Nature of Shame: Unwatched Blu-ray, I suppose. I needed a semi-scary spook flick for my wife and sister-in-law who aren’t “down for anything,” contrary to their claims.
Hooptober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1970’s
A couple years ago, I made these non-horror-watching hooligans watch John Carpenter’s The Fog. They still talk about The Fog and I’ve struggled to repeat that performance. This year I presented Night of the Comet, Night of the Creeps and The Legend of Hell House as possible viewings. Much to my surprise, they picked Hell House. So here we go.
The Legend of Hell House Elevator Pitch
An eccentric millionaire hires a physicist to prove life after death by sending him into the Belasco House, “the Mount Everest of haunted houses,” for a week. He brings along his wife, two mediums and unbridled skepticism.
In the Haunted House of Bloody Narcissism
I last watched The Legend of Hell House many years ago by myself in an old Boston apartment. My wife was in law school and I spent many nights up alone watching movies. It spooked me a little bit. Not Session 9-level turn-on-all-the-lights-and-invite-every-living-person-over-for-a-nightcap grade spooked, but unnerved nonetheless.
Upon this viewing, perhaps because of the mixed company (read: any company), I paid as much attention to the reactions of the viewers as my own tingler.
Based on Richard Matheson’s Hell House, The Legend of Hell House wasn’t the super straight A-to-Z ghost story and retelling of the Shirley Jackson novel that I remembered. Due in large part to Roddy McDowall, the film serves up just enough light comic relief to dull the overall fright factor. Some of it seems rather silly, like 2018’s imitation of a traditional 1970’s horror movie. This makes it a very strong choice for someone looking to dip their toe into the deeper waters of horror. The tenor and pacing of the 70’s might create distance in a viewer more accustomed to modern cinematic conventions.
So. Uh. You Mentioned Ghosts?
This is no Scooby-Doo pull-off-the-sheet style “haunted” house tale. Although Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) dismissed the possibility of life after death as a self-induced psychological manifestation, there’s no part of you, as the viewer, that sides with the skeptical doctor. It’s clear from the beginning of this film that Dr. Lionel is going to get these people killed. The only question — as Roddy McDowell suggests — is how many.
Director John Hough uses gloomy skies, minor keys and ominous daily time stamps create a mood. The music (or lack thereof) contributes most effectively to this mood as there’s no sonic distinction made between the score or ambient sound effects. They are one and the same.
The house blocks out all incoming light. The rooms, cluttered and claustrophobic, convey a sense of the owner’s (and suspected haunt’s) personality without ever giving Emeric Balasco a voice. Set design and lighting suggest his voice, his backstory. As the team digs further into the history of Balasco, the sordid and previously latent details become revealed.
If not for McDowall’s eccentric medium, Benjamin Franklin Fischer, The Legend of Hell House might have been too straight, too sinister. Even though Ben’s the most scarred of the characters in the film (he’s been through this experience before), Roddy McDowall can’t help but inject affability into his performances. He’s a broken man, but his nervous energy provides relief from the stoic seriousness.
Ghosts Can Kinda Die! #SpoilerAlert
Since the audience knows the truth that Dr. Barrett seeks, The Legend of Hell House’s mystery becomes not whether the house is haunted, but who’s actually doing the haunting. We’re given the run around by the sordid spook(s) inhabiting Belasco House.
Dr. Barrett becomes the target of particular rage. His wife Ann goes on midnight lust walks and demands sex from Ben. The mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) has ghost sex. When Ben finally opens himself up to receive the ghost transmissions, we’re relieved to finally get some answers (which confirm our suspicions all along).
That said, the mystery isn’t entirely effective. Confirmation allows us to focus back on what works so well in The Legend of Hell House. Mood. The traditional haunted house scares of Hell House work because they’re back up by delicious production design and a singular focus on low-level tension. With each passing day the veracity of the ghost’s behavior increases. With each new timestamp our own expectation for violence grows.
Arguably the actual events don’t even live up to our anticipation of the events. Anticipation fuels almost all of the horror in The Legend of Hell House. The curation of expectation of what might happen leads us from narrative beat to narrative beat. The best horror films understand how to build this tension so that the actual horror event serves only to punctuate the anticipation. Bad horror films focus too much on the horrific elements themselves. A punchline without the setup.
Final The Legend of Hell House Thoughts
Delivers moderate scares — and would certainly work as an introduction to another level of horror film. The Legend of Hell House finds its groove and rides it to a conclusion. Some, including those in my viewing party, felt that the ultimate payoff felt underwhelming. True. The Legend of Hell House lacks the proper payoff of other, better haunted house films like The Haunting, which parallels this film in more ways than one.
