Friday, December 24, 2010

Such an unlikely Christmas movie...

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
directed by John Hough [who also directed Escape From Witch Mountain, oddly enough.]
Starring Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill and Gayle Hunnicutt

So I watched Legend of Hell House yesterday and I just realized that, since the science team's stay in the house starts on Monday December 20th and runs through Friday December 24th, technically, it's a Christmas movie. I can't remember if the book takes place over the same range of days, but since my copy of the book is packed away, and since Matheson wrote the screenplay and the book, I'm guessing it does.

I also doubt it's a coincidence or random, given the intelligent way Matheson went about his horror. Hell House is probably my favorite work of his, just because he follows through on the haunted house tropes with his own twist, in ways that very few other haunted house stories ever do. He's got the right balance of tastelessness and restraint.

But Hell House certainly isn't a Christmas movie in the sense of Die Hard or Gremlins or Black Christmas, where the Christmas cheer is a counterpoint to the darkness of the human soul. In this film, Christmas just isn't.

And it's not that Legend of Hell House is post-Christian in the way that most haunted house movies seem to be. After all, where vampire movies usually acknowledge the trappings of Christianity, movies like The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill take place in a world where only science and vague mysticism are the only responses to the supernatural. Amityville Horror might be the only film (off the top of my head at least) that uses religion specifically to combat the haunting (even if it fails).

[Digression: My feeling has always been that hauntings (outside of possession) harken back to our pagan roots. Not that they can't happen in Christian times or areas, but that the very idea is outside the boundaries of the Christian afterlife. After the resurrection, there should be a place in the afterlife for everyone, whether good or bad. No one can slip through the cracks of God's plan, after all. And, especially as a Catholic, I feel like every circumstance is covered by some part of Heaven, Hell or purgatory.

Obviously, that doesn't mean ghosts don't scare me or interest me. There's just something in the concept that conflicts with the idea of an afterlife ruled by an omnipotent god.]

But LoHH does attempt to grapple with the spiritual. Florence Tanner (played by Pamela Franklin with a wonderful mix of naivete, sanctimoniousness and actual innocence) is explicitly Christian. In the book, if memory serves, she's some denomination of American evangelical, though in the film she seems more Anglican. The details of her religiosity are only sketched in, but there's no doubt that she's representing a Christian viewpoint and that the power(s) haunting Hell House attack her faith with blasphemy and mockery. Her faith endangers the investigation ( it's never made clear if her attempted destruction of Barrett's machine is because it could destroy a soul or because she's under Belasco's power, and the question is quite disturbing) but she's not completely wrong about the haunting when she's arguing with Barrett.

Pardon Pamela Franklin. She's just a little cross.

My bad puns aside, the Christ of LoHH, insomuch as he's acknowledged, is the Christ of the Crucifixion.* The suffering, tormented Christ, the Christ with a crown of thorns. At the end, maybe there's a hint of the Christ of the Resurrection, as McDowall's character's final lines hold out hope for salvation even for the evil spirit haunting Hell House.

But the Christ of the Nativity? The one who was greeted with "peace on earth and good will towards men"? That Christ is nowhere in evidence. 

And yet...

When McDowall and Gayle Hunnicut walk out of the house at the end, it is the day of Christmas Eve.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Well, they certainly didn't forget the red. But where's the green?

* I wonder what the origin is of the Christian "Hell House", the evangelical response to Halloween's "haunted houses"? Is there a very religious Matheson fan who was also anti-Halloween? And what does it say that the hell houses often embody a threat more real to their attendees than the haunted houses? Few people leave a haunted house with an enduring existential fear. But a hell house seems meant for the same purpose as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"... 

Hell House   The Legend of Hell HouseThe Haunting