21 June 2024

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Contributed by Mark Steensland

Mark Steensland's writing has appeared in such magazines as Jim Steranko's Prevue, American Cinematographer, Millimeter and Kamera. He's directed two features: The Last Way Out and The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick, and his short films (including Sucker, Lovecraft's Pillow, Dead@17 and The Ugly File) have earned numerous awards and played in festivals around the world. He was recently hired by Paradox Entertainment to adapt the Robert E. Howard short story Pigeons from Hell into a feature-length screenplay. Steensland has served as an advisor to Tom Savini's Digital Filmmaking Program, and as Vice President of the Eerie Horror Film Festival. His novel for young readers, Behind the Bookcase, will be published in 2012.

My life changed in 1973.

It had already been altered in the worst way imaginable one year earlier when my father died of a heart attack at the age of forty nine. I was months away from turning seven.

It was a strange experience: one day I was watching Night Gallery on TV, building Aurora monster models and reading Creepy, Eerie and Famous Monsters, the next I was in the funeral parlor watching my mother assess what sort of make-up job the embalmers had done on my fatherís corpse. Death was suddenly not something you pretended in the yard when playing cowboys and Indians. It was real. I had felt his hand on my heart.

Flash forward to the following year.

My mom had just allowed a man into her life. His name was Mr. Wiggins and he was the manager of a local two-screen movie theater. I suspect he thought that the quickest way to endear himself to my mother was through me, but whatever the reason, he made me the star of the show.

He took me behind the snack bar to get my own candy and popcorn. He took me into his office where all those awesome posters were just sitting there on his desk, not locked up inside glass cases. And even though he wasnít supposed to, he gave me some of them to take home and hang on my bedroom walls.

He took me into the projection booth and actually let me watch an entire film from up there. I was amazed at how the projectionist had to switch the reels back and forth and time the projectors perfectly. I knew I was witnessing something special. This was magic and I knew the secret.

And then there were the movies themselves. Thinking back on that time, I still canít believe my mother allowed me to see some of the films I did. Sure, I saw Charlotteís Web. Born Free and Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion played on a Saturday morning double-bill. They were okay. I remember liking The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a bit more.

But what I really remember are the grown-up films. And I remember them in moments. Like Shelley Wintersí death in The Poseidon Adventure. Or that creepy Voodoo guy at the end of Live and Let Die. Or the hole shot clean through that albino in John Hustonís The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Or the crazy axe fight on the moving train at the climax of Robert Aldrichís Emperor of the North. Or those bizarre bloody mannequins torturing Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch.

There is one film that stands out above all the others. Letís call it the Mount Everest of my movie memories from that year. Thatís because itís the Mount Everest of haunted house movies: The Legend of Hell House.

I was scared silly by that one. After all, I was only eight years old. But the difference with Hell House was that I felt incredibly powerful after it was over. Unlike so many of the characters in the movie, I survived my trip to Belasco House.

Whatís more, Richard Mathesonís expert storytelling actually had something to say about death and the beyond. Sure it was scary, but the bad guy was defeated. And Fischer made it -- twice. To a kid still struggling to survive the death of his father just a year earlier, this was tonic to my soul.

Unfortunately, my time at the movie theater ended rather abruptly when my mother stopped seeing Mr. Wiggins. But it was already too late. The movies were in my blood. The condition was spreading.

So say what you will about Hell House (everyone is entitled to their own opinion after all) -- I think it is a masterpiece. Never mind what Matheson changed from the book. Just watch the opening scene again. Thatís the way good movies are made. Iím sorry to say that sort of care and craftsmanship has almost completely disappeared from todayís cinemas, especially in genre filmmaking.

But not to worry.

1973 is just a click away. †

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