An old wheelchair-bound man who apparently has too much money hires a physicist named Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) to somehow come up with solid evidence that either proves or debunks the theory that there is indeed life after death. Barrett is assigned to investigate the Belasco House, which is known in certain circles as “Hell House” and “the Mount Everest of haunted houses”. The catch is that the original owner of the home, who has been dead for many years, partook in some rather questionable extracurricular activities when he was alive and has since gone on to remain in the home after death, terrorizing anyone who sets foot in it from beyond the grave. It’s revealed that every single person who has attempted to investigate the home has left in a bodybag, with the exception of a man named Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who will once again re-enter the Belasco House when he joins Barrett’s entourage along with Barrett’s wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) and a medium named Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin).
Of course it would be impossible to prove that there is in fact life after death unless the person doing the investigating actually dies and finds out first-hand, so Barrett – a skeptic – takes a scientific approach to the investigation (the test subject, of course, being Belasco’s spirit), which clashes with Tanner’s beliefs in the paranormal and leads to a small rivalry of sorts between the two. The science versus paranormal debate in this particular film is interesting in how it plays out throughout the movie; Barrett sticks to his guns even when there’s furniture flying around the house and people are being physically thrown by something invisible. Barrett’s skepticism is understandable, but because of how close-minded he is in regards to the suggestion of a haunting, he could be interpreted as someone who’s compromising the safety of not only himself but of the other people in the house by purposely avoiding the potential danger involved. However, in a subtle but clever element of character development, it’s revealed that Tanner possesses a certain trait that could be used as ammo for Barrett’s determination to debunk the haunting.
The filmmaking is stellar throughout The Legend of Hell House. The camera work in particular is consistently great, with tight close-up shots of faces and an interesting method of positioning objects and actors to create perspective. Great use of sound as well, including an early example of an electronic musical score, as well as effectively creepy sound effects during the scenes where a ghost is supposedly present. The ghost noises are especially eerie because they sound more like what’s referred to in the paranormal field as “EVP’s” rather than your typical horror movie voice from beyond the grave, in that you have to really listen closely to understand what’s being said. Also impressive are the physical spook gags throughout the film, some of which seem to defy practicality despite CGI obviously not being an option at the time.
It should also be said that, aside from the overall presentation of the film, the acting is also a highlight. Despite the character development being gradual, the four central actors seem like naturals in their roles rather than a bunch of people who are simply playing parts. The film has an inherently claustrophobic feel because of the setting and because of the intimacy of the cinematography that I mentioned earlier, and the actors’ progressively intense performances and drastic character arcs are certainly reflective of a group of people who are losing their minds as a result of their surroundings. The Legend of Hell House slows down quite a bit towards the end as it builds to a bizarre twist and a fairly anti-climactic conclusion, but the film as a whole is an undeniable masterclass in style.