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The Legend

of Hell House

     "Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomenon are not only very much within the bounds of possibility but could well be true." 

-- Tom Corbett: Psychic Consultant of European Royalty     




Gonzoid Cinema




The True Horror of Hell House: Cat Juggling


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Sights &
The Legend 
of Hell House 
 Academy Pictures Corp. /
 20th Century Fox

of the
The Films
of Richard

The Beat Generation

House of Usher

Pit and the Pendulum

Tales of Terror

The Last Man on Earth

Die! Die! My Darling

The Devil Rides Out

The Omega Man


The Legend of Hell House

Trilogy of Terror


Other Points

of Interest:

Source Novel:


The first thing you might notice when comparing the source novel to the film, is that the film transplants the action of the novel from America over to Great Britain. But just like in the book, we open not in Hell House but in the palatial home of eccentric millionaire Rudolph Deutsche (Roland Culver). Terminally ill, he offers to pay Dr. Lionel Barret $100,000 if he can prove the existence of life after death. Barret (Clive Revill) is a physicist and parapsychologist who has spent the last twenty years debunking the paranormal, which is why Deutsche wants him to lead an expedition into the infamous Belasco House, thinking the answer he wants to his own mortality can be found there. Barret can hardly believe the offer. He thought "Hell House" had been sealed up since the incident some twenty years ago. (His inflection on "the incident" tells us that whatever it was, it wasn't very nice.) But the Belasco family needs the money, Deutsche is happy to pay, and he wants the answer before he dies. 

Also on the team will be Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a spiritual medium, and Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell), a physical and mental medium -- and the only survivor of the aforementioned incident ... Turns out that twenty years ago, during the last investigation into Hell House, Fischer barely got out alive while all the others met their death, disfigurement, or were driven completely insane by whatever lurks inside those insidious walls. The new team is rounded out by Barret's wife, Ann (Gayle Honeycutt), and only because he can't talk her out of coming along. Despite the danger, she wants to be with him when he proves his new theory. Besides, they don't believe in haunted houses -- even the "Mt. Everest of haunted houses."

Deutsche only gives them a week because his time is short. Barret makes arrangements with the old man's people to finish building a machine of his design, a machine he claims will solve the problem of Hell House. Promising that the machine will be completed and delivered to the house in two days, Deutsche has the Barrets delivered to the Belasco House in his limousine. Along the way, they pick up Fischer at the train station and Tanner at her church. And the closer they get to their destination, the soundtrack turns more sinister as the road is engulfed in a fog. When the car comes to a halt, as the four make their way toward the house, Ann notices that the windows are bricked up and the house is completely sealed off. Fischer says Belasco did that from the inside to keep people from looking in or out. And as Tanner is overcome by the house's evil presence, Barrett scoffs that they haven't even gotten inside yet. Visibly upset, Fischer can't fathom Barret's incredulous attitude towards Hell House, and constantly reminds everyone that it tried to kill him and damned near succeeded. Doesn't he realize the true danger? Apparently not, and already, what lurks inside Hell House is marshalling itself to finish what it started 20 years ago and kill him -- him, and the others...

Author Richard Matheson detests genre labels. He's not a horror writer, or a science fiction writer, just a writer -- plain and simple. His motto is "A good story is a good story" and why categorize it beyond that? Over the years, his novels and stories, however they're labeled, seemed ready made to be adapted to film. I Am Legend made it twice, first as The Last Man on Earth, and later, the Heston's tour de crap, The Omega Man (-- a third adaptation has recently escaped pre-production purgatory, but the less said about the ending of that thing, the better). And more recently, What Dreams May Come and Stir of Echoes have made it to the big screen. Matheson's first crack at Hollywood was for his novel, The Shrinking Man, but he wouldn't sign the rights over to Universal unless they let him write the screenplay -- which they accepted, but still tinkered and changed a few things for The Incredible Shrinking Man. Matheson was OK with that, but you get a sense that it bugged him. With his foot firmly in the door, Matheson continued to turn out screenplays for the big and small screens -- most notably for The Twilight Zone, including one of my all time faves, The Horror at 20,000 Feet, with William Tiberius Shatner wigging out because something's on the wing! Aside from his novels and their cinematic adaptations, Matheson's biggest claim to fame is probably his collaboration with Roger Corman and American International Pictures on a series of loose -- and I mean loose -- adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe. And though Corman gets a lion's share of credit on those pictures, Matheson's macabre (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) and later hilarious (The Raven, The Comedy of Terrors) scripts are why we're really still talking about those movies today -- with a tip of the cap to the great Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre as well.

