At last the Queer Film Blogathon sponsored by the excellent classic film blog Garbo Laughs is here. It has arrived at a very special time too, not only because Garbo Laughs is doing this blogathon in June, Pride month, but also because the ‘thon is coming to you mere days after gay marriage became legal in New York. The Legend of Hell House shows us by contrast how far we have come towards acceptance since 1973, but not in nearly as brutal a fashion as it could have done.
Hell House takes us through a few days in the life of a team of psychics and psychic investigators who have been dispatched to the titular house by a wealthy man who is about to die. He offers the group a large sum for proof of life after death. Roddy McDowall’s character, Benjamin Franklin Fischer, is a medium and the only surviving member of the last group to undertake a similar mission to the house several years before. The new brave and crazy team also includes another medium, Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin of The Innocents), skeptic and investigator Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and Barrett’s wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt).
Roddy McDowall, as we now know, is widely believed to have been a gay man, although he was never officially out. If we can consider Rock Hudson’s movies to contain clues to the truth about Hudson’s sexuality, as seen in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, I can believe that there could be a similar element to McDowall’s work. We know this coded inclusion of gay themes was often used in old movies.
I see it in this film mostly in one scene, when the ghost of Hell House’s evil former owner Emeric Belasco (Michael Gough in an uncredited role) possesses Ann and causes her to make sexual advances toward Fischer. The look of complete terror on his face as she describes her fantasy of having a three-way with Fischer and Miss Tanner could be attributed to his fear of the house, but to me it seems as much a hint to the character’s gayness as Paul Newman’s sexual rejection of Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (And yes, I am aware that there are many reasons a man would reject a woman’s advances but we’re talking about old movies here, in which queer themes were painted with a pretty broad brush.) When Ann tears off her nightgown and stands nude before Fischer, he slaps her face quickly and violently. Again, this could be passed off as an example of the way people treated hysterical women in old movies, but I really don’t get that sense. It plays like a hint (more of a clue-by-four, really) to the character’s orientation.
Later, Miss Tanner, after having suffered at the hands of Belasco, awakens from a sort of coma to find that a concerned Fischer has spent the night in a chair in her room to watch over her. She seductively says that Fischer could have slept in her bed, but he just looks at her blankly without reacting. Again, he would have many reasons not to have joined her in bed, especially given that she is recovering from violent ghost sex at the time, but his silence seems to say more than any explanation. It is as if she should know very well that he isn’t interested and that he won’t even dignify her offer with a response.
The good news here is that, unlike in so many old movies, the gay character doesn’t die horribly. In fact, he defeats the evil in the house and survives the film. Unfortunately, things don’t look so good for the bisexual characters. Ann is first made to look foolish and unattractive (though she may only have been bi when possessed), and then she is widowed. Then there’s the ghost of Emeric Belasco. This guy twice attempts to have sex with Fischer using Ann’s body, and he does have sex with Miss Tanner as his ghostly self, so he’s clearly bi. Belasco, like so many bi characters, is depicted as a greedy, decadent horndog, and short to boot, but he had many other bad points in life and in death, and he’s dead of natural causes before the movie begins. At least his ultimate downfall comes at the hands of a courageous, clever gay man, right? Perhaps the character of Belasco would only seem defamatory to any evil bisexual ghosts who happen to see the film. If you know of any such entities, please don’t send them this link.