There was a period of time when the cinematic world really had the haunted house picture figured out. From The Uninvited, The Haunting, and finally to The Legend of Hell House, the creatives of horror seemed to really tap into what makes the idea of a haunting so terrifying. That something that makes it terrifying is the unseen, the unknowable, the irrepressible. Unlike the current cinematic landscape of “more is more”, those films of the past preferred to stay in the dark, where less was definitely more. Instead of creatures and computer graphics, the threat lay just beyond our physical perception. This meant the movies tended to spend more time on the threats than the actions, as well as a noticeable amount of time spent on the characters themselves. Today’s Netflix Horror Pick, The Legend of Hell House, written by Richard Matheson and directed by John Hough, is indicative of this stylistic haunting film.
Much like the other films listed above, The Legend of House, deals with dark and serious subtext. The literal haunting is the MacGuffin, simply there to move the story along to a conclusion. The film itself deals with much more complicated ideas and themes than the idea of a “ghost”. The Legend of Hell House, though, seems much more interested in that underlying subtext than its peers. Consider that the plot, the haunting and the study of it, is introduced and put into action within the first two minutes of the film. No introduction to any background of characters, no attention grabbing scare, just the plot laid out simply and bare.
This means the rest of the film is four characters dealing with much darker hauntings than any traditional ghostly apparition. Every character has his or her own “demons” that they introduce to the Hell House equation. At the base of it all though is the very animalistic threat of lust and potential violence. At the very shallow level of subtext is the relationship between these two basic human depravities. There is sexual imagery throughout, as well as more blatant journeys into adultery, rape, and even the possibilities of an orgy. All of this plays out as the real danger, the real “haunting” of Hell House. The main ghost himself is a typical patriarchal figure who seems to be feeding these temptations. The mediums, one female and one male, are both conduits for the depravity. Violence and destruction manifesting quite literally through them.
Consider the subplot about the ghost, Daniel. A figure that represents all of these vices, sexual deviancy, violence, anger. They find his corpse literally in a closet. When that evil is finally let of the closet, so to speak, they attempt to reconcile and repress this evil through the religious rite of a funeral. That rite, that religion, ultimately fails and the evil that they all so desperately want to escape refuses to be ignored. Once religion fails, science enters to save the day. A scientifically researched machine to capture the evil is introduced. Predictably, this also fails. In the end, religion and science both fail to capture and repress the evil that lies at the base of all humanity.
Instead, the survivors of the incidents of the narrative find themselves somewhat defeated. Forced to, if not accept, reconcile that the evil is a base part of the human experience. While the finale shows the source of the evil as a masculinity fueled inferiority complex that is seemingly overcome, the optimism of the film seems understandably tempered. Two lines of dialogue between the two mediums captures the overall theme of the film quite nicely:
“We’ve made wonderful progress.”
“No, there is nothing in this house that we can handle.”