The Legend of Hell House (1973)

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By Scott Ross

hell pbWhen 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 surprisingly cheesy, morbid poster for a notably subtle horror movie.

The surprisingly cheesy, morbid poster for a notably subtle horror movie.

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.

Pamela Franklin in a trance-state. Note the ectoplasm.

Pamela Franklin in a trance-state. Note the ectoplasm.

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.)

Rational science, embodied by Clive Revill, confronts spiritualism in the reluctant person of Roddy McDowall. Note the slightly distorted composition and the oppositional spaces the actors occupy.

Rational science, embodied by Clive Revill, confronts spiritualism in the reluctant person of Roddy McDowall. Note the slightly distorted image and the oppositional spaces the actors occupy in the composition.

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?

Gayle Hunnicutt in what is, for her character, an inconguously suggestive mood. For the house itself, outré sexuality is the norm.

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.

McDowall in the final, apocalyptic face-off with the shade of Emeic Belasco.

McDowall in the final, apocalyptic face-off with the shade of Emeic Belasco.

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

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There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime…

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By Scott Ross

When asked to name my favorite novel, I am never certain how to answer. Do I chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its sparkling vernacular, its unerring narrative voice, its rich humor (and equally rich horror) and the masterly fashion in which it confronts, head on, the essential hypocrisy of American racism? Perhaps The Great Gatsby for its crystalline prose and absolute evocation of its era? Or Bleak House, for its panoramic narrative, satirical brilliance and aching humanity? Maybe Ragtime for its astonishing style and sweeping vision? Or Beloved for the stunning poetry of its prose and its unblinking fantasia on the profoundest issue facing a nation willing to build itself on one person’s right to own another? Possibly To Kill a Mockingbird for its unsentimental view of childhood, its unflinching portrait of bigotry, its correspondingly glowing depiction (and defense) of decency and its unique position as the only novel of a born writer? Perhaps The Eighth Day or The Magnificent Ambersons or East of Eden for their respective depictions of American families in flux, their understated irony and their expansiveness of heart? Or, if we stretch the word to embrace a collection of related stories, might I not suggest Goodbye to Berlin for the way its lepidopterist author pins its squirming, restive characters firmly to an irrevocable delineation of time and place?

No. I can’t decide. Ask me instead which novels I’ve read most often. That’s a much easier one. MASH probably heads the list, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. But I’ve read it at least a half-dozen times since the age of 14, and always with great joy. Still, the pseudonymous Richard Hooker’s episodic collection of dark comic sketches from Korea, whatever its pleasures, pales next to Muriel Spark’s magnificent mainstay The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Know its characters, and its slight, impressionistic plot as well as you might from a previous reading, or from either the play or the famous movie (or indeed the seven-part British miniseries) made from it and this slim, slightly autobiographical tapestry continues to delight from inauspicious beginning to unforgettable end, each successive reading over time revealing more of its perfectly pitched tone, its striking manipulation of the temporal, its ironic (but never bitter) detachment, and the mellifluous, biting (but never savage) dialogue of which Spark was long a past-mistress.

jeanbrodie

This is Brodie as I first knew her, in a flea-market purchase from around 1976, a 1969 Penguin movie tie-in whose stark back-cover warning (“For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A.”) made this 15 year-old tremble slightly and wonder if, in buying it, I was transgressing international law. I was drawn to it, not for its relation to a movie I had still to see (or a television series that was yet to air) but because a favorite local director had mounted a splendid high school production of the play that season.

A Miss Muriel Spark in her prime.

A Miss Muriel Spark in her prime.

Brodie, perhaps appropriately for a novel whose center is not so much eccentricity but sexual jealousy, is in a curious way represented by two sets of women: One literary, the other histrionic. First of course, Muriel Spark, who bequeathed Miss Brodie to the world (and who based her to a large degree on a certain Miss Kay, her own teacher at, as Jean Brodie would note, “an impressionable age.”) Next, Jay Presson Allen, who adapted the book for the stage and who would later transmogrify her own adaptation into film.

Jay Presson Allen, Brodie's dramatic amanuensis.

