I had no hopes whatsoever for "The Legend of Hell House." I knew nothing about it; I forgot why I put it on my Netflix queue; it just meandered up to the top and landed in the mailbox one day, and later that week I was in the mood for horror and noticed with pleasure that it was only about 90 minutes long. And then I fell in love.
The premise is your basic haunted-house setup: A disparate group of people is asked by an eccentric wealthy person to spend several nights in a house full of nasty spirits. In this case, a millionaire who wants to know for sure if there's life after death has hired a physicist and a pair of psychic mediums to investigate the Belasco house, also known as Hell House. The house is notorious for its nasty spirits: Other people have tried similar investigations and have been killed. Yoicks!
The script is based on "Hell House," a book by the ubiquitous Richard Matheson (the night before I had happened to watch "Somewhere in Time," which is also based on something of his; he is of course responsible for "I Am Legend" and that damn "Trilogy of Terror" story with the Zuni doll). Apparently after Shirley Jackson had a hit with her lyrical "Haunting of Hill House," he got inspired. But unlike Jackson, Matheson does not like things to be quiet and understated. I am usually more of Jackson's way of thinking, but the gonzo baroque fun of this movie proved irresistible. Someone has sex with a ghost, people! What more could you want?
Plus, just look at these frames. Every scene in this movie is just lushly gorgeous. Even when the story is in Maximum Ridiculousness mode, "Hell House" is a beauty.
Our group consists of physicist Barrett and his wife, who is just tagging along; a young medium named Florence Tanner; and another medium named Ben Fischer, (Roddy McDowall!) who is the only survivor of a previous Hell House expedition. Barrett gets right down to business, taking measurements and readings. Florence immediately senses a powerful presence in the house. Ben pretty much keeps to himself; he wants to get through the experience, get his money and go home. The house, though, has other plans for the group.
What I love about this movie is the interpersonal conflict between the investigators as the paranormal situation gets more and more out of hand. Unlike Jackson's much classier story, in which each individual sort of retreats into himself, this movie is all about the fights the characters have. It's almost too glib to say it's like a paranormal "Survivor" but it does focus on the effects of an extreme (and extremely peculiar) situation on a group's dynamics. Barrett (sort of the hero) dismisses Florence as silly, Ben as unhelpful and his own wife as irrelevant; Florence is frustrated because no one's listening to her; and Ben has a lot of tension and fear simmering beneath his calm, sexless exterior.
As for the house -- it's not so much a character as a puppet master, provoking everyone individually into a group conflict. The prevailing spirit appears to be former resident Emeric Belasco, who used the house as a staging ground for appalling orgies: as Fischer describes them, his practices included "drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies." (If I were into ringtones, I would love an audio sample of McDowall dryly reciting this sequence -- the final clause just kills me.)
Anyway, all this degenerate behavior seems to have made the house evil, or at least extremely restless. Florence thinks she's got its number: it's haunted by Daniel, an illegitimate son of Emeric's. Is she right, or is the truth something darker? Lonely Ann Barrett finds her way to a very provocative bookshelf indeed and soon starts hurling herself at poor Fischer. Daniel's spirit (if there is one) shows a very, shall we say, personal interest in Florence. Things get more and more bizarre, with a final showdown in a crypt involving a blood-soaked corpse, the hurling of insults and heavy objects alike, a lead-lined room, and a surprising discovery of false limbs. It's a great ride from start to finish.
Plus, just look at this bookshelf. How many movies have prop books like this? "Obsessive Acts And Religious Practices" indeed! "The Worship of Priapus." "The Anatomy of Abuses." I love it. I love "Hell House." Let's go!