The Legend of Hell House: adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel; starring Roddy McDowall (Ben Fischer), Pamela Franklin (Florence Tanner), Clive Revill (Dr. Barrett), Gayle Hunnicutt (Ann Barrett) and Michael Gough (Belasco) (1973): The late, great Richard Matheson adapts his own haunted-house novel here in effective fashion, especially given what couldn’t be shown in a movie of the time. The whole thing even manages to make an impossible-not-to-laugh cat-attack scene work without the benefit of CGI.
Where Matheson’s I Am Legend gave vampires a scientific rationale for existing, The Legend of Hell House offers a quasi-scientific exploration of an extraordinarily dangerous haunted house. There’s certainly a tip of the cap to Shirley Jackson’s monumental haunted-house novel The Haunting of Hill House starting with the title and the four-person psychic investigation team.
But whereas Jackson’s novel offered no real antagonist other than the house itself, Matheson’s work gives us a malign human — Emeric Belasco, builder of the house and a Satanic presence who would have made Aleister Crowley look like the Church Lady.
Back in the 1920’s, Belasco built the house and then sealed it away from the outside world with its two-dozen or so inhabitants inside. When the house was opened, everyone was dead and Belasco had vanished. One of the subtle drolleries of Hell House is that the most haunted house in the world is less than 50 years old: it was built to be haunted.
Teams investigating the house have been devastated by Something, to the extent that the only one of a dozen previous investigators to survive both physically and mentally is Roddy McDowall’s Ben Fischer. Fischer was a teen-aged medium when he entered Hell House with the last group to investigate it before the events of the novel. Now, he’s the middle-aged Voice of Doom with a new team which ultimately aims to use technology to dissipate Hell House’s restless spirits. Good luck with that.
The performances here are all fine, and suspense builds to a satisfying conclusion. McDowall is especially fine as the withdrawn and wounded Fischer. The book fleshed out Fischer’s personality by describing his thoughts and experiences. Here, McDowall has to build his wounded psychic without the benefit of voice-overs. I think he succeeds admirably, as does the movie itself. Highly recommended.