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What makes for a good haunted house movie? A scary building, creaky doors, people walking around with candles, and lots of sudden surprises? Well, perhaps. But maybe it takes something more to really get under the skin. Or—brickwork?
The Legend of Hell House is far and away my favourite movie of this genre. There are some other great examples like The Innocents and The Haunting (based on the work of Henry James and Shirley Jackson, respectively). These are fine films, but they lack the edge that Richard Matheson gives his ghosts. There’s something about long shadows on the lawn and unfinished croquet games hanging over them. Things politely flitting from shadow to shadow. Not The Legend of Hell House: what haunts the Belasco house is out for blood.
The story is set up very quickly. A rich man asks a team of investigators to spend a week in a haunted house to either prove or disprove life after death—not just any haunted house, you understand, but "the Mount Everest of haunted houses." The place has a very bad reputation. Actually, the place is lethal—only one person survived the last two investigations, and he came out a mental wreck. Within minutes, the film has its characters trapped inside a fog-bound mansion, and things start to turn ugly fast.
Both The Innocents and The Haunting hint at something sordid behind their story. Something impure and taboo. The Legend of Hell House was made in 1973 when cinema had become a lot more permissive. It doesn’t hint at the sexual origin of this haunting; it screams it. The Belasco house was the scene of a huge, drug-fuelled orgy which resulted in the deaths of twenty-seven people. It must have been one hell of a party, because it involved everything from drug addiction to necrophilia. We see none of this, except through the reactions of the two female characters, who are affected in different but undeniably twisted ways. Emeric Belasco is the spectral equivalent of Harvey Weinstein.
The first victim of the house is the wife of the physicist leading the investigation. It’s pretty clear that her husband is entirely devoted to his work and maybe not providing the kind of physical attention his beautiful young wife craves. This makes her susceptible to the evil eroticism that’s seeped into the brickwork. Pretty quickly, she’s basically in heat. Gayle Hunnicutt does marvellous things with the role. In one minute she’s repressed and reserved; the next, she’s lost all inhibition and is demanding sex from another investigator. But Hunnicutt creates a sense that her character is not so much possessed as released.
The second victim is a naïve medium played by Pamela Franklyn. She’s described as "little more than a child," but there’s more to Florence Tanner than that. What Belasco exploits with her is a romantic loneliness. Being a medium is no fun. It’s often unpleasant. She’s worthy and maybe a little annoying, but oh-so-nice. Belasco tricks her into lowering her defences and letting him enter her body. The details are a little unclear, but there’s no doubt that we are talking sex between the living and the dead, not straightforward possession.
It’s this kind of thing that lifts the movie above average. There’s little gore, there’s almost no explicit violence, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Emeric Belasco finds the investigators' weaknesses and, one by one, destroys them. When violence does happen, it’s sudden and brutal—no Lewton busses here. Teacups explode and shred flesh. Professor Barratt is attacked by a poltergeist who throws a spiked roasting dish at his head, then almost crushes him with a chandelier before turning an open fire into a flamethrower. It’s loud, nasty, and brutal. This isn’t a ghost trying to defend his home from intruders; it’s a hunter toying with and then crushing his prey, making them really suffer before the kill.
There are faults with the film, obviously. The budget doesn’t look that great. There’s a truly dreadful special effect where Franklyn is mauled by a cat that could have been bought from Toys 'R' Us. The finale doesn’t quite work, either. There’s a lot of shouting and overacting and the ghost is destroyed by harsh language. But that doesn’t really matter.
What makes The Legend of Hell House unique is that it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the evil lurking in the dark. This is an intelligent, sexy movie about what happens when a deranged man of iron will survives death. It’s as far as you can get from the creepy and the genteel. This is intelligent, but nasty, sweaty, erotic horror at its best.