Of course, there are a variety of factors that contribute to the success or lack of success in films as they are received by viewing audiences. Sometimes a film that is not well received is poorly written, acted, or directed, and sometimes all of these aspects are well done, but other factors related to the social and cultural circumstances that provide the context for a film’s release play a part. At times audience receptivity to other films released during the same period can have an impact as well.
With this post I am taking a risk here with readers as I analyze a classic horror film from the 1970s, The Exorcist (1973) with another film from the same year, The Legend of Hell House, that in my view actually provides for more scares (at least in terms of my preferences for such things). It is well known that the former film became a cultural phenomenon, while the latter has not received nearly the attention from fans or film critics. I’d like to explore a few of the dynamics that might account for this curious phenomenon.
A few years ago I watched an interesting documentary that examined the response of pop culture to The Exorcist when it was first released in 1973. People were scared out of their wits as they watched the story of a teenage girl possessed by the demonic spirit of Lucifer himself. Dick Smith’s groundbreaking makeup effects helped contribute to the shock value as audiences waited in long lines to be scared many times to the point of fainting or vomiting in some news reports. But while The Exorcist is well known, The Legend of Hell House from the same year is not nearly as well known by rank and file horror fans. For those unfamiliar with the film, or those who have not seen it in some time, the film is based upon an adaptation of the novel Hell House by Richard Matheson. The story surrounds a group of paranormal researchers brought together by a millionaire who funds an investigation of “the Mt. Everest of haunted houses.” The millionaire wants to prove the existence of life after death, and he believes that the phenomena reported at Hell House is the proof he is seeking. The research team includes the lone survivor of a previous research team, a medium played by Roddy McDowall, and also includes mental medium (Pamela Franklin), a scientist who specializes in the paranormal (Clive Revill) and his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt). As the story develops the team enters the infamous house once occupied by the late Emeric Belasco who was known for participation in a long list of hedonistic excesses and debauchery. As the research team examines the mysterious power in the house they encounter a number of strange occurrences and mounting personal attacks by a mysterious paranormal evil.
The Legend of Hell House is very different from other horror films of the 1970s. Its presentation of horror elements is extremely subtle as director John Hough utilized lighting, shadow, music, and sound effects as a means of stimulating the minds and tapping into the fears of audience members rather than more explicit makeup and gore effects. In this regard the film’s atmospheric treatment of suspense and horror is similar to The Haunting (1963). But even without explicit horror and gore this film is regarded by some as a horror classic. The acting is well done, particularly by Roddy McDowall as his character wrestles with his past experiences in battling psychic forces that he finally comes to term with in preparation for his final confrontation with the evil of Hell House. The top-notch Matheson screenplay, atmosphere, score, acting, and direction all come together to deliver a great horror experience. But if this is the case, why has this film not received the critical praise that I believe it is due?
I believe the answer to this question may be found in two areas. First, as mentioned previously, Legend of Hell House was released the same year as The Exorcist, and the latter film eclipsed the former. I was reminded of this unfortunate phenomenon as it happened in relation to two other films released in the following decade. In an episode of The Directors on Reelz Channel, John Carpenter was profiled and as he discussed his work he commented on how poorly The Thing was received by audiences when it was released in 1982. E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was released just two weeks prior to Carpenter’s film, and audiences fell in love with the idea of a cute alien stranded on earth and befriended by children. By contrast, Carpenter’s alien was no fantasy film for children. It provided a frightening picture of isolation, paranoia, and graphic horror that jumps from the screen courtesy of Rob Bottin’s makeup effects. The public’s embrace of E.T. seems to have had negative implications for their perceptions of The Thing. In similar fashion, I suggest that the release and popularity of The Exorcist overshadowed that of Hell House, and with the continuing reflection on the former as a classic of horror, this has perpetuated the marginalization of the latter.
Secondly, The Exorcist seems to have been released at a time when social and cultural circumstances strongly favored its expression of horror both in terms of its visual presentation as well as its subject matter in how supernatural evil is identified. The 1970s in America was a time of increasing crime and violence, and this was paralleled in many of the popular films of the times such as Dirty Harry. It should be no surprise that a horror film that depicts evil through subtlety and atmosphere would not be as well received as one that explicitly and graphically presents it. In addition to the visual elements the subject matter is also culturally significant. The Exorcist was one of several films released during the late 1960s and into the 1970s that touched on the satanic and the demonic as informed specifically by the Christian tradition. 1968 saw the release of Rosemary’s Baby, and what would become the first of the The Omen franchise was released in 1976. American culture of the 1970s seemed to have a growing preference for a form of supernatural evil connected to Christian conceptions of the demonic. This may be due to a variety of reasons, including the growing dominance of the Religious Right, the establishment of various satanic organizations in this period such as the infamous Church of Satan in San Francisco, the influence of various anti-cult organizations, and the prevalance of pop occult themes in heavy metal music. All of these elements contributed to an environment where Christian demonologies became popularized and helped provide an atmosphere for audience horror preferences. In this context it seems that invisible paranormal evil was not nearly as attractive to viewing audiences as the literal embodiment of ultimate satanic evil.
I have great appreciation for The Exorcist as a film, and to what it has contributed to the horror genre through its continuing influence over the years. But perhaps there’s additional room at the table for other contributors as well. I’d like to see other worthy candidates like The Legend of Hell House receive greater due than they have in the past.