Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Movies: On Heck Street, just off Darn It Boulevard.

The Legend of Hell House is one of those odd cultural artifacts that, whatever is own merits, gets magnified by the needs of critics who are not so much reviewing the text as using it as an ideological bludgeon.

An early pioneer of the contemporary mania for taking a classic work (say, Barchester Towers) and adding heavy-handed horror tropes to it (say, sexy vampires), the relentlessly prolific Richard Matheson's 1971 novel Hell House was basically a tarted up remix of Shirley Jackson's famed 1959 spook book The Haunting of Hill House. Though, in Matheson's defense, when he decided to tart it up, he tried hard to make his tart the craziest girl working the street.

A temporally displaced Victorian Gothicist, Jackson's icy horror has at its core a deep hatred of the humanity's inherent weakness born of a compassion so strong it turns toxic. Like one of those insane billionaires who end up locking themselves in a sterile room to protect themselves from germs that exist mostly in their mind, the insane passion of Jackson's best work is driven by an imaginative empathy with people that digs immediately down to something that appalls and repulses her. This is readily detected in her overtly fantastic works, from the Gothic Hill House and We've Always Lived in the Castle to that high school English staple "The Lottery," but is just as true with her meticulously drawn fantasias of modern urban life, like the James Harris cycle.

In contrast, Matheson's book is the work of a professional thrill provider. What powers it's mad heart is a Grub Street desperation to keep the reader's eyes glued to the the page. Matheson of Hell House is a sideshow barker: He isn't horrified by humanity so much as he's always ready to deliver whatever he thinks the reader wants and he's cynical enough to know that the average horror fan wants to see the freaks. If this sounds like a dismissal, I don't mean it as one. There's a craft to the ballyhoo that, prior to the postmodern transcendence of genre lit, has often been criminally underrated. Feeding the deep desire of horror fandom might not be the most delicate of tasks, but it is a specific skill that requires real talent. Matheson has neither the time not inclination to fuss with the correct proportions of rich veal stock, Valpolicella, and balsamic in a good l'anitra arrosta con salsa di pere balsamico; but only because he busy cooking up the best damn ribs you've ever had. Matheson expertly applies sex, violence, and absurdity the way an expert pit master brushes on his bourbon-based, habanero-infused, cane syrup kissed secret sauce. It's got heat, punch, and sugar - what the heck else do you want?

Because the aging base of the horror blogosphere grew up in a culture besotted with late-stage Cold War binary thinking, we like presenting the interactions of marketplace for cultural products as if it were a zero sum game. Either Jackson plays the ripped-off master or Matheson is a raw example of literature's noble savage. Horror fans, by and large, tend to side with Matheson. Long the red-headed step child of the literary world, our wounded dignity is constantly on the search for perceived slights. The radiant disgust that fuels all of Jackson's works is, for the reader who only ever encounters her horror-related output, often mistaken with a disgust for the genre. She's accused of slumming. Matheson, then, gets points for some sort of deconstructive, almost punk act. His work is treated like a glorious work of vandalism, a blow against some ivory tower hegemony.

But, honestly, that's all bullshit.

Jackson's Hill House is one of the creepiest things ever written and the fact that she's not considered a "horror" author has more to do with the weirdly restrictive nature of genre labels than the shape of her mental universe. As for Matheson, Hell House is the sort of thing he could turn in on spec at the drop of a hat. It is not a howl of primal energy; it's a carnival dark ride spookshow built to give you a high jolt for buck ratio. The connection between the two: Matheson knew a solid framework when he saw it and picked it up. It's easier than building your own and that thing isn't his bag anyway. Matheson plays to his strengths, so he smartly took what he needed to free up his hands.

I bring this up because I feel that it is high time we strip the insincere culture war gloss off our assessments of The Legend of Hell House, the 1971 film adaptation helmed by John Hough and penned by Matheson himself. Looked at without the need to use it as a crowbar to dislodge Robert Wise's The Haunting (and, by extension, that meddling woman who wrote Hill House), the film must stand or fall on its own merits.

Looked at squarely, Hell House is a mildly entertaining haunted house flick that delivers reliably delivers, but suffers from a baggy script that ultimately undercuts the force of the film by stomping on whatever uncanny power a ghost story might have delivered.

