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‘The Legend of Hell House’ Chills With a Smartly Supernatural Tale

‘The Legend of Hell House’ is a spooky, intelligent tale of the supernatural, too often dismissed by horror hounds. Time to correct their error.
The Legend Of Hell House Essentials
20th Century Fox
By  · Published on October 6th, 2016

Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores ‘The Legend of Hell House.’

It’s October, so as is mandated by the universally accepted movie blog charter this month’s Essentials are going to focus on the horror genre. This week we’re starting with that most traditional of horror films… the ghost story.

Well, a ghost story anyway.

“Although the story of this film is fictitious the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.” – Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty

Lots of horror films choose to open with text declaring that what we’re about to see is based on true events, but only one features the words of a psychic consultant to European royalty. Corbett, a very real personality in England through much of the 20th century, presents this (admittedly non-committal) introduction and sets a serious tone for what’s to come. That’s not to imply the film is dry, but instead it perfectly sets the stage for a tale that begins with an academic feel before descending into fleshy madness.

The Legend of Hell House‘s setup is simple. A very wealthy man is approaching the end of his life, but before he goes he desperately wants a definitive answer to the question of life after death. He offers Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill, voice of the Emperor in Empire Strikes Back), a renowned physicist and paranormal researcher, a large sum of money if he can provide that answer by spending a week in the purportedly haunted home of the long-deceased Emeric Belasco. Aka Hell House. Aka “the Mt. Everest of haunted houses.”

Barrett agrees, brings along his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and is teamed up with two psychics – Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin, The Innocents) is a mental medium, young but highly regarded, and Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall, Fright Night) is her physical medium counterpart. He’s also the only one to have survived previous attempts to confront the house’s spirited reputation that left eight others either dead or insane.

I’m going to pause here to say that McDowall is ridiculously good in this role. The Planet of the Apes films and his portrayal of vampire hunter Peter Vincent are among his best remembered, but his turn here is easily my favorite. Benjamin is a man damaged by horrific tragedy and an experience that left him unable to continue using his psychic gifts. He’s closed himself off from the spirit world and plans only on riding out the week and collecting his fat paycheck, and his transition from soft-spoken freeloader to psychic hero is a dramatically thrilling one.

The Belasco house’s sordid past is built up with teases both devilish and lascivious, and Richard Matheson’s script (based on his own novel, Hell House) tells us only what we need to know about the man’s darkness. Nicknamed “the roaring giant” for both his aggression and his size, Belasco was a man of excess whose parties in the first half of the 20th century were the things of legend, filled with equal parts debauchery and depravity they came to a messy end leaving dozens dead, his body never found, and the house bricked up for good by the man’s family. It’s the unsettled spirits of these revelers who are thought to haunt the home, and Barrett believes he has the answer to clearing them out once and for all.

All organisms emit Electro Magnetic Radiation, and when a living thing dies the energy typically spreads out into the world with neither purpose nor personality. Barrett believes the Belasco house somehow retained that energy instead of releasing it and is acting like a large battery capable of fueling physical manifestations like moving objects, unexplained noises, etc. He’s created a machine that he claims will dissipate the mindless energy through reverse polarity thereby emptying the house of so-called paranormal activity.

It’s just science.

I loved this idea and its execution here as a kid, and re-watches of the film have confirmed for me just how well the latter explores the former. Barrett and his wife are non-believers in the paranormal world of ghosts and possessions, while the two mediums think his scientific approach is bunk in the face of spirits and the afterlife. Matheson (I Am Legend) and director John Hough (Twins of Evil) give equal respect to each perspective resulting in a horror film that approaches the unknown with a rare intelligence.

But first, the sex.

Hough’s film is rated PG (although it was branded with an X upon initial release in the UK), but by the time the credits roll you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d experienced more than you have. Both Florence and Ann find their softer sides manipulated by the house, one by opening herself up too wide and the other by remaining far too clenched. Florence thinks she’s found the key to the haunting – Belasco’s rumored son, Daniel, died without knowing love and peace, and after dismissing his advances she finally gives herself over to the troubled spirit only to discover just how wrong she was. Ann meanwhile is the dutiful wife to a detached scientist, and her untapped desires find themselves channeled into a sexy somnambulism that sees her graphically hitting on poor, befuddled Benjamin. The sequences feature suggested or silhouetted nudity, and when paired with earlier descriptions of Belasco’s carnally-focused parties we’re left feeling the foul atmosphere without needing to experience it firsthand.

The group experience multiple instances of unexplained activity from moving objects – some shifting innocently while others launch with murderous intent – to what remains my favorite scene involving ectoplasm. Ghostbusters is great and all, but watching smoky tendrils slowly form from Florence’s fingers while Barrett’s staid British voice intones “Leave a sample in the jar please” is my plasm jam. Hough stages the sequences with chilling execution leaving us fearful through sound design, perspective, and character reactions. Practical effects bring it all to life with a surprising effectiveness – the shape beneath the bed sheets remains a very cool and simple effect. The experiences grow more violent including a cat attack and a barrage of deadly chandeliers before culminating in the discovery that everyone was wrong and everyone was right.

The Legend of Hell House settles on a happy medium (no apologies) as both psychics and science are proven right even as almost everyone is defeated by their ego. Barrett’s belief that the entity is soulless and without intent makes him blind to its murderous ability. Florence’s insistence that only she can help young Daniel makes her oblivious to Belasco’s deception and intended abuse of her body and soul. And Belasco himself so desperately wanted to be respected and feared, going so far as to mutilate his own body in pursuit of that goal, but the giant is ultimately felled with mere words.

As someone who loves spooky, intelligent tales of the supernatural despite a lack of belief in the subject, The Legend of Hell House (along with Matheson’s novel) hits a beautiful sweet spot where science and the paranormal come together in a smart and sexy union. It oozes an increasingly creepy and carnal atmosphere before reminding us that our fears of the unknown can be tempered with a simple realization. People are just people, insecurities and all, even when they’re dead.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.