Friday, June 22, 2012

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Millionaire Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) hires physicist with interest in paranormal matters Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) to examine "the Mount Everest of haunted houses", the Belasco house, a former place of controlled debauchery (yay) and murder (boo) that has cost the lives, limbs or sanity of most of its former investigators. Barrett - who smugly does believe in paranormal manifestations yet not in ghosts and is clearly obsessed with his work to the detriment of his marriage - takes his sexually repressed wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) with him. Deutsch has also reserved the help of two mediums - one the painfully optimistic believer in a very Christian interpretation of ghosts - of course also sexually repressed - Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), the other the only whole survivor of the last Belasco house investigation, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), clearly a believer in repressing everything.

Of course, the house really is as dangerous as people think, and of course, it's going to play on the single character trait of everyone, so soon enough, Barrett will be even more obsessed with his work, Ann will want to have sex, Florence will try to save the ghost of Belasco's son even if it means implied ghost rape, and Fischer will mug as if he were played by Roddy McDowall.

While mostly ignored in the first decade or so of its existence, confusingly broad-minded director John Hough's The Legend of Hell House is now more often than not described as "highly underrated", " a forgotten masterpiece", or "nearly as good as The Haunting" (and I suspect anonymous internet commenter C doesn't mean the dreadful remake, even though that abomination is actually closer to Hell House in spirit). It's also often described as subtle, a statement that just leaves me puzzled, for subtlety is living in a completely different town than this film.

But before I go into what bothers me about the film, I shall not fail to mention some of its very clear surface charms. While I don't think John Hough's direction actually succeeds in achieving the creepy mood the director clearly sets out to build, I do appreciate how desperately he goes all out in trying to achieve it. There's a whole carnival of fisheye lenses, Dutch angles, uncomfortable close-ups, fog, and deep shadows, all so tirelessly working at playing haunted house they don't have any effect on me at all. The permanent piling on of directorial tics that would be subtle used in a controlled manner, or could create a mood of the weird if used in a more individual one, keeps the film teetering on the edge of the unintentionally funny for most of its running time, and it's only saved from permanently - and not just for half of the time like it does - going over the edge by some very decent performances by Franklin, Revill and Hunnicutt who make the best out of the flat roles they are given, excellent music by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of BBC Radiophonic Workshop fame, and fine art direction.

Unfortunately, the fourth of the film's four main actors is Roddy McDowall, whose performance is, as usual when he's not playing a monkey, problematic. He starts out slowly enough with the most showy attempts at "subtle acting" this side of Tom Cruise, but once his character "opens up", he seems to be caught in a scenery chewing contest with himself, which is at times pretty funny to watch but not helpful to keep up the po-faced serious mood of Richard Matheson's script (based on his own novel).

That script features most of the things I loathe about large parts of Matheson's work - the stiff dialogue, the insistence on Freudian bullshit (a problem he shares with Robert Bloch) instead of actual characterisation, all women being hysterics in the Freudian sense at heart - while lacking the things I love about large parts of Matheson's work - the ability to actually do interesting and sometimes even enlightening things with said Freudian bullshit, a deep interest in exploring the darker sides of the human spirit by way of supernatural horror, and a sense for keeping things weird with a capital W. In this version of Hell House, everyone is horribly one-dimensional. Florence is stuck up and trusting, Barrett a smug scientist, Ann sexually frustrated and Fischer played by Roddy McDowall, so the house's attempts at destroying them through their own character flaws are equally flat. If you've seen the character introductions, you know exactly how the place will influence them. It's as if Matheson had written the characters with crayon. Not even Belasco escapes that problem - let's just say that a haunting based on the inferiority complex of a guy who cut off his own legs so he could buy prostheses that make him look taller (that's the degree of "subtlety" you can expect from this movie) is not very frightening, no matter how often the film tells us how frightening it is supposed to be.

This dispiriting lack of nuance runs through the whole film and also infects many of its horror set-pieces: Franklin's ridiculous fight with a cat doll, a finale that consists of McDowall mugging into the wind, and (horror of horrors!) hot and bothered Ann Barrett's attempts at seducing McDowall (whose reaction shots do of course ruin every possibility of the scene working as intended). The list just goes on and on.

It's all so clichéd and cheesy in its attempts to be somewhat daring that my only reaction to The Legend of Hell House is a lot of rather embarrassed laughter, the kind of reaction I usually reserve for larger family meetings.



Pauline said...

I'm picking up what you're putting down, sir, but I will tell you what: when I was a kid this movie scared the bajeezis out of me on late night TV. Seriously. And I still think it's better than that awful, smarmy remake of about 15 years ago.

Read the book kids. With the lights on.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Oh well, as a kid, I liked this one too.

I didn't know there was a remake of Hell House in the 90s. I only know the horrible remake of The Haunting (of Hill House) from that period, which actually did remind me more of Hell House than Robert Wise's The Haunting (a film that eats both these movies for breakfast) or Shirley Jackson's book.