The films starts well enough. In an extended, but narratively tight, pre-title sequence, viewers learn that an ailing but wealth man wants to pay a team of investigators to spend one week in "Hell House," the one place where ghostly activity has never been definitely falsified. The team consists of a Barrett, a physicist convinced that the ghostly phenomenon is actually a sort of residue of the energy emitted by previous residents; the physicist's wife, Ann; a spiritualist, Tanner; Fischer, a medium who was the sole surviving member of a previous investigation of the house.

(As an aside, it would have been nice if the scientist on the team had suggested that not disproving something is not quite the same as proving it. In fact, ghostly activity has never been definitively disproven anywhere, because that's not the problem. Proving it is the problem. I can't disprove the existence of the Loch Ness monster, but that's not how science works. You want me to put Nessie in the schema of known marine animals, then you've got to prove her existence. Sadly, the scientist of the team seems unfamiliar with the wrinkle in the philosophy of science.)

The researchers' week starts off slowly enough. But before you can whistle out the entire Casper theme song, an unseen assailant is throwing silverware at our heroes and generally being unpleasant. The ghost, not content to drop heavy objects on our heroes, start possessing the women folk and cause a stray feline to go all Wolvie berserker style on Tanner. As the film progresses, the quartet splits into two groups. The spiritualists focus on solving the mystery of why the attacking ghost is restless and attempt to put him to rest while the scientist and his wife focus on building a sort house de-ghosting machine that will, theoretically, disperse the energies that are causing the haunting. This leads to a lot of awkward discussions about what is causing the haunting: One ghost, two ghosts, red ghost, blue ghost, etc. At first interesting, the viewer rapidly realizes that these conversations are just so many disposable red herrings. For starters, it is unclear what the difference, on a practical level, would be if one or more of the many theories bandied about would be. When invisible forces throw a table at you, does it really matter whether it was one ghost or two working together? Second, the resulting action items of each theory seem to be the same: If its one ghost, the spiritualist tries to contact him. If we're wrong about the identity of the ghost. we try to contact the right ghost. If he's a mean ghost, we contact him to try to negotiate; if he isn't mean, we contact him to ask why he's acting so mean. The view gets the feeling that the flick is just stalling for time.

The film does have many significant saving graces. The lush Hell House set is lovely - a missing link between the stately mansion of The Haunting and the art deco freak out of Susperia's dancing school. The often low-fi haunting effects are arresting (with the exception of an unfortunate attack-by-stuffed-cat scene). The acting is also noteworthy. Matheson left the backstories of most of the group out of the script, so the actors have to make do with characters that are thin almost to the point of becoming cyphers. Still, the actors are game and manage to give their characters not only a fleshy solidity, but add moments of genuinely resonant humanity. Pamela Franklyn and Roddy McDowell especially so.

The filmmakers also edit the film to a herky-jerky rhythm that keeps you pleasantly off-kilter. Viewers often get the sense that they're walking in on a scene already under way, only to be yanked out of it before we get to see the scene through. The stuttering, lurching rhythms of the individual scenes play like a counterpoint to the more relentless passage of time marked by the title cards.

That said, everybody is working against a surprisingly thin script and sadly undisciplined direction. For example, for reasons that are never explained, the film plays out over the lead up to Christmas. Not only is the season never mentioned, the few external shots we get are free of wintery seasonal signs. Nobody seems particularly bundled up for winter weather. There are no roaring fireplaces at night, no frost on the windows. I mention this because this sort of did-they/didn't-they shagginess is typical of the flick: The viewer can never be sure if your witnessing cleverness or sloppiness. Are we meant to watch this and speculate on meaning of the oddly un-Christmasy Christmas? With its themes of family disintegration, lack of good will, a ghostly spirit working through the guise of his son, and so on, it isn't difficult to imagine the underplayed holiday connection is intentional. However, an equally compelling case can be made for the fact that the filmmakers just couldn't be bothered. Elsewhere in the movie they prove blithely unconcerned with fussy little details. For example, when the researchers discover a body that's been rotting since the 1950s, the body is holding glass of red wine the hasn't turned into a crusty purple stain on the glass and it's prosthetic legs are 1970s tech. If that sounds too nitpicky, more obvious are time and date titles that appear throughout the film that seem not to be synced up with the exteriors, which occasionally show that its light outside when the titles claim it is night and dark when it is supposed to be daytime. The end result is that you will either find jarring, underdeveloped elements like this "raw" or "bush-league" depending on your willingness to indulge the filmmakers.

My recommendation. Be indulgent. It's more fun that way. But check the pretensions of greatness at the door. The movie's simple pleasures are best taken straight up.

No comments: