Written by Richard Matheson, based upon his novel Hell House
Directed by John Hough
Pamela Franklin: Florence Tanner
Roddy McDowall: Benjamin Franklin Fischer
Clive Revill: Dr. Barrett
Gayle Hunnicutt: Ann Barrett
Roland Culver: Mr. Deutsch
Peter Bowles: Hanley
And an uncredited Michael Gough as Emeric Belasco
Man, the Seventies were the best decade for horror. Look at that poster up there--a one-eyeballed skull bleeding onto what I assume is a woman's dead hand and it's rated PG! That's glorious. It's also really promising. Richard Matheson was a hell of a writer (he's one of the main reasons The Twilight Zone is a legendary television show) and he knew how to make television and film stories work and how that differs from the way novels or short stories succeed. So it's pretty promising from before the first frame of the movie shows up in front of my eyeballs. This is another one of those "the genre changed right after this came out" movies, too--as I've mentioned in other reviews, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist were financially and artistically successful enough to make imitation the sincerest form of coattail riding. You can divide mainstream horror film into two sections, with the Big Big Hits of 1974 the dividing line. After those two, things would become much more explicit and foul (this is not a bad thing) and before it, the big studios tended to make horror films with a little bit of class. The protagonists of fright flicks generally stopped wearing suits and neckties after Leatherface hit the scene.
Oh, hell yeah--we start the movie with a caption saying that yes, it's a fictitious story, but all the psychic phenomena that we're about to see are "not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true". It's signed by "Tom Corbett", a man with mental powers so magnificent and useful that he is listed as a "Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty". And totally not a name that Matheson used for the movie because there was a science-fiction character of the same name who was called a Space Cadet in his various radio, comic-strip and television adventures.
The first person to speak is a massively wealthy decrepit old British dude in a wheelchair, Mr. Deutsch. He tells Dr. Barrett, a top-flight psychic researcher, that he'll be paid 100,000 pounds for one week's work to prove that human consciousness persists after death. He also acts and speaks as if everything's all settled, but Barrett didn't even know what he was supposed to be doing for that money until Deutsch told him. To hear Barrett say it, he's a physicist by trade and not a Ghostbuster. Deutsch says he wants "the facts" as Barrett finds them, and then tells the researcher that those facts can be found at The Belasco House, which both Barrett and Deutsch then refer to as its more dreadful nickname. Even more disconcerting, Barrett says that the Belasco family had the house sealed up and abandoned "after what happened". Deutsch says he was able to buy the house because the Belascos need money, tells Barrett he's expected to start Monday and also mentions two mediums that will be working with him. One is Florence Tanner, a young woman who believes she has the divinely-gifted ability to speak with spirits of the dead and the other is "the only survivor from the last attempt". Good grief, this dialogue is awesome and hearing it in a British accent only makes it better.
Fischer is the guy who lived through the previous experiments at Hell House, and Barrett knows him by name. And as soon as Barrett states that he knows who is co-investigators are going to be Deutsch reiterates that he expects proof of life after death within the next week. The terms are there for Barrett to either agree or refuse, but that 100,000 pound paycheck means that both he and Deutsch know what he's going to be doing. Deutsch wheels himself off to go do something else in his cavernous mansion while Dr. Barrett finds his way to the door. Ominous tones on the soundtrack echo as a subtitle points out that it's Friday, December 17, and exactly 4:08 PM. That's quite precise.
Barrett is escorted off the mansion grounds by one of Deutsch's assistants, who says that the power should be turned on at the Belasco house and wants to know what Barrett's going to need in order to fulfill the terms of his contract with Deutsch. There's some kind of electronic apparatus that Barrett's designed but apparently never built. He will be getting it no later than Wednesday during the experimental session, and it sounds like it's going to be really expensive to assemble and difficult to operate. Well, that's what you get when the top psychic researcher in the UK gets a nearly blank check to verify a question that's been open since the first time a proto-human wondered where that spark in another proto-human's eyes went after it died.
While Hanley, one of Deutsch's employees, drives Dr. Barrett back home, he tells his wife Ann that he doesn't want her to be there for this investigation, which is not the usual way of things for the couple. Ann won't hear of it; she wants to be there when her husband makes the greatest scientific discovery of this or any age. But he's not so certain her presence is a good idea, calling it the "Mount Everest of haunted houses". Whatever happened at Hell House twenty years ago left only one investigator alive out of nine participants, so one of the questions worth considering for this latest attempt is whether or not the spirits in there got weaker in two decades in the sealed up mansion...or stronger.
One assumes that the Barretts spent their weekend packing and making sure their wills are up to date, because the film jumps forward to Monday, December 20 at 9:13 AM. I have to say I really like the misplaced love of accuracy that lets the viewer know that the shit's going to hit the fan, down to the exact minute that it is launched. Preparing to stand in the path of the fan-dispersed feces along with the Barretts and is Benjamin Fischer, a "physical medium" manifests spiritual phenomena like table rapping or objects moving without being touched. The various people all get dropped off at the Belasco mansion after a nicely atmospheric ride through fog and mist. Hanley hands the house keys over to Dr. Barrett, says the fridge is fully stocked and the power is on, and that he'll be back on the 25th to pick everyone up. Everyone who's still alive at the end of this, thinks each and every person watching the movie.
The fog-shrouded mansion serves as a backdrop to the opening titles, which appear in a plain blocky font rather than a spooky typeface. I like a film that doesn't oversell its menace. The four investigators walk towards the mansion (while the credits reveal that Doctor Who theme composer Delia Derbyshire did the score!) and a black cat walks around on the brick wall marking the edge of the Belasco House property. One of the women notices the windows have all been bricked up. Fischer, the one who lived through the prior investigation of the house, says it's so nobody could see in. Apparently Emeric Belasco liked his privacy, and also didn't care to be reminded of the outside world if he could avoid it. The key works perfectly in the front door, which opens with a properly satisfying creak. Fittingly enough, the lights won't turn on when Dr. Barrett flicks the switch. Florence Tanner isn't even three steps in past the front door before she says that the house knows people have come into it. And Fischer winds up guiding Dr. Barrett to the emergency generator since he knows where it is. I imagine he's got plenty of reasons to feel apprehensive in there, but being the only one who knows where anything is won't be at the top of the list. That's just going to get on his nerves the fifth time somebody needs to find the bathroom.
The lights come back on while Mrs. Barrett and Miss Tanner talk about how unpleasant they find the house to be. And it's a triumph of location and production design--plenty of echoing halls, high ceilings, cobwebs, dim lights and antiques. One could easily see Miss Havisham plotting in one of these rooms, shut away from the world for decades. Probably not in the chapel, though. One might not expect a place of worship in Hell House, but when the door is opened Miss Tanner gets a brain full of images that suggest the Christian god was not the being that was reverenced in that room. But it's the sobbing that she hears in a silent empty room when she sits down that make the audience realize that every square foot of the mansion has had something horrible take place in it.
Back in the chapel (complete with SUPER CREEPY cobwebbed Jesus statue), Mrs. Barrett asks her husband what's up with Florence Tanner not even being able to set foot in that room. The doctor explains that Miss Tanner can feel psychic emanations and perceive things on a level that baseline humans cannot understand. He and his wife just stand in a room and look around; Florence stands near that same room and feels the influence of things that happened there in the past. As for Benjamin Fischer, he's got the mental discipline to shield himself from whatever influences are trying to locate a fingerhold in his psyche. And we get a nice slow-burn exchange from Dr. Barrett and Fischer while walking around, calling out for Florence and not getting a reply. "I'm sure it's nothing." "Are you?". He might look like a dweeb but Fischer knows what's going on.
Florence heard a voice that turned out to be a phonograph record with Emeric Belasco's voice on it, welcoming people to his house. "Think of me as your unseen host" can be taken literally or metaphorically, but I'm willing to bet that at least some part of Belasco has stayed in his house after the death of his physical body--if it didn't, we wouldn't have a movie. The message says that the people gathered to hear it will find the answers that they're looking for. The record also shows that Belasco may well have been psychic, because he would have had to record the greeting to the 1973 group of investigators (signing off with "Auf wiedersehen", which is in German, which the language itself calls Deutsch, which is the last name of the person who paid for everyone to be at Hell House). A literal translation of that German farewell is also "until we see each other again". It's not too late to return your fees and leave, everybody.
Fischer says that among Belasco's psychic gifts was the ability to influence people to go to a particular place or become attracted to an object, and then cloud their perceptions so he could be right by them without the people noticing. Dr. Barrett doubts that, although Fischer doubts that he really does--after all, with everyone looking at the gramophone while it was playing, anyone could have snuck past if they were cautious enough. There's a great cut to a long shot after Fischer mentions this; a huge empty shadow-wreathed room with cobwebs everywhere. It's very atmospheric. Then a dusty wind from nowhere stirs the cobwebs and it gets even better.
That evening (at dinner, at exactly 6:42 PM) the dinner conversation revolves around whether or not the haunted house is as terrifying as its reputation would have led the quartet to believe. Fischer says the house is conserving its strength until it knows how to most effectively work against them while Miss Tanner believes that the house is not the entity at work--rather, that there is more than one spirit haunting the same physical location. Barrett scoffs, and says he doesn't believe in the soul's survival after death at all (which raises the question of what exactly he's going to be doing there over the next few days, and why Mr. Deutsch is paying him so much to be there). As the post-dinner coffee is enjoyed, Fischer rattles off facts about Emeric Belasco and the construction of the manor house. Emeric Belasco was born in 1879, the bastard son of an American weapons manufacturer. His second wife described him as a demon in human form. When he was thirty years old he had Belasco House built (one assumes there's lots of money in building the better rifle, artillery piece or machine gun, and 1919 would have been a great time to relax and spend some money now that all the big governmental orders for poison gas shells and land mines aren't coming quite so fast). Belasco was a massive person, standing six and a half feet tall during a time when malnutrition and dietary deficiencies would have been epidemic among virtually every social class. His nickname was "the Roaring Giant", which is a totally boss thing to be called.
Since the Great War was over and it'd be a long while before the world had another spasm of nationalistic murder-urge on a continent-wide level, it stands to reason that Belasco would withdraw from the world and amuse himself in his country manor. That turns out to have meant booze and drugs in quantities that would destroy all of the Rolling Stones at the same time and a shopping list of crimes and sexual perversions up to and including cannibalism and necrophilia. (Tanner: "How did it end?" Fischer: "If it had ended, we would not be here.")
Dr. Barrett promises that the story of Emeric Belasco is going to end that week; back in 1929 when the house was eventually broken into by concerned relatives of Belasco's guests, the authorities found twenty-seven dead bodies but Emeric Belasco's corpse was never found. Once that information is relayed, Miss Tanner says she'd like to try and hold a sitting so she can contact any spirits that are still bound to the house. Fischer says he's not up to trying his own methods at the moment and declines to try it either that evening or the next day.
Later that night, Florence Tanner holds a sitting, asking the "spirit of love and tenderness" to assist her in contacting the spirits in Belasco House that have not moved on to their celestial (or infernal) rewards. She tries to enter a trance state while sitting near the fireplace (one assumes that stone mansions built in 1919 don't have central heating, so this makes a lot of sense). The three other investigators watch as Miss Tanner intones that the mansion is an evil house, host to physical and spiritual disease. She appears to contact one particular spirit that must speak to the gathered trio. Then the voice modulator kicks in and we get a creepy warning from that particular ghost--"Get out or I'll hurt you,"--after it also said that nothing changes and whatever the four people are trying to do at Belsasco house, it won't end well. The spirit also says it doesn't want to hurt anyone, but must kill them all if they don't leave. Ashtrays and decanters rattle on a table as the spirit gets more agitated and then Florence falls out of her trance. Thankfully, Dr. Barrett had a tape recorder running the whole time. He also points out that Miss Tanner isn't a physical medium--she's strictly voice-only, or has been for her entire career so far. But the various objects moving around prove that she is one now. Apparently the house or something in it is amplifying her talents.
Still later in the evening, the Barretts are retiring to bed. Dr. Barrett explains to his wife that Miss Tanner wasn't expecting any of the physical effects of her psychic trance. They discuss things a bit and the doctor also says he's not sure that Fischer wasn't causing all the various objects to move (which is a possibility I hadn't even thought of). It isn't like there's some way to tell which psychic is doing what when you have two of them and an indeterminate number of angry spirits in a room. At least one manifestation goes into Miss Tanner's bedroom that night, creaking the door open and shut while a ghostly wind howls. She asks (rather politely, given the circumstances) who it is and enters her trance in order to talk to the spirit. Florence figures out that the spirit is in considerable pain and decides that the Roaring Giant wouldn't have been upset about anything that happened in Belasco House and decides it must be the spirit of Daniel Belasco instead. When the manifestation tries to prank her, Florence mocks it in return (asking how such a powerful spirit could still be trapped in the house); she then hears spectral weeping before some objects get tipped over and the door opens and slams shut.
Over breakfast, Florence shares her theory about the persistent manifestation of Daniel Belasco's spirit--he was young and frightened when he died, which means the spirit is frightened and angry, and can be provoked to lash out rather easily, whether on purpose or simply by accident. If she can talk the spirit into going on to the afterlife, the hauntings in Belasco House will be lessened (if there are other spirits around) or eliminated completely (if Daniel was the only entity remaining at that point). Dr. Barrett decides to have Tanner hold another sitting, this time with him taking notes and monitoring her vital signs. He's also got electric leads attached to her skin and has them hooked up to something called a "dynamometer" but whatever Dr. Barrett is using, it's not what Wikipedia says when you look that term up. He dictates his case notes into a Dictaphone, which may or may not be affecting Miss Tanner's ability to communicate with the nearby spirits. But possibly not, as something breaks an electromagnetic beam and causes infrared cameras to go off (which is a diegetic reason for the scene to be lit with red lights). Lots of dials and readouts on the various sensing equipment start to show evidence of something being in there other than the four people.
Ectoplasm starts to form at Miss Tanner's fingertips and moving through the air; this isn't proof of ghostly visitors, but it certainly is evidence of something happening. Dr. Barrett asks the visiting spirit to leave some ectoplasm in his sample jar, which it does--but then contact between Miss Tanner and the ghost breaks off suddenly and painfully (Ann Barrett blames herself, but I don't think the audience is supposed to agree with her). There's an amazingly brief checkup from Dr. Barrett before he decides that Tanner's unharmed from whatever happened and Fischer moves in to look her over with his third eye and confirm Barrett's diagnosis.
It turns out that Dr. Barrett has a little ectoplasm left over and he's prepared a microscope slide of it. He calls it "mind reduced to matter" while explaining that it's a substance produced from nearby materials as well as some of the medium's own body. Now that he's got a piece of it that he can look at, again, that's quite the revelation but it falls short of the "prove whether or not some aspect of human consciousness persists after the death of the body". Also, I'm really sad that I didn't get to watch a scene of Dr. Barrett unpacking his Ghost Detection Kit, because he's got some cool gear.
Back in Miss Tanner's bedroom, there's a shape underneath her covers moving around, but when she pulls the sheets back there's nothing there (a great practical effect). We do get to hear another ghostly wind / sighing sound, and the door opens and slams again. But with an invisible presence, there's not really any way to identify it. Could it be Daniel Belasco's spirit again, or is it something else? Was it the same entity the first time and the second? The psychic characters know as much as the audience at this point--and we only have Florence's hunch that it's Daniel's soul to go on, for that matter.
When she tells Dr. Barrett that she had another visitation, he asks if that is the case (echoing what Fischer had been doing to him earlier, and possibly intentionally imitating it). Tanner lets him have it, asking why psychic powers have to be demonstrated to scientific satisfaction in order to be proved useful--or even existent. (Tim the Viewer immediately asks: Well, if they don't work all the time they're not all that useful, are they?) Barrett tries to get a word in edgewise but Tanner steamrolls over him, and when she winds up her justifiable tirade it turns out that she views her abilities--which have screwed up her life and don't pay well--as a manifestation of God's power that work through her to bring peace to suffering spirits (and she lists an impressive catalogue of "supernatural" events that were mentioned in the Bible). Whereas we've seen Dr. Barrett using the tools of scientific investigation and have heard him say that he doesn't think it's human personalities doing anything that have been recorded as supernatural phenomena. It's round 6,450 of Faith Vs. Reason, then, instead of the argument we might have expected.
When Dr. Barrett starts (rather calmly, to his credit) to respond to the medium, his tea cup and wine glass both shatter, then the entire table--which much weigh several hundred pounds--and all the dishes and silverware on it start to jump around. That's just the opening act--pretty much everything in the room takes a shot at killing the doctor and there's enough heavy furniture in there to give it a sincere try (also, I now know where the poltergeist boss in the second level of Splatterhouse came from). Florence Tanner manages to bring the manifestation to a close before anyone gets injured or killed and then immediately tells Fischer that he has to leave, rather than Dr. Barrett! She says that his powers as a physical medium are being hijacked by something in the house and that he's a continuing danger to everyone there. Barrett stomps off to get a few superficial cuts taken care of and accuses Tanner of trying to get rid of both him and Fischer; the physical medium, for his part, says that Miss Tanner is the one who should leave Belasco House because she's the one whose abilities are being taken advantage of.
Then, true to form, everyone splits up. That's always a survival tactic in situations like this. Ann thinks her husband should leave before he gets hurt again (or worse), paycheck or no paycheck and research or no research. Dr. Barrett snaps at his wife, saying he won't get hurt again because he says so. He also accuses Florence of attacking him with her amped-up psychic abilities, which makes sense only if you think she's doing it subconsciously because everything Miss Tanner said about her gifts and why she's using them don't allow them to be wielded against someone else in anger. But if something else in the room was hijacking them to take a swing at Dr. Barrett, well, I'd buy that a lot sooner. For that matter, the scientists believes that to be the case, but still blames Tanner for focusing her ire on him.
When the Barretts hear a knock at their bedroom door they exchange a Significant Glance and Ann lets Miss Tanner in to talk to them. Florence believes that the spirit of Edward Belasco is trying to divide and conquer the three people in the house (she doesn't count Ann, who isn't a medium or an investigator). She thinks that if they present a united front the ghosts won't be able to overcome them. She also says she wants to hold another sitting in the morning, which Dr. Barrett isn't going to do. The penny drops and Florence realizes that she's being blamed for the attacks and Dr. Barrett's injury. She denies being responsible, but Dr. Barrett says there's no such person as Edward Belasco and Tanner leaves after flatly telling him he's wrong.
