An old movie that can still creep you out with the best of them? Oh yeah, that’s The Legend of Hell House. This post first appeared in 2013.
The late, great Richard Matheson, one of my favorite authors, wrote many novels that I still cherish. At the top are two in particular: Bid Time Return (Somewhere in Time), a time travel/romance that takes place in and around San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado, and Hell House, a 1971 haunted house story that became the 1973 film, The Legend of Hell House. Both the latter novel and film retain the ability to scare the living crap out of you, and what more can we ghoulish storytellers hope for?
I must admit, I hadn’t seen the film in years, so I treated myself to a copy and added it to my little collection of over a thousand movies. Given that Matheson got to write the screenplay, the story retains most of the elements from his novel. It did cut back on a good deal of the sexuality—this was forty years ago, after all. Also, given that this was a British production, the Maine location for the Belasco House in the book became the English countryside, the American researchers all Brits.
Owing to the many shocking elements of the story, I’ll just present the bare bones storyline in referencing the film. An old, eccentric rich guy offers a load of money to some people to find out if there is really an afterlife. He hires physicist, parapsychologist and skeptic, Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill, voice of the Emperor in Star Wars: Episode V) to study the unexplained phenomena at the Belasco House, where many people were either killed or driven to insanity and suicide decades earlier. This is “the Mount Everest of haunted houses,” referred to as Hell House by many. Barrett brings along his wife, Ann (Edith in the novel), a prim, dutiful English spouse—at least for starters. Gayle Hunnicutt, a stunning American actress, played the role. (She subsequently married into British royalty.) They will spend a week in the house that Emeric Belasco, the rich, psychotic sexual pervert owned before disappearing after the deaths of all his “guests.”
At the brooding, creepy house the Barretts meet the other members of the team: Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), a religious mental medium, and Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowell), a physical medium and the only survivor of the incident from decades past. This quartet does not exactly hit it off. Skeptic Barrett believes that electromagnetic energy is responsible for the disturbances in the house and is awaiting the delivery of a machine that he says will rid the house of that energy. Florence is overwhelmed by forces in the house, while Fischer, who is only there to collect the money, keeps his mind closed to everything almost till the end.
The animosity between Florence and Barrett quickly manifests into her hurling—with her mind—everything but the kitchen sink at him, something that a mental medium is not supposed to be able to do. As Barrett sleeps off his injuries, Ann witnesses shadow figures having weird sex and comes across Belasco’s collection of sexual literature. She soon lets her hair down (I mean, literally) and comes on big time to Fischer, who has to smack her back to reality. She is appalled by what she’s done.
Florence, meantime, has connected strongly with a tormented spirit named Daniel, who says he is Belasco’s son. She tries to help, even going so far as to let the “guy” have sex with her in an effort to help him pass over to the other side. (This ghost must’ve had a great pick-up line.)
In case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I’ll let you take it from here. There are plot twists and OMG moments galore, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Whichever medium (no pun intended) you choose, Hell House should be accompanied by a cuddle buddy. It is one scary story to digest on a dark and stormy night.