The Legend of Hell House begins very much like Robert Wise’s more famous film, The Haunting. There is a proposal to investigate a haunted house, and a team of experts are assembled. However, unlike the Haunting where the motivation is simply financial, the financier in this film wants the answer to life after death. He sends a physicist, and two mediums to what is known as the most notorious haunted house in the world, Hell House, where countless people have died, including the last two groups of investigators who have searched for the answer to the mysterious occurrences at the house.
This is a horror film about the struggle between the two prevailing societal ideologies, science versus religion. Though typically a medium wouldn’t necessarily find links with religion and God, great efforts are made through the medium Florence, to establish that her belief is that her powers are a gift from God. Whatever is in the house, because the film is at least certain that something is there, be it a spirit or electrical or something all too human, plays on these power struggles and conflicts, both exploiting and inciting the two conflicting beliefs.
On the side of religion is Florence Tanner, a young mental medium, who is convinced that there is at least one spirit inhabiting the house. Her theory is that there is one controlling spirit, most likely Emeric Belasco, the former owner of the house who was as cruel in life as he was apparently in life, and a score of his victims that act under his power. She herself communicates especially with a spirit who she believes to be the son of Belasco, who warns them all to leave or else he will kill them. While her first connection with him happens during a psychic sitting, he continues to visit her every night while she is alone in her room. The confrontations between them are not always violent, but the physicality of their interaction escalates with each occurrence.
On the side of science is Mr. Lionel Barrett, a world renown physicist who has already discounted numerous haunted houses. He doesn’t believe in “surviving personalities”, only in the power of the mind and electricity. He doesn’t doubt the power of the mediums, in that they have mental powers beyond what a normal person can experience. He thinks they live off of the electrical currents and energy that runs through certain places, and that it can manifest itself as physical occurrences, like the movement of objects or even the creation of ectoplasm. Mr. Barrett blames many of the strange happenings on Tanner, though he does realise she may not necessarily be in control of the great power.
As both seek to find an answer, they are in turn victimized by their own individual sensitivities and humanity. As simple pawns in a greater believe, they are far more easily manipulated as they comparilize the events with little room for compromise. Their actions lead to a neglect of self-preservation, as they come to believe their cause is more important than their lives.
There is one character that represents something of an in-between of the two, the only survival of the previous investigations, Benjamin Franklin Fischer. Though a so-called physical medium, he shuts off his abilities while in the house because he realises the dangers of remaining open. He does not search for answers and skirts from confrontation. His motivation is to survive and to come out of the house a few thousand dollars richer than before. The film doesn’t idolize his approach though, I don’t think it truly takes sides in any matter. What does matter though, is that he is a survivor, and I’m only reminded of that speech/exchange in Catch-22;
Capt. Nately: Don’t you have any principles?
Old man in whorehouse: Of course not!
Capt. Nately: No morality?
Old man in whorehouse: I’m a very moral man, and Italy is a very moral country. That’s why we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated.
Capt. Nately: You talk like a madman.
Old man in whorehouse: But I live like a sane one. I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top. Now that he has been deposed, I am anti-fascist. When the Germans were here, I was fanatically pro-German. Now I’m fanatically pro-American. You’ll find no more loyal partisan in all of Italy than myself.
Capt. Nately: You’re a shameful opportunist! What you don’t understand is that it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.
Old man in whorehouse: You have it backwards. It’s better to live on your feet than to die on your knees. I know.
Capt. Nately: How do you know?
Old man in whorehouse: Because I am 107-years-old. How old are you?
Capt. Nately: I’ll be 20 in January.
Old man in whorehouse: If you live.
In fact, a mantra that Benjamin repeats on more than one occasion, “I will be the only one to make it out of here alive and sane this time.” Here, like in Catch-22, his definetely of sanity is a desire for self-preservation, and he has no principles strong enough to sacrifice his life for.
The film further touches on issues of taboo subjects, especially relating to sex. Many of Emeric Belasco’s crimes were supposedly sexual in nature, and the effect lives through the house. The women are seduced by the spirits, either possessed by insatiable sexual desires, or tricked into sexual scenarios by exploiting their nature. In a way, I think it reveals how complex and cruel humanity can be, how there is such a fine line between violence and sex, between consent and non-consent, and how the victim is often seen as much of a monster as the real villain of the situation.
The Legend of Hell House is an exceptional horror film, frightening and atmospheric, it is more cerebral than one would expect from a film of it’s kind. The set design is incredible, and the film is almost worth seeing for that alone. There are intense colours and clever uses of darkness that enhance the idea that the house itself has life. Quite possibly the best film about ghosts I’ve ever seen, I can’t recommend it enough.