A quick cut to that black cat walking around outside reminds the audience of the world outside Belasco House (and also makes me wonder if the cat's going to be more significant by the end of the movie than it would appear--it's shown up twice now). That night, Ann comes to bed only to find her husband is already out cold. She looks at a piece of erotic sculpture (which seems to move in the flickering lamplight), and the house takes a shot at possessing her. Or she was just hallucinating. Incidentally, the moaning noises on the soundtrack when she sees the shadow of the statue move were a bit more explicit than I would have expected from a PG-rated film. When Ann gets up to have a medicinal shot of whiskey she notices all the books on the shelf above the liquor cabinet are about sex; she selects a copy of Autoerotic Phenomena as a little light bedtime reading.
Down in the dining room, Fischer is having a drink and probably trying not to think of the seven other people who were killed, crippled or driven insane by the last investigation at Belasco House. Ann Barrett slinks into the room (moving completely differently than she has at any other point in the narrative) and gives seducing the medium the old college try. Which means she proposes an orgy with all four inhabitants of the house (as well as any nearby spirits) and removes her robe--though, since it's a PG film, we do only see her back and shoulders. Fischer slaps her to bring her out of her trance. She is appalled to find herself naked in front of a stranger, puts the robe back on and flees. Meanwhile, Miss Tanner is exploring the house in order to prove that Edward Belasco really existed. Muffled voices and psychic impressions lead her to a section of brick wall; a sliding panel moves aside and whatever Florence found in there escapes, trying to telekinetically strangle her. When Dr. Barrett looks inside the wall he sees a mummified corpse shackled to the wall, so Tanner's abilities do appear to have some basis in reality.
A makeshift funeral for Edward Belasco is held, with his body buried on the manor grounds but that night Florence has a nightmare that Belasco can't move on to the afterlife, and is still stuck on the grounds. He begs her to help in and she does that sit-bolt-upright-and-yell-NO! nightmare reaction that only happens in movies. Then that black cat from two cutaway scenes pads into her room and gets chucked by a stagehand onto Miss Tanner, attacking her. She sustains minor scratches in the first round but the cat attacks her two more times before she escapes the room. It even tries reaching under the bedroom door to get her one she's gone, which is a little more purposeful than you usually see with a cat.
The next morning, the VIC-20 version of Colossus gets dropped off and installed in the foyer (and I noticed that there's no power cables coming from the machine, so I guess it's got about six hundred D batteries loaded into a panel in the back). Dr. Barrett was to preoccupied with the installation of his electronic device to notice anything else, so it's a surprise to him when Fischer points out that Miss Tanner was bitten and scratched by something in the night. Florence agrees that it was a cat, but says that Daniel Belasco was in the drivers' seat when she got clawed. Dr. Barrett offers to examine Florence; she declines, but does accept a bottle of antiseptic and some cloth pads so her scratches don't get infected. There's some passive-aggressive commentary from Dr. Barrett about whether or not Florence should leave; after the doctor goes back downstairs to goof with his gigantic slab of computer parts Fischer sits down next to Miss Tanner and suggests that it might be safer for her to leave Belasco House before something worse than a house cat tries to take a piece out of her.
Intriguingly enough, Fischer thinks that there is definitely some spirit that attacked Florence the previous night (as well as Dr. Barrett), but doesn't think it's Daniel Belasco striking from beyond the grave ("Daniel Belasco does exist! We found his body." "We also laid him to rest. So why is he not at rest?"). Miss Tanner has a theory. She calls it "controlled multiple haunting"--in a nutshell, it's one chief ghost dominating the other spirits in a haunted house. So whether or not Daniel Belasco's body was laid to rest, his soul is still trapped in Belasco House by the ghost of the Roaring Giant. And if Florence is right, Emeric Belasco is the chessmaster behind all the different manifestations that have been bedeviling the quartet of investigators (including the one she doesn't know anything about, where Ann Barrett went downstairs to hook up with Fischer while she was possessed).
Speaking of Ann, she sneaks up on Fischer when he's looking over the apparatus that Dr. Barrett had delivered. She puts the moves on the medium again, calling him "Ben" instead of by his last name and gripes that her husband is off sleeping while she feels amorous. When she starts describing all the "debauchery and vice" that happened around the dinner table in decades past it becomes obvious that she's under the influence of the house (the real Ann Barrett would never put a glass down on a wooden table without using a coaster) and Fischer tries to talk her down. As the thudding noises become louder on the soundtrack, Fischer tries to reach Ann by telling her the house is influencing her behavior; she says the house isn't doing anything to her at all. Of course Dr. Barrett looks down on her from the upstairs balcony just in time to hear her yell "Touch me or I'll find somebody who will!". Ann faints when she realizes she's been overheard (or the shock of seeing her husband allows Ann to throw the ghost out of her and the effort makes her pass out; either way, she's out cold seconds after looking up to see him).