I don’t necessarily agree that it undermines the film, but I understand the point. The ending’s a bit bonkers at face value. I won’t spoil the final scene for anyone idly checking in on my 31 Days of Horror progress, but suffice to say that the film concludes with a bizarro twist of character. If you let it simmer, however, I think you’ll warm to my idea that it’s an abstractly disturbing moment of humanization. It speaks to the power of myth and legend — the power of a deranged man to endure long after his death.
Some scenes look rather soft, but Hough used so much soft focus and diffusion filters throughout the film that I’d be surprised if the film *could* look better than this. The film grain remains and looks remarkably natural.
James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add this nonsense to the list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Before he was a recognizable face, Roddy McDowall was a familiar voice. At least in my frame of reference. He gave life to V.I.N.CENT. in The Black Hole, Snowball on Pinky and the Brain, the Breadmaster on The Tick, The Mad Hatter on Batman: The Animated Series. It wasn’t until I first watched The Planet of the Apes (probably when I was about 16 or so) that I finally had a name and a face to go along with his stilted British timbre. One caveat. You likely well know, however, that it wasn’t even Roddy’s face. I just knew Roddy McDowall was the name of some guy in a monkey suit and a latex mask.
I pieced McDowell’s image together from cartoon superhero villains, apes and a toadstool like robot. He was more Dalí abstract than human. Sure, I’d seen Roddy McDowall in other movies, usually smaller roles, and one-off TV spots during the 1980’s and 90’s on shows like Matlock and Quantum Leap, but he was nothing more than a kind of omnipresent familiar. I’d watched Bednobs and Broomsticks at least a dozen times as a kid, but never, not once did I match Mr. Jelk with Cornelius (or even Caesar) with all of the voices or the guest spots. It wasn’t until I first saw Fright Night last year for the first time that I finally found myself making offhand filmographic (…and no, that’s not a word, but I like it anyway…) connections.
Shame On Me
What can I say? The pieces had fallen into place at an alarmingly slow rate. No matter how much we watch and absorb, some actors and certain movies just fall through the cracks… which was precisely the impetus for my Cinema Shame endeavor. I’d grown up with Roddy McDowell all around me. I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to put all the pieces together. The child actor in the 1930’s and 40’s. (He was the kid in How Green Was My Valley!? Lassie Come Home!?) A regular B-movie player for Monogram Pictures. The occasional, offbeat leading man in the 1960’s. Accomplished photographer. The regular on Hollywood Squares. The outspoken proponent of film restoration and preservation. Roddy McDowell left us in 1998 at the age of 70 with a filmography six decades long.
Armed with my recent survey of McDowall’s oeuvre in the wake of my Fright Night “discovery,” it was Lord Love a Duck that finally solidified Roddy McDowell as a favorite Hollywood personality. Lord Love a Duck‘s Alan Musgrave (a kind of teen dream Mephistopheles) represents the most distilled version of Roddy McDowall’s most realized on-screen persona. Snarky. Self-aware. Smarter than you. As these characteristics ebbed and flowed, there was always an undercurrent of pathos laced throughout his best performances, perhaps most vividly expressed while shrouded in oppressive ape fur and latex. He played every genre, but I would not suggest McDowall was chameleonic. His persona had limitations — but when wielded properly, McDowall could command an audience.
Like a Feathered Fowl Upside the Head
That Lord Love a Duck left me a little awestruck shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those that have seen it. It’s a brash and ballsy slapstick criticism of the sex- and commercial-crazed 1960’s. Breaking taboo left and right and in between, Lord Love a Duck could be seen as the dark counterpoint to the Frankie and Annette Beach Party movies (which were, admittedly an easy target, and already parodying themselves by the time Lord Love a Duck was released in 1966). I’m not even sure how anyone approved such a bizarre and baffling movie for release… but I do thank them for it. It’s almost as if the studio heads didn’t understand the duplicity of the script and just gave the film the go ahead based on prolonged scenes of jiggling, bikini-clad bottoms.
Tuesday Weld plays Barbara Ann, a high school girl of limitless ambition. Alan Mollymauk Musgrave (McDowall) aims to make all of it happen. They sign a devil’s pact in wet cement, and Alan facilitates Barbara Ann’s ascent to becoming a bikini-clad cinema idol. Is Alan a deranged, delusional high school student with an unhealthy obsession with Barbara Ann? Or is he something much more subversive… nefarious even? The methods Alan uses to promote Barbara Ann through the ranks include but are not limited to sexual manipulation, premeditated murder, and hypnotism… all set to a bouncy, flouncy pop tune that could have appeared as an interlude in any of the Beach Party films. If it all weren’t so much goddamn fun, you might notice how untoward Lord Love a Duck really is.
