horror

The Haunting of Hell House

I try to keep a healthy agnosticism about reboots, remakes, and adaptations. No matter how a story starts, every version that can be made will be, and every version will ultimately be its own thing. Plus, it’s interesting to see what elements of a work translate most persistently across time and media; sometimes it tells you something about the story that maybe its author didn’t realize, in any sense. Sometimes it tells you more about the audience, voting with dollars and attention in the marketplace of tropes. To take one example, I would hazard most people remember Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the tale of a Victorian doctor attempting to chemistry away his baser instincts, but instead loosing a sadistic rapist and murderer on ladies of the evening in London, but there’s no sex and not much murder in Stevenson. I’ll grant there may be unresolved sexual tension – it is Gothic, after all — but then again, none of it concerns ladies. The thing is Stevenson’s story is remembered through its many adaptations now, from Bugs Bunny to musicals with David Hasselhoff, plus it got conflated with the contemporaneous Jack the Ripper murders, so it transformed into something different and stayed that way. That transformation speaks, too, to the persistent tension between works of terror, concerning primarily effects on the mind (Stevenson) and horror, concerning ripping of bodices and viscera, (Hasselhoff, et al), and like Jekyll’s body being permanently subordinated to his Hyde personality, the tendency for stories rooted in the tradition of terror to migrate into horror over time. All that being said, what the hell was Richard Matheson thinking when he wrote Hell House?

I’m kidding, of course. I love Hell House (1971). But it does beg the question. Hell House may not be a reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), per se, but it feels at times like a violent attempt to exorcise it. The Haunting of Hill House is perhaps the greatest haunted house story ever written in English, certainly one of the most lauded and analyzed, and a great deal of its strength, the strength of its terror, dwells in some spectacularly choreographed ambiguity. I love the way Jackson insinuates mistrust of heroine Eleanor, even as she gives us every reason to cling to her and champion her. And here comes Richard Matheson, one of the greatest writers of thrillers and chillers in his generation, particularly in the deadline and censor-hectored world of television, delivering a long novel that might be best summed up in big bold capitals: FUCK YOUR AMBIGUITY, SHIRLEY JACKSON.

In Hell House, instead of Jackson’s paternal, round-cheeked parapsychologist spearheading a group of psychically interesting people staying at a reputedly haunted house for his own ill-defined purposes, we have a rich old man hiring three independent experts in the paranormal to go to a haunted house and report back to him at the end of a week whether they’ve been scared to death or not. The composition of Jackson and Matheson’s ghost hunting parties is roughly complementary: evenly divided by gender, a stubborn man of science, a control in the form of a non-psychic/paranormal researcher, and two psychically gifted people the house will prey on in different ways. In Hell House though, the group isn’t really working together at any point; they all have their own ideas about what is in Hell House and what to do about it. Dr. Barrett, who brings his inhibited, codependent wife Ann as a research assistant, believes in psychic phenomena, but not ghosts, and plans to stop the haunting with the use of a big ol’ machine to suck all the ambient psychic energy out of the house. Florence Tanner, a glamorous former actress turned spiritualist and medium, imagines she can pray the spooky away. And Ben Fischer, a powerful physical medium who was the sole survivor of a previous attempt to solve the haunting as a teenager, is the Watson Pritchard of the group for the early going, just trying to survive long enough to collect his check. Don’t worry; he gets heroic in a hurry in the denouement. Matheson’s team of rivals encourages more of a sense of daunting isolation among his ghost hunters than Jackson’s Hill House guests, but both groups descend quickly into suspicion and conflict as the bad houses begin to turn their screws. The effect in Hell House can feel more like a snuff film than a taut thriller though, and it risks much credibility in its ambition. To Matheson’s credit though, it is ambitious.

The success of its ambitions notwithstanding, Hell House is the terror of Hill House recast as horror. Everything that was implicit in Hill House is explicit in Hell House. Is Theo a lesbian in The Haunting of Hill House, and is the attraction lonely Eleanor feels to her romantic, at least a bit? Closely read all you like; in Hell House, Ann will be transfixed as beautiful Florence spreads her legs for a strip search. What was done in Hill House that made it so wrong, so unnatural? Pore over the text and consider its rumors and their implications, while meanwhile in Hell House, Florence just found the gooey body of a man who had been walled up alive. Was Eleanor possessed when she almost fell to her death in Hill House? Or in her final, tragic act? Perhaps, but Florence was definitely possessed after she invited one of the Hell House’s ghosts to have sex with her to help it find peace, an act that turned to rape as it leered at her through a decomposing face.