Originally, Matheson's Hell House, whose proprietor, Emeric Belasco, was loosely based on the exploits of Alistair Crowley, a well known Satanist, was as to be another production for American International, but when James H. Nicholson's affair with actress Susan Hart blew up, leaving him divorced and no longer and equal shareholder with long time partner Sam Arkoff, Nicholson struck a deal with 20th Century Fox and set out on his own as an independent producer. And first on his list was The Legend of Hell House, which he brought with him when he left AIP. Sadly, this, and some pre-production work on Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry were Nicholson's last cinematic contributions, who succumbed to a brain tumor in late 1972. And though Nicholson never got to see it, his last film/spook-show was a fitting cap-stone to a long and storied career as we catch back up with our intrepid troupe of ghost-chasers right after they get the generator running. And when the lights come on, Fischer gives them the nickel tour -- highlighted with tales of how each of the last investigative team met their gruesome demise. He eventually leads them to the chapel: a profane place with blasphemous pictures on the walls -- topped off with a giant *ahem* erotic crucifix hanging over the altar. The room gives off such a vile vibe that Tanner cannot even enter it, and the medium is soon overcome with the sound of wailing voices and retreats. When asked why Fischer isn't affected, Barret believes his psychic defenses must be stronger than hers.

Later, they all regroup in the dining hall where Fischer gives us another history lesson on Emeric Belasco and his accursed house ... Belasco was born in 1879 and built the house in 1919. A "roaring giant" and "frightening visage" -- Fischer quotes from Belasco's wife's diary, who eventually committed suicide -- he was an evil man who partook in "drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilations, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism and a number of sexual peculiarities." Fischer continues, saying no one really knows what happened to Belasco after he sealed the house up with his cronies and disciples trapped inside. Several years later, the house was broken into by relatives but everyone was dead. Twenty-seven in all, but Belasco's body was never found. When a confused Ann asks how did it all end, Fischer replies if it had ended they wouldn't be here; but Barret assures him that's about to change. With that, Tanner suggests they get to work and offers to do a sitting to try and channel the spirits of the house. Putting herself into a trance, she mumbles something about a place of sickness ... then claims there is a young man here who is trying to speak. Suddenly, Tanner seizes up and a demonic voice channels through her, spitting venom at the others, ordering them "To get out before I kill you all." 

While Tanner is possessed, several objects in the room start to vibrate and shake. Barret is astounded by this -- Tanner is a mental medium and shouldn't be able to manifest any physical phenomenon. When Tanner comes out of her trance, she claims it was the spirits of the house. After that taxing manifestation, they all turn in for the night. While they sleep, an unseen presence makes it's way inside Tanner's bedroom. As she tries to communicate with it, she makes a connection with the spirit of Daniel Belasco. Turns out Emeric's son is a mischievous spirit, and as it tosses the blankets at Tanner, she asks why he doesn't leave the house and move on to the other side. In reply, the spirit throws a tantrum, tossing several objects around, before slamming the door on the way out.

The next morning, at breakfast, Tanner reveals her meeting with Daniel. She's believes that if they can convince him to move on, the house's power will be lessoned, making their job a lot easier. Again, Barret doesn't put much credence to Tanner's notions or beliefs. And as her frustration with him grows, the doctor asks her to perform another sitting under strict scientific study. She agrees, but just to prove him wrong. Attaching several sensors to Tanner, Barret monitors his equipment, and while she goes into a deep trance, his gauges record a drop in temperature and a rise in the electromagnetic fields as ectoplasm oozes out of Tanner's fingers and starts to take shape. Barret manages to get a sample of it before something brushes past Ann, causing her to scream. Tanner's spell is broken by the interruption and suffers a tremendous psychic backlash. After the psychic retires to her room, Ann apologizes for ruining the sitting, but Barret was more than satisfied with the results. The sample of ectoplasm he collected fits his theory perfectly: the bulk of it is living matter produced by the human mind ... Meanwhile, back in Tanner's bedroom, something waits for her under the covers. But when she pulls them back nothing is there. The spirit continues to tease her, but she's not playing tonight, causing it to throw another conniption fit before leaving.

