Every so often one sees a film that seems designed to stump a reviewer. The Legend of Hill House, adapted from his own novel by Richard Matheson, is one such film. My one and only note reads "scary-faced Gayle Hunnicutt". The script, acting, direction and everything else is good. Not brilliant, but always solid and effective. It's a good film.
The cast is teddibly, teddibly British, with RSC accents that seem to hark back further than its actual age (1973). I didn't recognise Roddy McDowall as Ben Fischer, which I suppose is a compliment. Clive Revill does well as Lionel Barrett, playing this stubborn rationalist for all he's worth without making him look like an idiot. The women are good-looking and strongly acted, though the film's rather coy about making good on its plentiful opportunities for nudity. It's as if Richard Matheson was expecting a more exploitative film than the one John Hough eventually directed. Instead it's rather bloodless and dispassionate at times, with its characters maintaining stiff upper lips and buttoned-up manners as they debate intellectually the problems of Hell House and its spectral inhabitants.
As a haunted house movie, it's pretty good. The goings-on are disturbingly weird without being so surreal that one loses interest in trying to understand them. Far more important is what this might mean for the psychological states of our four lead characters, who are all reacting and/or cracking up in their own unique ways.
An uncredited Michael Gough crops up late in the film, in a particularly weird but clever piece of casting. It's almost a non-part... but damn, it's Michael Gough! He holds your attention even when doing absolutely nothing, simply by virtue of being himself. Of the other cast members, Gayle Hunnicutt reminded me a little of Barbara Shelley, being similarly beautiful while having a similar talent for looking absolutely terrifying when distraught or frenzied. You'll wonder if she's about to spin her head through 360 degrees before vomiting twenty gallons of pea soup.
The name "Hell House" seems a bit too reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, but that's a fanboy nitpick. Might it have been a deliberate nod? Anyway the film's a good'un, building and sustaining a solid atmosphere for just about its entire running length. It's hardly light entertainment, but it's an honest and serious-minded piece of film-making that's worth your time.