The Legend of Hell House (1973)
The Bellasco Mansion, better known as Hell House, is the "Mount Everest of haunted houses" and when an ageing billionaire wants definite answers to the question of life after death, it seems like the place to go. So, he hires three psychic investigators to spend a week in the house for a fee of £100,000 each.
Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, except the last team to try it twenty years ago ended up with almost everyone dead, crippled or insane, so when psychic medium Florence Tanner, physicist Lionel Barrett and his wife Ann, and Benjamin Fischer, the sole survivor or the previous attempt, move in, it's hardly for a holiday.
Directed by John Hough with a screenplay by Richard Matheson based on his novel Hell House, The Legend of Hell House is a rarity in haunted house films. Unlike most, which are either jump-out-of-the-cupboard scream festivals, gross-out teen rubbish and the like, Hell House takes its premise with deadly seriousness and from the first frame to the last maintains an atmosphere of oppressive brooding. Even when we're in the "real world", the air is kept up. When Mr Barrett has a meeting with dying billionaire Rudolph Deutsch, it's filmed at Blenheim Palace, probably the most brutal great house in England, on an overcast winter's day. There are no scenes of ordinary life, no sunny streets travelled through to contrast with the supernatural forebodings to come. It's all in the same deep-bass notes and shadowed, befogged world. This is carried over when the team enters Hell House, where the previous owner, depraved millionaire Emerish Bellasco, blocked up all the windows to prevent outsiders seeing the orgies going on inside and where in 1929 all of his guests died in various ways while Bellasco vanished. Since then, the house has been notorious for haunting that aren't just terrifying, but murderous. This is a setting that does not lend itself to inserting wise cracks or comic relief. Everyone in the cast sells the dead seriousness of the situation and with it neatly suspends disbelief.
It also helps that Matheson provides his characters with a real dramatic arc. They aren't just victims front loaded for a bit of gore. They are serious investigators with formidable credentials who should be able to solve the mystery of the house, but can't because they're being manipulated to fight one another. Miss Tanner believes that Barrett is a soulless materialist who cannot accept the supernatural. Barrett thinks that Miss Tanner is deluded. Mrs Barrett grows susceptible to the influence of the house and Fischer seals himself off both psychically and emotionally because he has no desire to repeat what happened in 1953. Each character has something to prove to him or herself and each ones motive conflicts beautifully with the others.
That being said, this isn't an exercise in character study. The plot and direction are intense and the horrific bits are remarkably effective because they grow out of the characters and rely as much on the audience's imagination as o0n special effects. Throw in a neat little mystery and it makes for a jolly little story.
To be watched in the afternoon. With the lights on.