifted cinematographer Alan Hume, pile on the atmosphere, surrounding the actors in a tenebrosity thick enough to cut and relieved only by restricted islands of murky light. The characters are isolated, not merely by their position in the house but by their lonely, secretive personas, emphasized by Hume’s photographing them through a variety of distorting lenses. The disconcerting electronic music of Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson also adds to the growing sense of unease. It’s not, strictly speaking, a musical score so much as an unnerving soundscape highlighted by an ethereal rhythmic beating effect, like the incessant throb of a giant, unseen heart. The heart of Hell House itself?
Despite the economically limited scope, the movie contains strikingly few risible moments, like the patently phony cat attack on Franklin*; the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is done better, and on a smaller budget. We miss, too, Matheson’s extended sequence of Revill being dragged to his death, here reduced to a more standard shock image as Hunnicutt and McDowall discover his bloody corpse. (The Franklin character’s stunning death in the novel, courtesy of that profane rood, is also omitted.) But for the time, and considering the niggardly budget, the finale, and the dinner scene in which Revill is attacked by ordinarily inanimate objects in the dining room, are remarkably done, and genuinely frightening. Generally, however, and unlike today’s CGI-obsessed filmmakers, the scenarist and director emphasize the human aspects of the story: McDowall’s refusal to open his senses to the house; Revill’s preoccupied arrogance; Hunnicutt’s neglected state, which leaves her dangerously vulnerable to erotic possession; Franklin’s deep belief in her abilities, in its way as presumptuous and wrong-headed as Revill’s deluded rationality.
It all leads to McDowall unmasking Belasco, in the movie’s effective, thematically unified and — even if the corporeal demon’s prostheses are rather too modern in design — emotionally satisfying climax. (Belasco’s perfectly preserved corpse is “played” by Michael Gough.) A friend expressed some mild surprise that The Legend of Hell House has not (yet) been, to use an odious term for an odious practice, re-made. If (when?) this happens, it follows that story, logic, character and literacy will almost certainly be replaced by narrative indifference, implausibility, cardboard delineation and the usual sour jokes that pass for wit in these sub-literate times. Not to mention teasing, slickly Kubrickian glimpses of sexual pathology and the usual dispiriting over-reliance on wall-to-wall musical scoring and a numbing plethora of computer-driven effects. Heaven protect us from that Hell.
*The morinically literal-minded point to the movie’s bookend shots of the black cat outside the Belasco house as a continuity error, forgetting, in their knuckle-headed obsessiveness, that The Legend of Hell House is a ghost story: Earthly logic need not apply. And anyway, who says it’s the same cat?
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross