Based on a novel and a screenplay by Richard Matheson, “The Legend of Hell House” (1973) is a dead-serious look at haunted houses. For its main characters there is no doubt in their minds that ghosts exists, but there is a debate among them as to what they are exactly. At their own risk and peril, they enter the most haunted house in all of England to find out what lies in the great beyond. Beware what you wish for.
Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) one of the top physicists in his field who takes a job from old millionaire Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) who wishes to see definitive proof of an after life. To do so Deutsch has purchased the Belasco House, or as it is known Hell House, which is reputed for its deadly paranormal activity. Along with his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), Barrett is accompanied by Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) a young mental psychic, and Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall) a physical psychic and sole survivor of the last expedition to Hell House. The three paranormal experts have one week to complete their research and £100,000 awaiting them once they leave the house.
What a house it is. Constantly shrouded in a thick fog, the Belasco House is a huge mansion with iron gates, cobweb-covered chandeliers, secret passages, and bricked-out windows to keep people from seeing what went on inside. Of course, there is also a creepy black cat roaming the grounds. As Fischer gloomily informs the team, Emeric Belasco, the master of the house had quite the hobbies including drugs, alcohol, cannibalism, murder, bestiality, sadism, vampirism, and “a host of sexual goodies.” One day all of the house’s servants were found massacred, with Belasco nowhere to be found.
Whatever the legend, Dr. Barrett has a job to do and intends to get it done. Using his scientific equipment, he takes careful notes and readings as Tanner goes into a trance and begins to manifest ectoplasm and starts speaking in another man’s voice. Tanner meanwhile spends her evenings communicating with what she believes is the ghost of Belasco’s son in an attempt to set his spirit at ease.
This is where the movie gets very interesting. Barrett sees ghosts as mindless energy that can be measured and even dispersed with the proper technology. Tanner on the other hand believes they are lingering personalities that can communicate with her and need her help. Barrett is wiling to meet her halfway, but he stands firmly in his beliefs and begins to distrust her when her beliefs come into conflict with his research. Fischer meanwhile believes they should not mess with the house and leave before history repeats itself.
The performances of all four characters are very effective and convincing, the film’s ideas are engaging, and the direction by John Hough creates the right kind of creepy atmosphere. Doors open in the middle of the night, objects are flown at the characters by an invisible hand, and that cat proves to be one mean kitty.
If anything there should be even more happening. At 95 minutes this is a brisk tour of a haunted house and Matheson apparently took out some of the more extreme elements of the novel. If you are going to take the audience to the mother of all haunted houses you should give them their money’s worth and give them the full tour. Still, here is a house worth revisiting every Halloween.
(“The Legend of Hell House” is available on DVD and is streaming on Netflix.)