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East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Once again into Hell House

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My friend Lucy called it “the best ghost movie you don’t know” and she’s right of course, so I spent part of the night of Friday the 13th watching once again The Legend of Hell House.
And now I’ll tell you about it.

I first saw this back when I was in high school.
I remember this distinctively because I caught it one early morning, while I was home alone, in bed with the flu. I watched it on our old Zenith black and white TV set.
It made me an instant fan of Gayle Hunnicutt, but that’s another story.
And really, who in their right minds would schedule this great little horror at 8 am?

This is a British movie, filmed in 1973 and based on a novel called Hell House by the great Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay, moving the location from New England to Old England.

The plot in a nutshell: Belasco House, aka Hell House, is considered “the Mount Everest of haunted houses”. Twice teams of investigators entered it in the past and ended up crippled and/or dead. Now, bankrolled by a billionaire that wants to know if there’s life after death, a new team is on the case. Their Christmas weekend in Belasco House will be hell.

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What struck me back on that early-80s morning and still strikes me today is the fresh, intelligent, science-fictional approach Matheson used when tackling the haunted house genre.
Indeed, we are warned by an opening card, that what we are about to see is, let’s say, plausible1.

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Yes, we are talking the spirits of the dead, afterlife and all that, but the team that enters Hell House is as hard science as possible given the subject: we get a physicist studying hauntings as bioelectric energy fields (Clive Revill), a Spiritualist spirit medium (Pamela Franklin), and a disillusioned and cynical physical medium (Roddy McDowall), the lone survivor of the previous investigation.
Their approach to the haunting is as pragmatic and as scientific as possible, and as spokespersons for different approaches they do debate different takes on the spiritual world, and different “solutions” to the Hell House problem.
Well, they do until things start getting scary.

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The presence of an “innocent bystander” (Gayle Hunnicutt, as Revill’s wife) adds a further layer of complication, but also provides reason for the expository passages that bring us up to speed abut the sinister… very sinister story of Hell House.

The “realism” angle was also played to the hilt in publicity…

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The Matheson story is an update of the classic Shirley Jackson The Haunting of Hill House, and shares the basic premise and the “hard” approach to the supernatural, but updates the tone, adding a much more explicit content – that was toned down drastically for the movie. But really, the repressed and hinted sexuality of the script is probably better than the in-your-face approach of the novel.

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What makes this movie so good?
It’s certainly the story, served by an excellent cast of character actors under the guidance of a fine director (John Hough). The effects are quite good, considering this is very pre-digital, and the whole show, clocking at 93 minutes, keeps the tension up nicely.
The sets are particularly interesting, filled with almost subliminal hints at what Belasco (an obvious Crowley clone) did in his old dark house. The scenes and the electronic music combine with the often unsettling camera angles to suggest a growing sense of unease.

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There are also a number of excellent set pieces – including a scene of total psychic disruption (you catch more than a glimpse of that in the trailer), and one positively scary sequence featuring a black cat (how apt, on Friday the 13th!)
And no jump scares! No jump scares at all, which is quite refreshing.

The end result is a wonderful ghost story/haunted house movie, nicely creepy and, yes, haunting, quite fit for the season, and an absolute must see (just as the novel is a must read).
But who would ever schedule it at 8 am?


  1. despite being named like a well-known space cadet, Tom Corbett was apparently a true clairvoyant and paranormal expert, sometimes employed by “the European Royalty”. Here’s another character I want to learn more about… 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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