That evening, as they gather for dinner, Tanner is finally fed up with Barret's smug attitude. Accusing him of doubt and distrust, she goes on ranting, claiming all psychic phenomenon can be traced back to the bible and her power is gift from on High -- a prime example of "God's manifestation in man." When Barret tries to apologize, his coffee cup explodes in his hand. Then the room comes alive as everything not nailed down goes airborne, most of it drawing a bead on Barret. While Fischer and Tanner watch dumbfounded, the doctor barely dodges a falling chandelier, but takes the brunt of a large mirror crashing off the wall. When Tanner yells for it to stop, that's all it seems to take as the room quickly falls silent. Tanner turns a stink-eye on Fischer, thinking the house is using his powers against them and warns that he should leave. But as Ann helps Barret up, he accuses Tanner of trying to get rid of both of them. Tanner denies any responsibility, but Fischer warns that she -- not he, should be the one to get the hell out of Hell House.

Back in their bedroom, when Barret continues to rip on Tanner for the attack, and calls all mediums tricksters and charlatans, Ann asks, then how could she have caused all that mayhem. Well, according to Barret's theory, the house is a great power source of residual energy that Tanner was able to focus and direct toward him. Right on cue, Tanner enters and tries to apologize, saying it was Daniel trying to break up the team. But the apology goes nowhere as Barret claims there is no such person. Tanner storms off, determined to prove him wrong ... Later that night, the house switches targets and goes after Ann. While Barret sleeps, Ann watches the shadows of a statue cast on the wall having intercourse. Unable to wake her husband before the shadow returns to normal, and unable to sleep, she fixes herself a drink and starts going through Belasco's library of dirty books ... Later still, Fischer finds Ann walking about under some kind of spell -- a horny spell, as she wants Barret, Fischer and Tanner to have one massive orgy. Before Fischer can calm her down, she drops her robe, revealing her birthday suit. With that, Fischer slaps her, snapping Ann out of it, who suddenly realizes she's naked. Quietly gathering up her robe, Fischer tells her she was just walking in her sleep.

Meanwhile, Tanner's search for Daniel leads her down into the cellar. Hearing voices that lead her to a brick wall, she manages to trip the release on a secret passage, and when it opens, she cries out "I've found you." But her joy is short-lived as a malevolent wind knocks her back, causing her to scream. This commotion brings the others running, and they find her outside the cellar. Claiming to have found Daniel, and that he attacked her, Tanner shows them two bloody claw marks on her chest. Cautiously, Fischer and Barret enter the cellar and spy the secret room. Inside, they find a skeleton chained to a wall. Removing the body from its tomb, they bury it on the grounds while Tanner performs the funeral rites in hopes of releasing the tormented spirit.

The following night, Tanner's dreams turn to nightmares as Daniel's spirit is still trapped inside the house. Claiming that the only way he can be released is if Tanner makes love to him, when she refuses, a large black cat that's been lurking about since the beginning of the movie attacks her. Torn to ribbons, Tanner locks herself in the bathroom, where the beast can't get at her. The next morning, Barret's machine arrives: a large doohickey covered in knobs and gauges. And just as he's about to explain to Ann what it does, Fischer interrupts them, saying Tanner's been attacked again ... Fischer again encourages the younger medium to leave before it's too late, but Tanner feels communicating with Daniel is the key to breaking Hell House. Fischer isn't so sure about that and worries that Emeric might be up to some new trick. They laid Daniel to rest, right? So why isn't he at peace? To that, Tanner offers that the house is a controlled multiple haunting, with several spirits lorded over by one dominant spirit -- Emeric Belasco, whose "like a general, never in a battle but always controlling it!"

Leaving Tanner to find the Barrets, Fischer finds only Ann, locked in another trance. Feeling a bit randy again, Ann claims this is where most of Belasco's debauchery took place and it's really turning her on. She offers herself to Fischer, but when sees Barret spying on them from the top of the stairs, Ann screams and then faints ... Blaming the house, her husband doesn't hold her responsible for her abhorrent actions. Fischer warns that this wasn't the first incident, and encourages Barret to get her out before it's too late; the house has already gotten to Tanner and Ann, and they could be next. Barret then turns on Fischer, accusing him of wasting Deutsche's money. He knows Fischer has shut himself off, making him completely worthless to the investigation. After Barret storms off, Fischer takes a seat. Taking a moment to steel his nerve, he then slowly drops his mental guard, opening himself up to the house -- and is quickly overwhelmed, screams, and drops to the floor in a mass of convulsions ... After he's recovered, Fischer again tries to talk Tanner into leaving before it's too late. But she stubbornly says the house has nothing that they can't handle. That's a load of bull, Fischer says, and then recounts the tragedy that occurred twenty years ago: Lillian, a fellow psychic, threw herself off the balcony to her death. Dr. Graham crawled out of the house to die. Dr. Rand was paralyzed, and Finley was crippled and driven insane. He also admits to shutting himself off from the house, and he will continue to do so until he is far, far away from Hell House -- and suggests she does the same.

