At first blush, The Legend of Hell House, adapted by the legendary Richard Matheson from his own book Hell House, might not seem very much like Christmas. Christmas comes with certain associations: Eggnog and ugly sweater parties, presents piled under a decorated tree, carols being endlessly played in stores several weeks before we’ve even had Thanksgiving, and finally, being utterly terrified out of your mind. Or it was. The Legend of Hell House fits the great, lost tradition of the ghost story at Christmas.
Everyone knows about Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, sure, a charming tale about a rich man so greedy he has to go three rounds of being beaten into supernatural submission to cough up enough dough to buy a poor family a bigger goose, but that’s not this. What we’re talking about, you and I—smoke curling out of the chimney, wind howling around the eaves, nights that go dark hours earlier—is ghosts. Monsters. In the Victorian era, when all of our modern Christmas traditions became codified, the ghost story was as much a part of Christmas as figgy puddings, little twinkly-eyed fat men popping down chimneys, and dreams of sugar plums dancing through children’s heads. Nothing could be better than to gather with good company, warm, full, and proceed to tell each other stories of people who have a far worse time of it.
Gradually, as the twentieth century wore on, horrors piled upon horrors, including two world wars and all the attendant misery associated with them, and the tradition went away. The Andy Williams hit from 1963, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (which came out a little over a month before the Kennedy assassination), hints at this now lost tradition with this lyric:
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of the
Christmases long, long ago
Ghost stories, for the stiff-collared stiff-lipped Victorians, meant scary. It was their way of describing what we now call the horror genre. And in that way, Hell House fits perfectly. Maybe the best, and certainly the most well-known for that particular, peculiar yuletide tradition, is M.R. James, a provost of King’s College, Cambridge. You’ve almost certainly read something by him, or by those he influenced: everyone from H.P. Lovecraft and Manly Wade Wellman to Stephen King and Ramsay Campbell. James was known for concocting a new tale every Christmas and reading it to a circle of intimates, delighting them by candlelight with stories of historians and scholars caught unawares when they come across ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties. In much the same way, Matheson pits his four intrepid occult investigators against a murderous mansion right before the big day itself.
The Legend of Hell House, often talked of fondly in terms of how well it entertains, but just about always with the author making a caveat as to how it’s a lesser film than either The Haunting or The Shining, isn’t. It’s every bit as a good as those films and Matheson’s script and the production lend the film a depth hidden by how easily it entertains. It’s a real skill to give people a rollicking time that can be explored more deeply without making any of it plodding or obvious. It also shows why someone like Matheson is thought of as a master of the genre: he’s that good of a storyteller, dropping little hints or lines of dialogue without calling attention to them, allowing a case to be built out of them later.
The film came out in 1973, produced by James H. Nicholson, half of the team behind the great American International Pictures studio (ed. note: Samuel Z. Arkoff is the other). It feels a bit like a relic, straddling the gothic grandeur of AIP and Hammer’s best work and the more modern takes on horror exemplified by the earlier Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist which would come out six months later (coincidentally, Hell House beats The Exorcist in getting a possession onscreen). The movie is something Hammer especially should have paid attention to. While AIP used to produce gaudy horror pictures, they were quickly moving into the realm of low-budget mainstream cinema taking full advantage of the new wave of young talent coming out of Hollywood. Hammer, meanwhile, was floundering, trying to cram Dracula into discos when it could have tried this film’s marriage of modern realism and gothic technicolor mayhem.
The Legend of Hell House (and the novel on which it’s based) take its basic premise from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, that of a doctor and a small gathering of psychics investigating whether or not a mansion is truly haunted. Whereas Jackson’s novel investigated the psychic aspect of the phenomenon, taking ghosts as a given, Matheson’s approach is more scientific on the surface: he wants to know how ghosts would remain. As such, the film opens with a title card containing a quote from Tom Corbett (apparently not the space cadet, though a search reveals little else), named as a “clairvoyant and psychic consultant to European royalty,” telling us how the events in the film are entirely within the realm of possibility. The cast features Clive Revill, a New Zealand-born stage actor and That Guy; Gayle Hunnicutt, actress and model; Roddy McDowall, perhaps best known as Cornelius and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films; and Pamela Franklin, coming back to the haunted house genre after starring opposite Deborah Kerr in The Innocents as a child. They explore using EMF readers, thermometers, infrared cameras and all the other toys you might see in your favorite ghost hunting show today. Séances are timed with pocket watches, measurements are taken, the whole thing is treated as seriously as possible. The film, using a framing device from the book, timestamps the various occurrences of horror throughout (a technique Kubrick and King both used in their respective takes on The Shining), which lends a sense of jack-in-the-box dread as we wonder what new affront will occur each time the clock comes back up.
The Legend of Hell House shares some DNA with The Haunting, but it’s the details where Hell House distinguishes itself. For one thing, the film smartly sets itself in England and not the New England of the book or Jackson’s own Hill House setting. Dr. Lionel Barrett (Revill) is called to the mansion of one Mr. Deutsch (Ronald Culver), a dying, wheelchair-bound millionaire whose house recalls a wing of Buckingham Palace in its grandiosity. Waiting patiently for Dr. Barret is his wife, Ann (Hunnicutt). Here again Hell House and Hill House diverge. Where in The Haunting, the expedition to the mansion of Hugh Crain is organized by Dr. Markway, Dr. Barrett is not in charge of the Hell House investigation. Oh, he wants to investigate it, sure. But the expedition to the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” is not his own. Deutsch wants Barret to give him the facts regarding life after death, facts Deutsch informs the skeptical physicist (who nevertheless has been studying parapsychology for 20 years) can be found in the “only place on earth where survival is yet to be refuted: the Belasco house.” You see, the Belasco house isn’t just a haunted house, it’s very probably the only haunted house on earth.
Further stripping Barrett of control is Deutsch’s insistence that he take spiritual medium Florence Tanner (Franklin), and the only previous survivor of an exploration into Hell House, physical medium Benjamin Fischer (McDowall), with him. McDowall, for his part, so nails Fischer’s voice with his clipped lilt that it’s impossible to read or reread the book and not hear him as the character. For this investigation, Deutsch offers £100,000 apiece. Barret agrees so long as Deutsch finishes building him a machine he’s been trying to put together for his research.
From there, we’re off to the races. Matheson’s script wants to jam us into the mansion as quickly as possible and the film follows suit, managing to do so without feeling rushed. The Barretts are trundled around a sere England in the back of Deutsch’s limousine, stopping once at an otherwise empty train station to pick up Fischer and once more at a convent, surrounded by a copse of barren trees, to pick up Miss Tanner. The England of the film outside the Belasco mansion is so brown, gray, and apocalyptically devoid of life that it feels ghostlier than the garishly appointed Belasco mansion, each room outfitted in a different monochromatic hue like Prince Prospero’s palace in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.
Where the characters come from provides another deviation from The Haunting: no one is on each other’s side in The Legend of Hell House. Dr. Barrett, from the secular world of physics, wants to prove that all the phenomena are scientific, Miss Tanner, from the world of religion, believes it all to be supernatural, and Fischer, alone and adrift, is caught somewhere in the middle, suppressing his psychic nature and fear to get a second crack at Hell House to deal with his survivor’s guilt.
The mansion itself, surrounded by a miasma of thick, perpetual fog, looms over our players who are dwarfed by the overwhelming façade, Fischer pointing out that the windows are bricked up to keep prying eyes from looking in—or, as Miss Tanner suggests, to keep those inside from seeing out. The film often returns to exterior shots of the house, low angles in which the fog-blanketed mansion takes on grotesque proportions by way of forced perspective, to make our already isolated characters that much smaller and alone. The soundtrack, one of the first electronic soundtracks, is unsettling, consisting of weird, staccato drumming or a constant low-level whispering and murmuring which fills the house with a presence where it’s never quite clear if the actors are aware of it or the audience is aware of it for them. Maybe the voices represent the psychic undercurrent of the house, letting the audience in on what a nightmare it would be to be attuned to this plane.
At the door to the mansion, Deutsch’s man informs Barrett that the house has been stocked with food and the generator fixed before he leaves them, which makes the fact that the lights don’t work immediately upon entering even more eerie. Once inside, with the lights restored, we’re taken on a short tour of the house. No art exists that doesn’t depict either a satyr or a nude woman and every book on any given shelf is about sexual perversion. Barrett takes them to the attached chapel, a sort of “church in Hell” as he describes it, down to a horned Christ on the cross. Miss Tanner, the most open of the group, can’t handle the psychic emanations from it, and stays outside. She wanders off and the rest of the group catch up to her at a record player that turned on of its own accord. Belasco’s voice greets them:
“Welcome to my house. I’m delighted you could come. I’m certain you will find your stay here most illuminating. Think of me as your unseen host and believe that during your stay here I shall be with you in spirit. May you find the answer that you seek. It is here, I promise you. And now, auf Wiedersehen.”
As Miss Tanner points out, auf Wiedersehen means “Until we meet again.” At dinner that night, Mrs. Barrett asks what made the house so evil and Fischer explains:
“Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?”
Emeric Belasco, born the bastard of an American munitions manufacturer (adding a hint of the Winchester Mystery House to the proceedings) was a giant of a man with a face like a demon. He built his house in 1919 and led a permanent debauch that took life after life including his second wife’s via suicide in 1927, a group of twenty-seven guests found dead when the house was finally broken into by worried relatives in 1929, and eight paranormal investigators after that (Fischer was the ninth).
