This is one of several films whose titles I am forever confusing (the others being House, The House on Haunted Hill, and The Haunting). While I haven’t seen House, I can say that the other three have a number of things in common beyond their titles. They are all, most obviously, about haunted houses. [SPOILER]. More to the point, they all involve groups of people attempting to test the reality of well-known hauntings. In The House on Haunted Hill, it’s for money; with The Haunting, it’s for science. Well, also money–but mostly science.
The Legend of Hell House is about money through science, or something. Actually it’s quite similar to The Haunting, at least at first: both feature professors trying to establish the academic “truth” of the haunting, albeit from different angles; both groups of protagonists attempt this feat by staying in the house for a prolonged period; and, yeah, bad stuff happens.
But where the professor in The Haunting is the person who comes up with the zany experiment, in Legend of Hell House, an aging rich man offers an exorbitant sum to a group of people (a physicist who dabbles in parapsychology, and two mediums [media?]) to determine whether there is life after death. He sends them to the only logical place for determining the answer to his most pressing of questions: a terrifying old house somewhere in the English countryside. So, I guess, where the prof in The Haunting will advance science and get, like, a journal article out of it, the folks in The Legend of Hell House are actually gonna get paid.
I– I need to go think about my life for a while.
Okay, so, poor decisions notwithstanding, The Legend of Hell House is a movie. A horror movie! And I review those! So here’s my review! Of the movie! That you’ll read! And then go watch! And I will, I dunno, write my dissertation, maybe! Pay no attention to the elephant! He is just here for atmosphere!
The Belasco House, otherwise known as Hell House, is, on the haunted-house spectrum, somewhere between a Scooby-Doo setting and Disney’s Haunted Mansion in terms of scariness. Sure, it’s old and dark and rickety, and sure, it’s British–but none of those things have stopped Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, or Dame Judy Dench from being completely awesome. Alas, none of them are particularly frightening, either.
We have our team of paranormal experts, sent in by aging rich guy who wants proof of an afterlife: a physicist/parawhatever; a “mental medium”; and a “physical medium.” Oh, and the physicist’s sexy wife, whose primary role is to be sexy, and whose secondary role is to be scared. And whose tertiary role is to be, like, married. To the physicist.
I swear this all comes into play.
Anyhoo, the four of them set up camp in this old house which is supposedly super haunted. The mental medium, a woman named Florence Tanner, holds a seance, and speaks in a man’s voice. Another time some ectoplasm slowly spreads out of her fingers and does whatever ectoplasm does. I don’t know, oozes. In the air.
The thing is, this is all fine. It’s a well-crafted movie, and despite my mocking tone, there’s a lot of good. Best, of course, is Roddy McDowall as the physical medium, Ben Fischer. The acting is quite good all around, but the movie suffers from bad pacing and a total lack of urgency. Even though the characters’ lives are on the line, I never felt worried about them. Conversely, I never felt eager for the next scary thing to happen, because they simply weren’t that scary. Creepy voices and invisible presences lurking under the covers or slamming doors are all fine and good, but to be effective scare tactics, they have to be pulled off with a certain sensitivity that is unfortunately lacking here. The effects come off as hackneyed, pale imitations of the infinitely better The Haunting.
It also suffers somewhat from its unfortunate reliance on parapsychology. I say it’s unfortunate not because I have any particular criticism of that area of study: I know next to nothing about it, and as a resident of another fringe field, I’m not eager to throw stones. But I don’t think it works well with the demands of the horror genre, particularly when there are key concepts that aren’t well explained (presumably physical mediums make things move, while mental mediums–I don’t know, are pretty British women?).
The big revelations about the haunting aren’t really that big (although the fact that sex–including, yes, ghost sex–plays a surprisingly large part in some of the proceedings comes as a bit of, well, a surprise). The force/spirit/whatever responsible for the spooky stuff is less scary than pathetic, and the steps necessary to drive it off are equally uninspiring.
I find it amazing that this movie came out fully ten years after The Haunting, but despite the extreme similarities, didn’t benefit much from the brilliance of the earlier film. It was also released the same year as The Exorcist, 1973. Both are remarkably, undeniably ’70s, but Legend fails in almost every area where The Exorcist shines.
It’s not all bad, and The Legend of Hell House deserves recognition for its cinematic polish, decent dialogue, and overall intelligence. An interesting thing about the film is its foregrounding of the science/belief debate (with parapsychology occupying some ill-defined middle ground). For this reason alone I might use the film, or a part of it, in my class about the supernatural. But I can’t really recommend it, except as an historical curiosity.