Back in the main hall, Barret finally explains his theory that the house is like a giant battery of stored energy waiting to be channeled. And what his machine will do is -- brace yourselves, reverse the polarity on the stored electromagnetic radiation and drain the house of this residual energy, rendering it harmless. Fischer says that's crazy and calls the machine a pile of junk, and punctuates that with a warning, whether it works or not, that Hell House will allow visitors and only attacks when provoked -- so don't provoke it, Einstein. Instead, he offers, why don't they all lay low, like him, and tell old Deutsche whatever he wants to hear, and then spend his money in good health if not good conscience. But his pitch finds no takers.

Back in her room, Tanner is overcome by the voices again. This time, she finally relents and gives her body over to Daniel's spirit, hoping the love she gives will end his torment. The spirit then molests and rapes her while she screams for God's forgiveness. Hearing this outburst, the others burst in and find her alone and giggling, covered in more bloody scratches. Waking up, and sickened by what happened, she weeps, claiming the evil is inside her trying to take over. Pushed well past her limits, Tanner finally agrees to let Fischer take her away. When they announce to the Barrets that they're leaving, Barret tells Fischer that he needn't come back either as he's about to fire up the machine and microwave Hell House clean. Tanner asks him to explain. Barret gladly does (-- you really get the sense that this guy loves to hear himself talk), saying the body produces an aura of electromagnetic radiation, and when we die, this aura sticks around. Tanner agrees, saying that this is the soul and we use that to get to Heaven. Barret disagrees, it has nothing to do with the soul and is only energy, and with his machine, the energy will be siphoned off, thus destroying Hell House. With that revelation, Tanner becomes possessed, seizes a fire poker and whacks away at the contraption. In her fury, she knocks Fischer out before Barret can return the favor. 

Luckily, she smashed nothing vital and it will only require minor repairs. Barret also claims that this outburst proves his theory about Tanner correct --  she tried to destroy his machine because it would disprove all of her beliefs. And while Fischer and Ann watch Barret fix the machine, Tanner wakes up and sneaks off to the chapel, where she is overcome by the wailing voices of torment. She presses on toward the altar, reaching out further with her powers, but the giant *ahem* erotic crucifix breaks away from the wall and impales her. Crushed, before she dies, Tanner realizes the real truth behind Hell House, and in her own blood scribbles a B inside a circle. Her death screams bring the others too late but they don't know what to make of her cryptic message. Moving on, Barret finishes fixing the machine and switches it on. As a steady hum grows louder, he orders everyone out of the house. Once they're clear, the hum continues to grow in intensity and we hear the wailing of the spirits inside as they try to seek shelter from the radiation pulse ... When the machine completes its cycle, the three survivors return to the house. Once inside, when Barret asks Fischer to open up and check the house, Fischer can't believe it -- he senses nothing! The house is clean. Calling Barret a genius, he runs off to test the rest of the house. His experiment a rousing success, Barret tells Ann to go and pack while he gets some final readings from his equipment. All seems well -- until his equipment starts ticking. Barret watches in amazement -- then horror, as the levels start going off the charts, and the last words he can get out is "I do not accept this" before his sensors explode, peppering his face with shrapnel ... Ann returns and finds the equipment in ruins, but no sign of her husband. She hears more noises that lead her into the chapel, where she finds Barret's body crushed under a chandelier. She screams and runs out, right into Fisher, who claims the entire house is clean -- except for the chapel. Sensing an evil presence there, Ann begs Fischer to just leave with her, but he gathers the strength to confront whatever is in the chapel -- for Tanner, for Barret, and for himself. When he crosses the threshold, he is assaulted by the voices but makes it to the bodies of his fallen comrades. Here, he finally deciphers Tanner's message. She realized it too late, but she and Barret were both wrong -- sort of. It wasn't a multiple haunting, or residual energy, just one foul entity that was behind Hell House -- Emeric Belasco.

