Every Tuesday, Matthew R. Bradley takes us through the career of Richard Matheson. Catch up with the series through the Richard Matheson—Storyteller index.
Matheson was so active in film and television in the 1960s that a full decade elapsed in between the publication of The Beardless Warriors (1960) and Hell House (1971), during which his relationship with American International Pictures wound down to a disappointing conclusion, starting with their Stateside release of The Last Man on Earth (1964). He wrote several scripts that were never filmed, adapting Colossus author D.F. Jones’s novel Implosion, H.G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes, and his own “Being”; worse, Dallas-based hack Larry Buchanan made a bastardized (albeit mercifully uncredited) version of the latter, “It’s Alive!” (1969), for AIP’s television arm. De Sade (1969), a disastrous look at the life of the notorious marquis, was botched by its director and spelled the end.
Hell House, on the other hand, turned out to be one of Matheson’s most critically and commercially successful novels, reprinted various times—including Tor’s edition, with its stunning Michael Deas cover—and rightly regarded among his finest works. He had long wanted to write a haunted-house story, and was greatly impressed by both Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Robert Wise’s 1963 film version, The Haunting, which contained one of his three biggest cinematic scares, the other two being in Diabolique (1955) and Jaws (1975). But he was dissatisfied with Jackson’s ambiguous conclusion, in which (à la Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation, The Innocents) the “ghosts” may have been conjured up by the female protagonist.
A lifelong student of psychic phenomena, Matheson was determined that readers would be left with no doubt that this haunting was genuine, and since Hell House was “the Mount Everest of haunted houses,” he pulled no punches in depicting uncharacteristically graphic gore and sex. “None of the incidents in the book were made up by me,” he told me in an interview for Gauntlet’s 1996 limited edition. “They had all happened in various haunted houses around the world. I have quite a library of my own on the subject, including a signed book by [Harry] Houdini, and used it to authenticate Hell House. A lot of it was based on the Borley Rectory, which was supposedly the most haunted house in England, while the physical layout of the Belasco house…was inspired by Hearst Castle.”
Hell House made a quicker transition from page to screen than most of Matheson’s novels, adapted by the author himself, and while his produced scripts during the 1970s were almost exclusively for television (more on that next time), The Legend of Hell House (1973) would be his sole feature film in that decade. Ironically, the smashing success of The Exorcist (1973)—released barely six months later—suddenly gave horror films an “A” status that would have benefited the project considerably. As it was, Matheson’s “dream casting” at the time was totally out of reach: he wanted to use then-married couples Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, and Claire Bloom in the roles that were ultimately played by Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, and Gayle Hunnicutt.
Matheson originally intended to mount his own production of Hell House with Stanley Chase, who had produced not only “Time of Flight,” his one episode of the anthology series Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, but also a movie he and I greatly admire, the 1970 screen version of Colossus, both directed by Joseph Sargent. He even spoke with Richard C. Sarafian, a veteran of his Lawman episode “The Actor,” about directing it, but their plans came to naught and he was forced to sell the property. In another, sadder irony, Hell House brought Matheson full circle when it became the first and last independent production by James H. Nicholson, who left AIP to form Academy Pictures in England, then died of a malignant brain tumor on December 10, 1972, six months before its release.
With Nicholson as its executive producer, The Legend of Hell House was produced by Englishman Albert Fennell—the production supervisor on The Innocents, whose credits included The Avengers and Matheson’s Night of the Eagle (1962)—and Norman T. Herman. Cast and crew alike were full of Fennell’s colleagues, e.g., Franklin, who played one of the haunted children in The Innocents and appeared in And Soon the Darkness (1970), directed by Robert Fuest and written by Brian Clemens. Both were Avengers alumni, as were Hell House’s supporting players Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, and (unbilled) horror icon Michael Gough; cinematographer Alan Hume; and director John Hough, who made his genre debut with the conclusion of Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy, Twins of Evil (1971).
Wealthy newspaper and magazine publisher Rolf Rudolph Deutsch (Culver) offers physicist Lionel Barrett (Revill) £100,000 to establish the facts regarding survival after death by investigating “Hell House,” built in 1919 by multi-millionaire Emeric Belasco (played as a corpse in an unusual cameo by Gough). Barrett is accompanied by his wife and assistant, Ann (Hunnicutt), as well as—echoing the team of ghost hunters from Jackson’s classic—a pair of mediums, one mental, Florence Tanner (Franklin), and one physical, Benjamin Fischer (McDowall), the only survivor of the ill-fated prior investigation. Hell House will have claimed more than one additional victim before their terrifying ordeal has come to an end on Christmas Eve and Belasco’s final, deadly secret has been revealed.
Its adult content toned down to ensure a PG rating, The Legend of Hell House has been praised by the likes of Judith Crist, Roger Ebert, Leslie Halliwell, Leonard Maltin, and Leonard Wolf, while Matheson, who yet again initially disliked the result, has since come to appreciate its merits. Chief among them, in this writer’s opinion, are its no-nonsense attitude and its refusal to talk down to the audience in discussing what Matheson calls the “supernormal.” His script, which differs from the finished film in some ways, was published in Richard Chizmar’s Screamplays; Hell House has also inspired an IDW graphic novel, adapted by Ian Edginton and artist Simon Fraser, and a prequel by Nancy A. Collins, “Return to Hell House,” in Christopher Conlon’s He Is Legend tribute anthology.
Matthew R. Bradley is the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, now on sale from McFarland, and the co-editor—with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve—of The Richard Matheson Companion (Gauntlet, 2008), revised and updated as The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson (Citadel, 2009). Check out his blog, Bradley on Film.