Jay Presson Allen, Brodie’s dramatic amanuensis.

The other set consists of the four women who variously brought Miss Brodie to life: Vanessa Redgrave (in London), Zoe Caldwell (Broadway), Maggie Smith (film) and Geraldine McEwan (television.) Not to mention the countless amateur actors who have breathed life and fire into Spark’s unconventional, admirable, maddening, foolish, and ultimately dangerous pedagogue on more stages separately than even the redoubtable Misses Redgrave, Caldwell, Smith and McEwan have together.

Vanessa Redgrave, the statuesque Brodie of the London stage.

Vanessa Redgrave, the statuesque Brodie of the London stage.

Zoe Caldwell, Brodie in New York.

Zoe Caldwell, Brodie in New York.

Maggie Smith, immortalizing Brodie on film. (With Jane Carr, bovine in brain and body, as Mary Macgregor.)

Maggie Smith, immortalizing Brodie on film. (With Jane Carr, bovine in brain and body, as Mary Macgregor.)

Gerladine McEwen, the Brodie of British television.

Gerladine McEwen, the Brodie of British television.

I cannot speak for the McEwan series, as I still have not seen it, but for all the acting pyrotechnics and the juicy roles for its cast, Allen’s play (and subsequent screenplay) is, perhaps inevitably, a diminution of the novel. I don’t claim for Brodie the same greatness one confers on the finest prose — it isn’t a patch on, say, Doctorow’s or Morrison’s or Fitzgerald’s — but if it isn’t first-tier, it’s nonetheless an entrancingly high second. Although Allen retained a bit of the book’s framing device (involving a nun reluctantly famous for her surprise best-seller), trenchant dialogue and and spicy observations she had, perforce, to jettison Spark’s loose temporal structure in favor of a more linear approach. Had she been a more daring, or in any case a different sort of playwright, Allen might not have matched Spark but she could have at least maintained pace with the novelist theatrically. But as she was essentially a boulevard comedian (or, at best, an adherent of comédie d’intrigue) and not an ironist, Allen built her narrative toward a dramatic show-down where Spark embraced a witty dying fall tinctured with ironic paradox.

In Spark’s Brodie, the self-deluding pedagogic iconoclast has no idea who has “betrayed” her to the authorities for her dangerous — indeed ultimately, if unintentionally murderous — extolling of Fascism, refusing to accept the evidence directly before her in the person of Sandy, the single “Brodie girl” she has most severely, and disastrously, underestimated. Allen climaxes her adaptation with a recriminatory confrontation between the two which, it must be admitted, ends spectacularly, with Brodie memorably shouting, “Assassin!” at Sandy’s departing back.* I once saw the Brodie movie in tandem with Paul Newman’s Rachel, Rachel, in a pointed double-bill. My best friend noted, afterward, that while the latter was deeply felt, and exceptionally moving, the former was more a showcase for its scenery-chewing star. I suspect it was largely that very concluding encounter that led him to prefer Rachel, itself — despite being one of the most deeply affecting portraits of loneliness ever committed to film — slightly hysterical.

"Victim" and "assassin":  Brodie and Sandy in the movie's climactic engagement.

“Victim” and “assassin”: Brodie and Sandy in the movie’s climactic engagement.

Certainly, in Maggie Smith’s deliciously ravenous hands, Jean Brodie is a veritable acting feast. Although her passions are all too real, her affect more than borders on self-conscious camp. One can easily imagine Charles Busch assaying Brodie and, with very little exaggeration, giving a nearly identical performance. I don’t say that as a criticism; as Allen (and the director, Ronald Neame) imagined her, this Jean Brodie virtually demands a comic technician willing to be as ridiculous yet oddly pitiable as Smith. That she occasionally seems, in 1930s Edinburgh, like a deliberately pretentious modern drag-queen avant la lettre merely adds, in a funny way, to her overall potency. On film Smith has been better (as in Ian McKellan’s Richard III and, especially, the flawed but almost agonizingly effective The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), more quietly plangent (Hot Millions, A Room with a View), wittier (A Private Function) and far funnier (Murder by Death, California Suite.) But she has almost never, aside from Alan Bennett’s magnificent Talking Heads television monologue Bed Among the Lentils, had a leading role as plummy as Miss Jean, or one that has called upon her to pull together everything she does so well in a single performance.