Fischer probes further and sees a pattern emerging. His old colleagues were crippled before being killed or driven mad. The crucifix crushed Tanner's lower body, and the chandelier nearly severed Barret in two. Deducing it was all done to protect Belasco's secret and hidden shame, he challenges Belasco to try and destroy him. Ann pulls him away from another falling chandelier -- and how many of those damn things are there? Fischer retaliates, asking Belasco why he never left this house? Why was he always hiding in the shadows? He kicks it up a notch, calling Belasco a sonofabitch and taunts his mother. With each accusation, Belasco keeps knocking Fischer back with a psychic blow, but each one is less powerful than the one before. Fischer, meanwhile, relentlessly pushes on, and reveals that Emeric Belasco was no "roaring giant" at all but a dried up husk of a man not even five-foot tall. The house lets out one final scream, and then all is silent -- until the stained glass window behind the altar shatters. Behind it, they find a door ... Fischer and Ann enter a secret room and find the preserved body of Emeric Belasco. Fischer claims that the truth lies somewhere in between Tanner and Barret's theories: Belasco was an evil spirit who refused to move on -- a man of incredible ego, who even chopped his own legs off to wear prosthesis to give him a larger appearance. Fischer notices the walls of his tomb were lined with lead, and that's why Barret's machine had no effect on him in here. And he would have remained in her, protected for all eternity, if they hadn't discovered the real truth.

As Fischer escorts Ann out of the chapel, he comforts her, saying he never would have beaten Belasco without her husband's machine weakening him first. Turning Barrets machine on again, this time there is nowhere for Belasco to hide. As it starts to hum, the lone survivors quietly leave Hell House for the last time.

The End

According to all my research, I don't think Matheson was ever truly happy with any big screen adaptations of his novels, which may sound strange because he was usually the one adapting the screenplays. And that is also the case for Legend of Hell House. Saddled with simplifying the story, the author turned the secret of Emeric Belasco into a puzzle that feels a little too easily unraveled. He also had to tone down the carnage and erotic nature of the novel, and rework the gruesome demise of Dr. Barret but still copped out on the ending, covering all the bases with both sides being right to some extent. Behind the camera, Director John Hough keeps things tight and moving right along. I really like his strange angles when people are alone that gives you a sense that something is watching them. The special-effects are first rate, with a special nod for the poltergeist attacks, and the end, when Fischer is taking the multiple psychic hits to the stomach. And really, the only time the film breaks down is when the cat attacks Tanner. It tries real hard, but the cat's stuffed origins in several cuts tends to break the old suspension of disbelief. In front of the camera, I don't think the cast could've been any better. Franklin brings a real naiveté to Tanner that makes her demonic transformation at the end quite startling. Matheson didn't like Revill, but I thought he did fine as the boorish Barret, especially when he realizes too late how wrong he was. And I love Roddy McDowell, and when you watch him in this movie as he projects with his eyes, you can almost "see" the powers of his mind go to work, either probing or putting up a barrier.

As for Matheson, after The Legend of Hell House, he spent most of the 1970's as the king of the Made for TV movie of the week. First with Steven Spielberg's Duel, and then teaming up with Dan Curtis, they introduced the world to Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker and the unstoppable Zuni fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror, before returning to the big screen with Time after Time and JAWS 3-D.

For the most part, the film adaptation does Hell House justice. And the author, the book and the film come under way too much fire and comparison to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Robert Wise's film adaptation, The Haunting. To each his own I guess. I personally enjoy both franchises for very different reasons. Subtle and implied horror is more creepy as far as I'm concerned, but as Stephen King says "Sometimes you gotta feed the gators" and see what's lurking in the shadows. What I do find find truly hilarious, though, while watching the current remake of The Haunting, was when I realized that the creators had their source materials all confused. As the old Recess Peanut Butter Cup commercials used to go -- You got you're Haunting in my Hell House! No! You've got you're Hell House in my Haunting, resulting in one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies of 1999.

The Legend of Hell House (1973) Academy Pictures Corporation :: 20th Century Fox / EP: James H. Nicholson / P: Albert Fennell, Norman T. Herman / D: John Hough / S: Richard Matheson / C: Alan Hume / E: Geoffrey Foot / M: Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson / S: Roddy McDowall, Gayle Hunnicutt, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Roland Culver, Michael Gough

This review is part of a Richard Matheson Roundtable:

3B Theater teams up with Zack over at The Duck Speaks for a look at two of author's novels and their subsequent film adaptations.

The Duck Speaks

Novel: The Shrinking Man :: Film: The Incredible Shrinking Man

3B Theater

Novel: Hell House :: Film: The Legend of Hell House

Originally Posted: 10/10/04 :: Rehashed: 04/25/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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