After Ann wakes up, she's telling her husband that she'd give anything to undo what she did under the malign influence of Belasco House and he gives her the silent treatment (at this point I am hoping for a poltergeist to slap him around for an hour like he got stuck in a Sam Raimi movie). Despite what Ann is telling him about how little control she had over her actions, he doesn't put two and two together about what's going on. For a skeptical rationalist, he's got some massive, massive blind spots about the limits of his vision and ability. But he's at least a good enough person to try and reassure Ann that everything's going to be better once they get out of Belasco House. Fischer tries to talk to the doctor about getting Ann the hell out of the house before something bad happens. It's the third or fourth time that Dr. Barrett tries to have a conversation and gets rolled over by the other person. When Fischer tells the doctor about his wife's previous behavior under the house's influence, Barrett gets irritable: "You should have told me." "No, doctor. She should have."
Fischer points out that Dr. Barrett, Florence and Ann have all been influenced one way or another by the house or some entity dwelling inside it. Dr. Barrett counters by saying that Fischer's been guarding himself every minute he's been in the house and accuses the medium of being worthless at what they're trying to do. We get a quick voiceover from Fischer in which he says he's not blocking anything--he just isn't poking around mentally like he did in the disastrous 1953 expedition. Seconds after he takes his glasses off, tough, he gets psychically attacked by something and it's painful enough to knock him out of a chair so he can writhe around on the ground. When Miss Tanner shows up to give him a pep talk about solving the problems in Belasco House, Fischer thinks the only progress they're making is towards their imminent deaths. He makes the actually good point that yes, a body was found chained up in a secret alcove, but they don't know at all who that murder victim really was. It could be anyone in the world other than Daniel Belasco and they'd never know better.
When Florence says she just knows she's right, Fischer counters that the group in 1953 knew they were right, too, and he's the only one who escaped alive and sane from that fiasco. He recites the fates of everyone who didn't make it from the 1953 group, lost in a reverie while thinking of the past. I'm pretty sure if I'd lived through that mess it would have taken more than a hundred grand to get me to walk back in through that door. The last thing Fischer says to Miss Tanner is that he's trying to live through the next few days so he can cash his check and then never be within a thousand miles of Belasco House for the rest of his life. He tells his fellow medium that he really hopes she'll do the same, and stop putting herself needlessly in danger by poking around in hidden rooms and trying to contact spirits.
Seconds later, Miss Tanner walks into one of the mansions' bathrooms since she heard running water. A trickle of blood is flowing out from the shower-stall door. When she opens the door there's nobody there, but she looks down to see the cat that attacked her dead (details later). Which means we get to see Pamela Franklin execute not one but two hand-over-mouth-in-panic reaction shots in this scene, the first with her eyes open and the second with them closed. It's part of the expectations of the genre and she pulls both off amazingly.
Meanwhile, Dr. Barrett is fine-tuning his eleven hundred pound iPad in the foyer and politely declining his wife's offer to help with whatever he's doing because it's a complicated and delicate machine and he'd rather be angry at himself if something goes wrong than snap at her. He does show more warmth towards her and gives a genuine smile when he refuses, though, which I didn't expect. Turns out the device is going to interfere with the energy in the house--if Dr. Barrett's theories work out the way he's expecting, the machine is going to disrupt the spiritual energy in Belasco House, leaving it completely empty of supernatural influences, malign or otherwise. Fischer says that the machine isn't going to work and that Barrett's going to get himself and Ann killed if he tries using it. According to the only person with previous Belasco House experience, the building and the powers that dwell within it don't mind guests, but they hate being attacked.
That machine--which none of the murdered party guests from 1929 or Emeric Belasco himself could have even imagined when they were alive--is something that Fischer expects will provoke every spirit in Hell House into a murderous fury. And it's going to get at least three of the investigators killed, according to him, if Dr. Barrett turns it on. He recommends waiting until Sunday for the seven days in the house to elapse, telling Mr. Deutsch whatever sounds like it will please the decrepit old man the most, and enjoying a hundred thousand pounds at a safe distance from the house. Dr. Barrett doesn't have to say a word in order for Fischer to realize that his words are falling on deaf ears. Ah, well. At least he'll have the notoriety of not getting killed in Hell House twice if his predictions pan out. Dr. Barrett tells Ann (and himself) that he's right, the mediums are both wrong, and tomorrow when he flips the switch on his big machine he'll be proved right after all. He's got the dialogue of a mad scientist but not the intensity.
