That is the card that is shown before the prologue and the credits sequence of the 1973 classic The Legend of Hell House.[pullquote align=”left”][/pullquote]Oh dear. So portentous: ‘possibility’; ‘could well be true’? And that’s not the worst of it, either. The card is signed by one Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty. Ah well, it must be true then. I mean, if you’re a consultant to the European Royalty, you would never play fast and loose with the truth. Although I’d prefer to think that you must be half mad yourself. Or a con man, one or the other. Or do you think that holds any weight, the fact that you were called in by a gang of inbred kings and queens? Well, maybe in the days before we had ghastly people like the Duchess of York and the other hangers on this carried a bit of credibility with it. Today, though, we don’t take much notice of that kind of thing. So let’s get on with the movie and see whether we, who are not of European Royalty, are buying it.
We’re immediately introduced to the self-important Dr. Chris Barrett, played by Clive Revill, a man with such an uncompromising granite-like face that he would make Ian Paisley feel like a big softy. He is a pure scientist, someone who doesn’t believe that anything exists outside of what can be quantified, filed and stapled. When he is given the opportunity to prove or disprove the possibility of life after death by a batty old millionaire who is going to pay him £100,000 he looks as if he has just had his first erection in years, despite being married to Gayle Hunnicutt; and it’s definitely the challenge, not the money. He is, after all, being asked to investigate the notorious… Belasco House.
“It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses” he tells his wife Ann. And if he had left it there with the millionaire, played by Roland Culver, that wouldn’t have been too bad. Unfortunately the good doctor is a man who can only answer a statement by repeating key words.
“I’ll expect an answer within a week.” “A WEEK?”
“Ben Fischer will be going along with you.” “FISCHER?”
Yes, that’s the bad news. Just when you’re thinking: “Christ, wouldn’t fancy spending four days in a haunted house with this bloke” you find out there’s a few others along for the ride and two of them are nearly as off-the-wall as Doc Barrett. One is his sexually repressed wife (and who wouldn’t be, after listening to the Doc lecture you year in, year out) and the other is the annoyingly twee, butter-wouldn’t-melt medium, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin).
Roddy McDowell Tells it like it Is
I’m not including in that the fourth member of these Ghostbusters because that’s Roddy McDowell. He is another medium, but he’s also the only living survivor of a previous attempt on Hell House. McDowell is just brilliant in this movie. In fact in ANY movie he has that slightly deranged and not-quite-with-it look so common to former child stars. Call me weird, but I’d love to have had a pint with this guy. You wouldn’t be able to resist egging him on because everything he says is so foreboding. Ann asks him a simple question, like what did this geezer Belasco actually look like?
“His was a frightening visage, with the face of a demon that had taken on some… human aspect.”
That certainly puts Ann at her ease. I mean, she’s only just been told it’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses by Doc Happiness, then she’s got Florence bloody Tanner rabbitting on about how the house is Evil with a Capital E; and she can feel that even though she’s not set foot inside yet. Well, the old mind would be definitely at ease after that, wouldn’t it? And then Florence says to her: “I hope I haven’t disturbed you.”
I was feeling pretty disturbed myself and I wasn’t even hanging out with them, just watching a DVD!
And this is what makes The Legend of Hell House still creepily watchable four decades after I first saw it. It is played absolutely straight. There are none of those infuriating winks to the audience that we see in so many modern horror films. Put this on by yourself at two in the morning and I guarantee that you’ll be having at least a bit of a look over your shoulder. In that regard it is the forerunner of such terrific recent ghost stories as The Others or The Woman in Black. Much of it may be a little melodramatic by our ‘sophisticated’ modern standards but by heavens it is honest with itself. And that’s more than a lot of fright movies can say these days.
The Belasco House, built in 1919 by a wealthy lunatic who liked to observe extremes of behaviour in his ‘guests’– the last of whom died inside it in 1927,the windows bricked up so that no light shone in—is indeed a monument to the pure evil of one man.
Of course it is left to the hapless Ann to ask Fischer what made it so evil and, let’s be honest, at this stage you would think that she would know better than to ask Ben anything and expect a reassuring answer:
“Drug addiction; alcoholism; bestiality; mutilation; murder; vampirism; necrophilia; cannibalism; not to mention the gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?”
The look on Ann’s face says, no thanks, that’s enough. Mind you, it probably says more about me than it does about Belasco that I was thinking, some of that stuff doesn’t sound too bad. What do they charge for a weekend?
It’s through Ann and Florence that the house begins to work: Florence for her essential need, however misplaced, to do good and Ann for her repressed desires. At one point she gasps as she looks at the bookshelves. Back in 1973 this went past so fast that you were left wondering; but here in the Age of the Freeze Frame we can see that they were stocked with such fare as: Anatomy of Abuses, Sin and Sex, Worship of Priapus, etc. A bit disappointing , really. Nothing that you wouldn’t see on the bookshelves of the average Catholic priest. Or my own, in fact.
In the end, it comes down of course to a battle between Ben and Doc Rational. Is there a reasonable explanation for the haunting of Hell House or is it genuinely supernatural?
The screenplay is by Richard Matheson, based on his own novel Hell House and, given the strictures of the time, he tones down on some of his book’s more graphic imagery and language. Within a few months The Exorcist would push the boundaries farther than ever before, but Legend still remains a taut and effective chiller, which shows what can be done with essentially a cast of four and an imaginative director like John Hough. It is all low angle and quite menacing shots of the house and has an enormous amount of very tight close ups of sweating faces. Indeed, some are so close up that for a modern audience it serves as an embarrassing reminder of how much better American actors look after their dental work than on this side of the pond.
The Legend of Hell House is one of the earliest horror films I managed to get into see in the cinema and, despite poking a little fun at it, it remains one that I hold in great affection.
It was rather nice to find that it remains hugely watchable so many years later.