And now all the hints and allusions start to come together. Belasco is Prince Prospero, leading a dance of death against the world, his house bricked up all the better to keep his guests from looking out, to keep their minds focused on him and his deviancy. This villain, created post-Manson, stands in the shadows, the “Unseen host,” just as he says, watching, whispering, encouraging but never participating. Belasco prays on the basest instincts of his guests, playing a game of divide and conquer which he begins to enact on the latest round of people trying to investigate Hell House’s mysteries.
Dr. Barrett, myopically focused on his work to the exclusion of all else, switches places with Miss Tanner in terms of belief. Barrett, who comes off as the type of scientist who starts with a conclusion and then works the facts to fit it, feels more like a man who believes too much, clinging to his insistence on science as if it’s a rabbit’s foot that will protect him from the house. After a dinner which begins with the table shaking and ends with everything in the room attacking him and him alone, he still insists the force in the house has no guiding entity behind it, that it’s “mindless, directionless power.” His denial of the obvious, that something is going after each member of the party and in a way best suited to work on them, is so strong that it comes back around to a new type of superstition.
Miss Tanner, who touts her openness to various psychic phenomena, starts to become the close-minded one of the group. Here, in casting an actress younger than the book’s version, youthful naiveté is substituted for spinsterish cloistered ignorance. She gets an impression that the haunting is done by Daniel Belasco, Emeric’s son, kept spiritually prisoner by his father. She insists on this past the point where anything Dr. Barrett or Fischer, the only one with actual experience of the house, and, as another psychic, the one most obviously in her corner, can say to dissuade her. After a series of events which leave her brutalized, covered in bites and scratches, she decides she must give Daniel sexual release to finally free him and as a result ends up possessed.
Mrs. Barrett, married to a man married to his work, ends up being enticed by the house as well, her marital frustrations being turned toward the only other man present, Fischer. A series of sleep walking escapades leaves her marriage precariously balanced when she’s caught by her husband propositioning Fischer who turns her down. Fischer, to his credit, points out that the doctor is really to blame in not accepting the obvious fact that something is affecting each of them.
Fischer, as the doctor accuses him, is blocking himself off from the house. He remembers all too well, as he later details to Miss Tanner, what happened when he was part of an investigation: every party member was left crippled, paralyzed, or dead from the house’s predations. Of course he’s closing himself off. He’s closed off from everything in life, shut down, emotionally invulnerable even down to Mrs. Barrett’s ability to seduce him. He remains this way except for one brief moment when he lets his guard down and Belasco comes at him full force, throwing him into fits and convulsions, all the pent-up psychic attacks Fischer has been blocking off hitting him at once. At this point Fischer begins to turn back around.
This leads to the ending of the movie in which Barrett’s machine has finally arrived. Hell House, Fischer warns, doesn’t like to be attacked. Barrett informs the group that his machine reverses electromagnetic radiation, which he states is the only force haunting Hell House and will reverse all the pent-up energy built up over the years through all the degradation and death that has occurred within its walls. Unfortunately, he is not correct. Miss Tanner dies, confronting Hell House’s secret in the chapel she couldn’t bear to face in the beginning of the film, and soon Dr. Barrett follows her after his limits are revealed to him. Each in their way attacked the house: Miss Tanner through trying to exorcize it spiritually, and Dr. Barrett through science. Hell House plays with its food, not the other way around.
Fischer tells Mrs. Barrett he must confront the house, and thereby his own past, and enters the chapel discovering that nobody was correct but that all of them had part of the answer. Dr. Barret was right in believing Hell House has power, Miss Tanner was right in believing that power wasn’t mindless, but it takes Fischer to discover that every element haunting the place comes from one spirit, Emeric Belasco himself, having disappeared when his house was broken into in 1929. Fischer puts together the secret after thinking back on all the crippled and paralyzed victims: Belasco, a bully ashamed of his own short, misshapen legs, spent a lifetime angry at the world, forcing people into accepting his own perverted, evil outlook and acting out his most vicious carnal desires. Fischer also knows the only way to truly break a bully down is to out-bully him, and he does so, revealing Belasco’s unimposing form hidden away in a lead-lined room at the back of the chapel.
If Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was in part a refutation of the Christian parable about the rich man and Lazarus, The Legend of Hell House is a refutation of Dickens. Matheson lived through the twentieth century and saw what horrors capitalism wrought; he knew the chances of turning around a millionaire’s greed. Deutsch, the wheel-chair bound millionaire from the beginning of the film, takes on sinister proportions now. From his dialogue with Dr. Barrett, we know he believes in life after death—what he wanted from Barrett or the two psychics was to know how it was possible.
Having opened the tomb and discovered the secret, Fischer and Mrs. Barrett turn on the machine and leave Hell House, hoping the energy will be reversed now that Belasco can’t hide behind his impregnable walls anymore. There might not be cocoa and carols and packages under a tree, but for these two, surviving Hell House might be the Christmas miracle neither saw coming. (The Legend of Hell House is available on Blu Ray and DVD and on demand.)