Meanwhile, Florence hears a voice whispering "Please..." over and over but when she gets into the chapel she hears screaming from beyond the veil and flees. Which puts her in the foyer, where more than one voice echo in her head, asking her for help as the image on screen whirls sickeningly. She tries to tell Daniel Belasco that she can't help him any more than she already has. The voice asks her to help him and to love him. It apparently drew an equals sign between those two requests, and Florence eventually submits to that request after praying for guidance and protection from God while trying to help the spirit she keeps calling Daniel Belasco. She turns out the light, strips, and gets into bed (and the covers move on their own, which means that she's sharing her bed with a spirit that she's trying to help the only way it will let her). This is another scene that boggles my mind at the film's PG rating. At some point during the lovemaking Florence opens her eyes and whatever she sees on top of her makes her scream in terror. Fischer tries to shoulder her bedroom door open but he's too much of a weenie to have any effect. The Barretts arrive and the doctor gets the door to respond; shen the get inside there are bruises and scratches all over Florence's back but she smiles and laughs at their concern creepily--there's someone else driving the bus in there now.
Fischer watches over Miss Tanner as she sleeps, which isn't nearly as creepy as it sounds. When she wakes up she wonders how long the other medium was sitting there on guard and says that she would have happily shared her bed with him. Then, for a moment, Florence regains control of herself and says "He's inside me," while Edward Belasco's spirit loses control of her for a moment. Fischer says he'll take the other medium out of the house, which will keep her safe and get her away from the spirit that possessed her. Miss Tanner doesn't think the ghost will voluntarily leave her. Fischer says the ghost can't beat him, which leads to it taking full control of Tanner for a moment to smack-talk him. In the main dining room, Dr. Barrett is there to wish Fischer lots of luck and tell him he doesn't need to come back if he doesn't feel like it after he drops Miss Tanner off somewhere safe, dry and distant. After all, once his machine runs through its paces the entire house will be purged of its supernatural entities.
Dr. Barrett's plan is to electronically purge the house of its malign spirits--he gives a pretty well-considered technobabble explanation of ghostly behaviors by saying that some of the electromagnetic energy radiated by all living things appears to be able to survive the death of the body. In a place like Hell House, so much energy has been absorbed for so long that some of the individual manifestations can tap it and do things like the poltergeist attacks or the possessions of Miss Tanner, Ann or the cat (interestingly, none of the spirits tried to possess either of the men in the house). According to Dr. Barrett, the energy simulates the actions of living, thinking personalities without ever actually being wielded by them. He calls it "mindless, directionless power" that's lashing out at everyone in turn. Miss Tanner believes that by using his machine he'll be tormenting all the spirits that are still bound to Belasco House, sending them painfully on to another hell. Of course Barrett thinks he's right and plans to go ahead with his scheme regardless of what Florence tells him. Once he hits that switch, all his theories about hauntings will be confirmed and Hell House will be emptied of its so-called spirits.
If Dr. Barrett was a psychic, he might have seen it coming. Miss Tanner decides that beating up the machine with a fireplace poker is the only way to keep the scientist from making a horrible mistake. Barrett punches her out before she can do anything more than break the glass on a couple indicators rather than damage anything really important. Barrett considers this further proof that he must be right if the person most susceptible to the bad vibes in Belasco House wants to smash his toy. Once she wakes up Florence goes to the chapel (via a nifty POV camera that's supposed to represent a human being walking there, not a ghost in motion--we can hear her shoes clacking on the marble floor). She calls out for Daniel Belasco while she's in there, and gets overwhelmed by different voices as that ghostly wind blows through the air. She still tries to work as the voice of reason and help Daniel's spirit move on but a telekinetic shove to something big and heavy in the chapel smashes her to the ground before she's got time to scream more than once.
Fischer is the only one to notice she's gone while Dr. Barrett is goofing with his machine and Ann is watching her husband. By the time anyone gets to the chapel, it's far too late for Miss Tanner and she's the only one who really knows what happens to the souls of people that die in Hell House. She left a B written in her own blood before she died, though, which means "Belasco", I'm sure, but which one? Dr. Barrett turns on the machine, which goes through its paces inside the mansion while dust falls from the ceilings and various echoey ghost voices cry out. Which nobody in the main cast hears, because they all went outside when Barrett hit the switch--it's a moment that only exists for the viewing audience rather than the characters in the film.
Since none of the investigators know what's happened, Dr. Barrett asks Fischer to open himself to the house's influence to see if there's anything spectral waiting to attack them again. Fischer doesn't look thrilled to be the canary in this particular coal mine, but goes ahead with this obviously not-terrible plan anyway. And it does look like things are going to be all right, but then Ann asks her husband if everything's well and truly over and he says that it is. Never say that in a haunted house! I haven't liked Dr. Barrett through this whole movie, despite his belief structure mimicking my own, but when he decides to tell his wife "I told you so" after everything they've been through I decided that I wanted the house to grow arms out of the marble floor and slap him to death over the course of the rest of the weekend.
