Underrated: The Legend of Hell House -- John Hough (1973)

The Legend of Hell House is probably doomed forever to play second fiddle to Robert Wise’s The Haunting. And on paper, it’s easy to see why. Arriving a full decade after Wise’s immortal classic, Legend has a remarkably similar premise: A team of sensitives agrees to hunker down in an allegedly haunted abode, for purposes of research and to calamitous results. In addition, both films suffer from title confusion that stems from their origins in literature: The Haunting is based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, while Legend is Richard Matheson’s adaptation of his own novel Hell House. And in truth, if you had to pick one of these two to go into the Smithsonian as a stand-in for all haunted-house movies, The Haunting would have to get the nod. It was first, it has the pedigree, and it’s arguably artistically superior to boot. Yet Legend still has its own place in the hearts of genre cultists, due to some special attributes that make it a cherished favorite despite its more familiar underpinnings. For one thing, the mood of the film is genuinely and perpetually unsettling. From the very first frames, ominous oboe notes sidle up against electronic sounds in a score that puts its clammy hand across your heart and never lets go.  And once we’re inside the titular mansion -- where all manner of atrocities went on some years before -- the feeling of mounting dread is palpable. Sheer, primitive fear comes to reign as our team of investigators recount the awful history of Hell House, then watch as those horrors replicate themselves thanks to whatever still walks inside. At one memorable juncture, the camera pulls away from a close-up on our team of paranormalists; we’re suddenly in an outer hallway, peering in on them. Instinctively, we know what that means: We’re now in the company of whatever’s tormenting them. There’s a gust of wind and a fluttering of dust as something unseen moves just in front of us. And we experience a panicked compulsion to get the heck out of there -- to rush back to the safety of characters who may be hopelessly overmatched, but who are at least reassuringly human. Few horror films play so effectively with point of view.

There are also some terrific performances, specifically from the trusty Roddy McDowall as a medium who barely survived an earlier trip to Hell House and now just wants to keep his head down until the week-long “investigation” is over and he can count his money. McDowall’s lip-smacking line readings help make the film as quotable as any good cult item, whether he’s heaping scorn on his fellow researchers or hurling invective at the house itself. And for trivia freaks, there’s a crucial cameo by Michael Gough, the Hammer Studios player who would later play Alfred to three cinematic Batmen.

The movie’s enduring influence can be felt in projects like Don’t!, the fake trailer that was attached to theatrical prints of 2007’s Grindhouse. (Watch those first few images carefully.) Yet in its time, Hell House wasn’t much of a hit. One commonly stated reason is that 1973 was the year of The Exorcist -- a brazen new world of free-flowing profanity and bodily functions -- so audiences weren’t as likely to be captivated by old-school atmospherics captured on film just months before. Ironically, Matheson’s novel is far gorier and more sexually graphic than his film script. To this day, some fans of that book pine for a more literal translation; Matheson himself just recently expressed a desire to make it happen. But with all due respect to that great man, it would be a mistake. Just as Mae West excelled on the screen precisely because the censors forced her to couch her bawdy intent in clever innuendo, Legend the film is an enduring work because it doesn’t have overt stunts to fall back on. Perhaps the final relic of the pre-Exorcist production era, it has to rely on suspense, music and performance to get its job done. That’s why, 38 years later, it remains one of the few haunted-house flicks that’s genuinely and eternally scary -- not a dated touchstone of any specific moment in mainstream permissiveness. In other words, if you’re thinking of remaking this movie -- don’t! [youtube _MDF9vZVd_s] [youtube f7W_sMFoyMs]
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