Matheson, already a legendary scriptwriter, naturally adapted his big bad novel for a theatrical treatment, 1973’s The Legend of Hell House. While he had to tone it down quite a bit, for the sake of coffers as much as sensibilities, there are many things in The Legend of Hell House I would steal if I made my own haunted house movie. I really like how white noise is used to dramatize the ghosts in the house communicating with Florence, and the sound design in general is strong with this one. The score reminds me in turns of the warped Black Christmas (1974) background music and the shuddering ambient noises of Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, both among the most dreadful soundscapes I know, in a good way. While the neck-breaking camera angles start to wear on you, there’s no questioning their blunt effectiveness, especially early on, and I bet it was a super economical choice for this low budget thriller, too. Pamela Franklin’s scenes as a possessed Florence are grotesque and as effective in their way as Linda Blair in the same year’s The Exorcist. The dramatization also helped sell me on some scenes that seemed problematic in the text, like Fischer reciting the history of Emeric Belasco for his new colleagues after they arrive at Hell House. OK, you have Ann as an audience proxy, but surely Florence and Dr. Barrett should know the gory details, and it’s Barrett that asks.  It doesn’t really seem believable in the novel — and if I’m being uncharitable, it also seems like an unthinking mirror of a similar scene in Jackson’s book that does make sense in her context – but bless Roddy McDowall, his traumatized Fischer dredging monotone details of Belasco’s biography from behind a glassy mask makes you forgive any strains of credulity that got you there. The direction and the budget aren’t always the equal of the performances in The Legend of Hell House,  and Roddy in particular gets stranded in some truly ridiculous moments, but it’s a good horror film and an effective, if bowdlerized, take on what was good about Hell House, a great one for late nights and livetweets.

What’s bad about both versions of Hell House, or at least disappointing, is that the twist – that the Belasco house is haunted by – wait for it — Belasco, and only Belasco, who was apparently motivated by Short Man Syndrome — is not so brilliant as Matheson seemed to believe it was. It is, in a word, lame, and it’s lamer still that simply understanding these facts is sufficient to transform Fischer from a sullen coward into a hero. It’s an odd thing for someone known for writing so many clever episodes of The Twilight Zone, but then again, the most persistent twist in Matheson’s work, from Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) to The Devil Rides Out (1968) to Trilogy of Terror(1975) is supernatural things are real and they will get you. Boo! So in this, at least, Hell House is consistent. It is true that Matheson believed in the supernatural himself, and it’s worth noting that he reserves some of the worst punishments and goriest consequences in Hell House for Dr. Barrett. Clive Revill’s Barrett is spared almost all of it in the movie, but he still gets blinded by his precious machine in the end. Fuck your skepticism, Dr. Barrett; everything is explicit in Hell House.

The interaction between Hill House and Hell House reminds me of a dialogue between the works of two other, earlier,  masters of the Gothic, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis. Radcliffe’s stories were immensely popular in the late 1700s, even if they read as a bit Scooby-Doo several hundred years later, all the supernatural elements safely debunked, villains unmasked, young lovers married at the end. Lewis took Radcliffe’s template for success and made it his own, and one must stress here that he was a 19-year-old, loading it up with sex, death, gore, and more sex in The Monk (1796). Radcliffe responded with her own tale of a wicked monk, The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797), considered perhaps her finest work, certainly boasting her finest antagonist, and then, mic dropped, she just stopped publishing. Lewis didn’t, but his most definitive work remains The Monk, its legacy inextricably bound to Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, terror and horror, Jekyll and Hyde, Hill House and Hell House.

Of course, Shirley Jackson was already in her grave before Richard Matheson erected Hell House; there would be no such response, unless it was from the academic canon, hoisting Jackson’s novel high in its esteem, granting it the legitimacy horror always struggles to achieve among serious people who think for a living, unless it can be credibly called something else. Limp twist ending notwithstanding, I think Hell House was still largely successful in its aims, and if those aims are considered too low for the canon’s attention, well, that’s fine for the canon. The gross and the brutal will always be irresistible preoccupations of our species. If I’m going to be a devil’s advocate in comparing Hell House to Hill House, Jackson’s focus was very limited, and it’s easier to be successful, particularly invoking the supernatural, if you keep your focus gauzy and fleeting. The moment you give the audience either a clear view or long enough to think, you’ve opened yourself up to criticism, and Matheson was bold enough to do both. As brazen as it is, the horrors of Hell House are the missing link between the careful ambiguity of The Haunting of Hill House and the many shades of unquiet dead in The Shining.

I think I know what Richard Matheson was thinking when he wrote Hell House. He was thinking wouldn’t Hill House be scarier if it actually had monsters in it? And you know, he wasn’t wrong. He was wrong for Hill House; Jackson’s accomplishment with that novel is justly revered. But he wasn’t wrong for seeking the horror beneath the veil of terror. That is a story we never tire of telling, finding out the Hyde from the Jekyll, almost inevitably. Every story that can be told will be told. And that is the Haunting of Hell House.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Angela believed in ghosts until she started watching Ghost Adventures. She will always believe in Roddy McDowall.

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