The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Directed by John Hough
Written by Richard Matheson
Produced by Albert Fennell, Norman T. Herman, James H. Nicholson, Susan Hart
Starring Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt
By penning the screenplay based on his novel Hell House, Matheson mitigated his source’s carnality and violence, but left nothing to wayward interpretation, and the subtle superiority of this well-worn premise’s ingenious treatment proves that his work was best produced unadulterate. An elderly nabob (Roland Culver) seeking evidence of the afterlife has purchased a mansion of incomparable infamy, as well as the investigative services of a physician (Revill) renowned for his study and confutations of supernatural phenomena, and two mediums — one (Franklin) attuned to ethereal manifestations, the other (McDowall) to those corporeal…and the sole sane survivor of a catastrophic probe conducted at the estate twenty years prevenient. Cliched accoutrements of gloomy mist, copious cobwebs and a black cat may evoke conventional expectations, but this residence is a clever cut above the average haunted house. Intricately composed and staged, Hough’s dramatic direction’s demonstrated with striking worm’s-eye and overhead shots, startling zooms, creeping pans and close-ups flanked by confrontational profiles. Matheson doesn’t subvert so much as expand this scenario’s compass: Revill’s scientific skeptic isn’t a complete disbeliever, only discounting one paranormal phenomenon for his conviction of others, and at loggerheads with his wife (Hunnicutt) and the psychics of his party as they suffer remote quassation, thermic shifts, ectoplasmic projection, statuary shadows in motion, and faunal, minatory and nympholeptic possession. Within opulent interiors, this quartet’s as outstanding as duly assembled, Revill a charismatically equanimous foil to Hunnicutt’s and Franklin’s inspired perversity and hysterics. Of course, McDowall modestly registers an intimated intensity during the first two acts, only setting his stage to hammily steal the show in the third with a vociferous tour de force. A droning, almost ambient score synthesized by Brian Hodgson and the dread Delia Derbyshire during the latter’s stint as an Electrophon employee quietly resounds to emphasize a commoving miasma. Hough’s and Matheson’s aesthetic and diegetic sophistication breathed to what would otherwise be a routine horror flick a la Hammer or Amicus a far more artful dynamism, and even in the rare moment when it strays to schlock, it’s plainly preoccupying. The answer to their mystery necessitates a synthesis of science and spiritualism, but each of the protagonists is intransigent in his or her hypotheses as their lodging’s specter turns them against one another by exploiting their shortcomings. Who among them can survive to turn the tables?

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