Fischer returns from his walking tour of Belasco House and says that it's completely clear--he's surprised at not being attacked and praises the machine that Dr. Barrett designed, apologizing for his earlier statements re: Barrett's theory and the machine's usefulness. All we need is for a cop to walk in and say he's one week from retiring in order to hit the foreshadowing drum any harder. When Dr. Barrett goes back to the machine to check some readings it comes to live, clicking and beeping to signal that something's happening around him. Kudos to the sound designers for this sequence, because the signals from the apparatus sound reminiscent of a Geiger counter but not exactly like one (or at least what one sounds like in a movie). Rather than run away because bad stuff is coming down, Barrett looks at the evidence right in front of his eyes and says he won't accept it--a fine attitude from a scientist. One of the machines explodes, injuring Dr. Barrett's face. Then his wife comes looking for him, walking around a big empty echoing house calling his name. When she sees the wrecked ghost-detection equipment she fears the worst, and follows the sound of Fischer's voice to her husband's body, who didn't dodge the second time a heavy iron chandelier was dropped on him from the ceiling. The chapel's where he died, too, which has to mean something. Ann runs away in a screaming panic and faints when she comes across Fischer.
And now the final duel can begin properly--Fischer says he has to go back into the chapel in order to finish things up; Ann just wants to get out of Hell House and never look back at this point. She tells Fischer he doesn't know what it's like in that chapel, but he's the only person who would. And he says his entire life will be a failure if he doesn't go back in there and break the will of Emeric Belasco or die trying. Ann thinks that the only possible outcome is one more corpse in Hell House; Fischer says that's acceptable. But he has to try.
The chapel is the only place in Hell House that's still haunted, which leads Fischer to go in and try to
probe around with his ESP-augmented intuition. The first thing he figures out is that the B drawn by Florence as she died meant that only Emeric Belasco's spirit had survived to torment everyone--he was apparently impersonating his own son and the other people who died in his mansion for his own amusement. Hey, once you're beyond the grave you don't get the BBC. You've got to do something when you get bored. That supercharged intuition pays off while Fischer rambles like a Scooby-Doo character about people getting crippled and having their legs smashed by the various attacks in the house. He tells Ann not to interfere, and then calls out to Emeric Belasco to kill both him and Ann if he can. And another chandelier falls on him, but Ann shoves him out of the way.
Then it's time for Roddy McDowall to set his acting throttle to "Full Ham", screaming at Belasco's spirit about what he's just figured out and listing all the reasons that the man wanted to block out the sun and never leave his house once it had been built. A telekinetic shove sends him sprawling on the floor, which just means that his insults are landing. Calling Belasco's mother a bitch seems a little beyond the pale, though. Fischer keeps getting slapped around as he continues to verbally assault Belasco's spirit, sweat standing out on his face and screaming into the ghostly wind. Which is why it's such a disappointment that the final mystery's solution hinges on Emeric Belasco's body concealed behind a hidden panel in the chapel, preserved by his psychic powers for decades after his death. Well, most of his body, because Belasco had a world-class case of Short Man's Disease, and had his own legs severed so he could have prosthetics that made him taller. I would have just gone with elevator shoes myself, but my ego isn't as towering as Emeric's. Also, the false legs on the body look way, way too modern to have been used by Emeric while he was still alive.
The room with Belasco's body in it was lined with lead; that prevented Dr. Barrett's machine from exorcising him, although if he saw it coming from 1929 he probably should have seen Fischer turning it on a second time and clearing Hell House of all its malign influences at the end. It's an ending that really undercuts the slow-building power of the film quite badly and it makes me wonder how the book wraps things up because there's no way that's the original ending that Matheson came up with for the novel. But there's so much to enjoy on the way to that unsatisfying denouement--spooky deep shadows, spectral winds blowing cobwebs around, psychic attacks and possessions and Roddy McDowall pulling out all the stops when everything goes crazy in the last several minutes, shouting his defiance against the attacker that almost killed him when he was a teenager and is trying to murder him again. It's also got some great camerawork that shows up in bursts--the spinning image when Miss Tanner recoils from an attack stands out sharply from the rest of the mundane cinematography and really sells the danger and supernatural influence. Still, having a new book to track down and read in October isn't the worst thing in the world. And it's not like this is the only movie that didn't quite stick the landing.
This review is part of the HubrisWeen roundtable, with four other B movie bloggers contributing their own October-appropriate reviews in alphabetical order. Click the banner above to see what they've selected for today's films.
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