The Legend of Hell House (1973)
There aren‘t many horror films that can be described as masterpieces. As a genre, it’s often overlooked when compared with other dramatic offerings in the art form, but though few and far between masterpieces do exist. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is one, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, along with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, can all claim this accolade in spades, and though a little known horror classic, The Legend of Hell House can truly stand up tall with the best of them – maybe be a little smug about it too (it can certainly look down from a large height and spit on the celluloid heads of less worthy offerings such as The Exorcist, and not feel guilty at all – that guy totally deserves it.)
Three experts in the field of the supernatural are hired to prove the existence of life after death, Lionel Barratt (a parapsychologist – now there’s a job my careers advisor never suggested to me), his not at all clingy wife Ann, Florence Tanner (a medium) and Benjamin Fischer (both a medium and sole survivor of the last blood bath/ ghost hunting expedition to the house) will each receive the not too shabby sum of £100,000 if they spend a week in the notoriously nicknamed ‘Hell House’ and emerge with proof of survival of the spirit after death. Sounds like a good gig right? Where are all the mad millionaires offering me monopoly money to stay in haunted houses?! I think as jobs go, it’s one I could do without getting the sack. No Really.
So they get there, and things pretty much go from goosebumps to ‘get me the phone number for the nearest Travel Lodge’ in about five minutes, but as there’s the promise of the best weeks wage packet they’ll ever see, our gang of Scoobies aren’t going anywhere. They have tea together around the imposing table in the cobwebby dining room and the psychologically damaged psychic Fischer tells us the story of the deceased owner of the place. Turns out the guy wasn’t very nice – and by not very nice we mean that Satan went to one of this dudes parties and got real uncomfortable about some of the stuff that was going on. So much so he made up a story about being double parked and scurried his hooves back to hell sharpish, and locked the door behind him.
£100,000 isn’t looking so rosy right now is it kids, what with inflation and all that?
The thing about this film is that the scares are so subtle and there is a build up of such psychological tension, that it makes me sad that in all of the taboo busting, gore FX, sex infused breakthroughs of the years that followed The Legend of Hell House, that we lost the art of a good spine tingler somewhere on the way. Don’t get me wrong – I love the bone breaking, blood spattered, whorish ways of the modern horror, but when I watch something like this, it definitely flies the flag for ‘Less is More’ with pride.