Four paranormal investigators are contacted by an eccentric millionaire (of course) to find evidence of the existence of life after death in the famed Belasco mansion, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses”, nicknamed Hell House.
It’s hard to tell how many people a house has knocked off just by looking at it.
The group consists of physicist Lionel Barrett, his wife Ann (who has no real reason to be there), mental medium Florence Tanner, and physical medium Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), Fischer being the only member having previously survived a trip to the house twenty years earlier. What happened to the other members of his group? They were either horribly injured or driven insane. So the group starts off on a really chipper note.
Nothing ominous here.
Barrett quickly establishes himself as the groups rational pain in the ass, questioning Tanner’s beliefs and opinions and the groups abilities.
I’ve barely spoken to you, yet I despise you already.
After a fight with Tanner about the identity of their host specter, an unseen force attacks Barrett…
And ruins dinner, the ectoplasmic bastard.
…and he all but accuses her of trying to kill him.
But Barrett has more to worry about than almost being killed and trying to convince the rest of the group that the house just has a lot of electromagnetic energy lying around and no ghost. His wife is having erotic visions and, in a seeming trance…
But I’m guessing it was more due to her choice of reading material. From left to right; Obsessive Acts And Religious Practices by Sigmund Freud; The Worship of Priapus by Richard Payne Knight; The Psychology of Sex by Havelock Ellis;, Sin And Sex; Conation Volition; Sex And Celibacy by T. Long; The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbs; Phallic Worship; and Autoerotic Phenomena In Adolescence by K. Menzies. Yes, I think it’s important you know the titles in case, you know, you want to look them up later.
…goes downstairs and tries to seduce Fischer, who up to this point has done a commendable job of trying to avoid everyone like the plague.
He snaps her out of it, but the weirdness only gets worse the next day, when, despite Barrett’s skepticism, Tanner finally finds what she believes is the cause of all the haunting.
Ewww….I hate it when they’re gooey like that.
They try to put the body to rest, but after that things just get worse and what once began as a scientific investigation, descends into a need to discover the mysteries of the house and a fight for sanity and survival.
The Legend of Hell House is not a fun haunted house film in the vein of Hausu. Hell House is a dead serious film. In fact, it’s very reminiscent of The Haunting, which also centers around a group of paranormal investigators wandering around a haunted house for several days.
Both films rely on psychological horror, going with the belief that the unseen or barely glimpsed is far more frightening than just throwing a demon in the viewers face in the first scene. This is not a “Boo!”, jump out of your seat scary movie, so if that’s what you’re looking for you’re going to be disappointed. Candles flicker for no reason, doors open and close by themselves, and when it’s really pissed off the house throws pieces of decor at your face. Most of it is subtle, elaborately constructed, to slowly give you a growing feeling of unease and dread. This is good, and works well with the mood of the film, adding more mystery to the characters already long list of questions.
The first one being: Is it the cat? It’s the cat’s fault, isn’t it?
But Hell House also differs from The Haunting. It may be firmly based on the old-fashioned tales of a maniacal haunted house, but there’s a real sexual intensity in this film. The head of the house, Emeric Belasco , was so perverse and filled with sadistic egotism that he turned his house into a fortress of debauchery and murder. That same energy still resides in the house leading to scenes that are at once kinky, intense and disturbing.
If you’re going to fondle it at least dust it first. And yes, only the women get possessed. Go figure.
The cast does a wonderful job of giving credible performances. Despite the material and how easy it would be to do so, their performances never slip into over acting or camp. Barrett is serious and so focused on his reliance to technology that his insistence of being the only voice of reason causes the most friction in the group. Both women start off as bold and confident but slowly descend into scared and skeptical as the house takes it toll, and Fischer, timid and fearful, must overcome his terror to save himself and solve the mystery of the house.
Being a psychological film, and made in 1973, the film focuses on practical effects, sound design, and character performance. So there is very little in the way of special effects, save for one scene that doesn’t really hold up very well to today’s CGI standards.
It’s not bad, but it does feel dated compared to the rest of the film, which has held up amazingly well. Part of the reason for that is thanks to the fabulous cinematography and set design. The use of light and shadow…
I. See. You.
…the dark wood moldings, the luscious furniture, the intricately designed statues….
Even the boring scientific experiments look awesome.
Even without the story, the movie is a gorgeous visual feast. Makes me want to go out, buy old furniture and redecorate. I could have put the movie on mute and been pleased.
The Legend of Hell House was based on the novel Hell House by Richard Matheson. Matheson also wrote the screenplay for the film, so if you’ve read the book and avoided the movie up until now, take heart, since I’m pretty sure the man knows his own source material, though the screenplay did reduce some of the book’s more extreme elements, namely the sexuality. The cast also got a change up as the book was originally set in Maine with a group of Americans.
Oh, and here’s a picture of the actual house used in filming: Wykehurst Park, near the village of Bolney, East Sussex, in England.
Doesn’t look nearly as scary without all that damned fog.
Overall, The Legend of Hell House is an excellent ghost story that I found both fascinating and unnerving. It’s very similar to Haunted Hill, so if you liked that and are looking for something more intense than then you’ll probably enjoy Hell House. But if you didn’t like that and you like your specters to focus more on the physical rather than the psychological, than you may not enjoy it as much.
The Legend of Hell House is available on a variety of streaming services.
It is also available on Bluray.