Maggiebrodie

Maggie in her, and Brodie’s, prime.

More notably Sparkian, in the movie, are Smith’s coevals: Pamela Franklin, blankly cunning as Sandy; Gordon Jackson, whose Mr. Lowther somehow makes cowardice seem endearing; and, supremely, Celia Johnson as Brodie’s bete noir Miss Mackay. It’s a vast tribute to Johnson’s gifts that she embodies the head of the conservative Marcia Blaine School with such outward reasonableness, even a certain inflexible charm, never allowing the character’s dogged fixation on Brodie to lapse into simple churlishness or stock villainy. You feel that she is, despite Jean’s underestimation of her, every bit as formidable, and cunning, a foe as Brodie herself, and with far greater (and, inevitably, deadlier) patience. That Mackay is small-minded in her attitudes and, as such, a much greater, because institutionalized, danger to her young charges than Brodie could ever be, does not mitigate her belief in the essential order of things, a tenet as unalterable as Brodie’s more flamboyant devotion to, as her insidious phrase insinuates, molding her girls in her own implacable image.

The great Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay.

The great Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay.

Surely the sharply observational ironist in Spark, who famously converted to Roman Catholicism, knew what she was about when Brodie says, repeatedly, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” Substitute “child” for “girl” and you have the very essence of Catholic (and indeed, every religion’s) indoctrinal teaching. She is able to see Brodie plain, as a deliberate spell-binder, a foolish monster sacré, and, as Sandy says, “a ridiculous woman” who, in her self-contradictory embrace of Fascism, is directly responsible for sending one such impressionable girl (Joyce Hammond in the novel, Mary McGregor in the play and movie) to her violent death. She may also, as Allen’s art teacher Teddy Lloyd (two-armed where Spark imagined him with one) accuses her, be afraid of her own impassioned sexuality, all too eager to procure a substitute lover from among her girls (Rose in the novel, Jenny in play and movie.) Yet she is no phony. Whatever her motives, Brodie’s devotion to teaching, in her own, wildly original fashion, is true enough. And she does manage, for better or worse, to remain in the minds of her students, as all great teachers do, long after they have forgotten the mediocre run of the overwhelming mill.

Brodie, uncharacteristically up against it, in one of the movie's forceful encounters with Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens.)

Brodie, uncharacteristically up against it, in one of the movie’s forceful encounters with Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens.)

This may be what I mean when I maintain that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in common with those novels we return to again and again at irregular intervals as our lives progress, yields greater pleasures and pithier insights with each new reading. It is easy, as an adolescent, to ridicule Brodie herself, and to see in her only a preening ridiculousness. Later, we may feel that she has indeed been wronged. And, still later, to find we can embrace both her sterling lack of academic orthodoxy (her approach to education, based on the Latin verb educere, is “a leading out”) and Sandy’s self-justification when she maintains, “It’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.” Seeing people whole demands of us a rejection of childish side-taking, that very egocentrism of which Jean Brodie is rightly accused yet which gives her such a disarmingly original hold, not merely on those special girls called (often with barely contained jealousy) The Brodie Set, nor on the reader, but on life itself. Without it, Brodie withers. With it, she soars. Vaingloriously, yes, even recklessly. But Jean Brodie is, however dangerously, alive in a way few fictions ever are.

“For those who like that sort of thing,” Miss Brodie sniffs at a girl whose avocations reveal, to her, a smallness of vision, “That is the sort of thing they like.” It may not be my favorite, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the sort of thing I like very much indeed.

*On the DVD commentary, Brodie’s director Ronald Neame says that Smith wanted to say the word “Assassin” quietly, to herself but was vetoed by himself and Robert Fryer, the movie’s producer. He adds that, seeing the film again so many years later, he thinks Smith was right and they were wrong.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross