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The Legend of Hell House is trashy 1970s horror at its best

By Dany Roth
The Legend of Hell House

If you go back to the 1950s and '60s, there aren't many writers more frighteningly prolific and delightfully weird as Richard Matheson. As a novelist, he wrote classics like I am Legend and Stir of Echoes. He may well have written more for actor Vincent Price than any other screenwriter with House of Usher, Master of the World, Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, The Comedy of Terrors, and an adaptation of I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth.

All of that doesn't even begin to touch on his dense body of TV work, writing for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and even Star Trek.

The common theme, though, is horror. Matheson was a master of the genre, especially psychological horror, in a way few writers could ever dream of being.

You know who also featured on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery? Why, that would be acting legend, Roddy McDowall. McDowall is probably best known for playing Cornelius, Caesar, and Galen in the the Planet of the Apes franchise, but he was in just about everything you can think of. He was in Batman '66, Wonder Woman, Bedknobs and Broomsticks — sufficed to say, he was just as prolific an actor as Matheson was a writer.

And if you put Richard Matheson and Roddy McDowall together, you get the campy 1973 classic, The Legend of Hell House.

When people think of haunted house stories, The Haunting/The Haunting of Hill House is usually the first thing that springs to mind. And then The House on Haunted Hill. And then people usually skip right up to Poltergeist. But that Tobe Hooper flick is from the '80s, man! That skips a whole decade of worth of horror!

1973's The Legend of Hell House may well represent pique '70s horror filmmaking. It's weirdly sexual. It's trying way too hard to pit science versus faith. And it's British! It's everything the 1970s wants from a horror movie. Plus, it's written by Richard Matheon and stars Roddy McDowall.

The basic gist is that a really rich, old guy is stressed about the end of his life so he sends a scientist and some mediums to the most haunted house in the world to discern whether or not there is life after death. It features a physical medium, a mental medium, a wife who is horny on main for extra-maritals with Roddy McDowall, and Michael Gough as an evil ghost who's evil because he's too short.

Is it scary? Well... in places. Mostly, though, The Legend of Hell House is an opportunity to put a bunch of actors in a big ol' haunted house and let them chew the scenery until there's nothing left. And these performers do not disappoint.

On today's episode of Every Day Horror presents The 13 Days of Halloween, co-owner and creative director of Pittsburgh's Scarehouse, Scott Simmons, joins the show to talk about why The Legend of Hell House is one of his absolute favorite movies, what makes it great as a haunted house story, and how it influenced his work making his own haunted house.

On tomorrow's episode, Dan Olson and Crystal Donovan return to the show to keep the haunted house stories going as they take on the stone classic, 2001's The Others.