Ogling, But With a Purpose
Director George Axelrod was best known for the notches on his screenwriting belt, having provided the blueprints for classic films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Seven-Year Itch. Lord Love a Duck, his directorial debut, and one of only two films Axelrod would direct, feels like the product of a disillusioned Hollywood insider set to undermine the institution. For much of the film Axelrod deftly straddles the line between obscenity and innocence. Many contemporary critics considered him an old Hollywood creep merely ogling teenage girls. Clearly, they just didn’t get the joke. He runs roughshod over popular culture, his targets plentiful and his attacks often unfocused. As a result, Duck‘s construction begins to feel slapdash (hamfisted?) during the second half of the film, overburdened by the volume of Axelrod’s satirical efforts.
This amateurish construction embellishes the chaos unfolding on screen. It’s clearly the film’s satirical successes and narrative miscues that have endeared it to cult movie fans for decades. Lord Love a Duck becomes far more interesting as a result of its faults. Much of the credit must go to the impressive cast — Tuesday Weld and Roddy McDowall, of course, but also Ruth Gordon, Harvey Korman and the deft Lola Albright who plays Barbara’s mother, a perpetually drunk, cat-tailed cocktail waitress. The actors commit to Axelrod’s script even as it pulls apart at the seams.
Roddy McDowall and Tuesday Weld in Lord Love a Duck.
Then Lord Love a Duck Breaks You
In many ways, Lord Love a Duck defies description. The phrase is battered about endlessly, but it is truly one of those films that must be seen to be believed. If I were to highlight a specific scene, it would be the “sweater scene,” one of the most disturbing, bizarre, and hypersexualized scenes of the entire 1960’s. And if you’re a fan of 60’s cinema, you recognize the inherent boldness of that statement. One of Barbara Ann’s first realized desires is to join the Cashmere Sweater Club at school. To justify induction, she must first own 12 legitimate cashmere sweaters. She only has one Japanese imitation cashmere sweater. McDowall’s Alan Mollymauk convinces Barbara Ann to lay down some guilt on her largely absentee father (Max Showalter) in order to open his coffers to purchase the requisite number of sweaters.
The scene begins with Barbara and her father gleefully devouring hot dogs in his car. With every bite the pair grows closer to orgasmic ecstasy. Paging Dr. Freud. But wait! There’s more! A quick cut places them in the clothing store where Barbara Ann models a series of form-fitting cashmere sweaters. Weld preens and models like a sex kitten. With each new sweater she calls out the color (“Grape Yum Yum!”) amid orgasmic exclamations of “Yes! Yes! Oh god! Yes!” Her father reacts with wide eyes and turgid anticipation that segues into grunts and moans. The camera cuts quickly between sharp-angle close ups of their facial contortions until both collapse, exhausted, covered by a pile of cashmere. It’s even more uncomfortable than you can imagine.
In case you don’t quite believe me, here’s “The Sweater Scene” in it’s entirety:
About Non-Sequitorial Ducks and Roddy McDowall
Axelrod’s nonsense title of Lord Love a Duck suggests he anticipated a certain brand of audience response. A little bit of research finds that the term is a rather polite 19th-century British exclamation of surprise. Examples of the phrase’s usage appears in James Joyce’s Ulysses and pops up frequently in P.G. Wodehouse.
‘Well, Lord love a duck!’ replied the butler, who in his moments of relaxation was addicted to homely expletives of the lower London type.
-P.G. Wodehouse, The Coming of Bill
The more I thought about how this title reflects audience response to Lord Love a Duck, the more I began to equate the polite, antiquated exclamation with Roddy McDowall himself. In Duck, McDowall is both innocent and devil. He drives a slick T-Bird and derives his name “Mollymauk” from a genus of elegant Albatrosses. He is at once a relic — a 36 year old actor playing a high school teenager — but also representation of hip 1960’s modernity. The child actor who bowed out of the spotlight during his awkward teenage years in order to reinvent himself as a leading man. McDowall’s line delivery in many of his films drips of subtext. His haughty English accent undermined by the understanding that this acting gig is nothing but a frivolous lark anyway. Proper, but always a little bit naughty, a little bit rebellious.
Roddy McDowall and Ruth Gordon in Lord Love a Duck
At an early point in the film, McDowall’s character Alan is being given an Rorschach test by a psychologist. He keeps describing the inkblots with the most tedious, placid analogies. The psychologist drops the cards, seething with frustration and says, “Alan, don’t you realize that these things are supposed to be dirty?” Clearly, Alan does recognize the point of the cards and their suggestive nature, but he’s dancing around the obvious to have a bit of fun. That’s how I view much of Roddy McDowall’s acting career, dancing around the expected, the normal, in order to enjoy the moment. It wasn’t what he was saying that was most telling, but rather the deviancy he resisted.
I may have been late to the Roddy McDowall appreciation party, but I’m rapidly atoning for my Cinema Sins and revisiting old favorites to enjoy McDowall all over again for the first time.