Physicist Lionel Barrett is enlisted by an eccentric millionaire, Mr. Deutsch, to make an investigation into "survival after death" in "the one place where it has yet to be refuted". This is the Belasco House, the "Mount Everest of haunted houses", originally owned by the notorious "Roaring Giant" Emeric Belasco, a six-foot-five perverted millionaire and supposed murderer, who disappeared soon after a massacre at his home. The house is believed to be haunted by numerous spirits, the victims of Belasco's twisted and sadistic desires.
Accompanying Barrett are his wife, Ann, as well as two mediums: a mental medium and Spiritualist minister, Florence Tanner, and a physical medium, Ben Fischer, who is the only survivor of an investigation 20 years previously. The rationalist Barrett is rudely skeptical of Tanner's belief in "surviving personalities", spirits which haunt the physical world, and he asserts that there is nothing but unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house. Barrett brings a machine he has developed, which he believes will rid the house of this energy.
Though not a physical medium, Tanner begins to manifest physical phenomena inside the house. When, after a quarrel with Tanner, Barrett is attacked by invisible forces, he suspects that Tanner may be using the house's energy against him. Meanwhile, Fischer remains aloof, with his mind closed to the house's influence, and is only there to collect the generous paycheck.
Ann Barrett is subjected to erotic visions late at night, which seem linked to her lackluster sex life. She goes downstairs and, in an apparent trance, disrobes and demands sex from Fischer. He strikes her, snapping her out of the trance, and she returns to herself, horrified and ashamed. A second incident occurs a day or so later; this time, she is awake but uninhibited due to alcohol. Her husband arrives a moment later to witness her advances to Fischer. He is resentful, and spurns Fischer's psychic ability, claiming that "Mr. Deutsch is wasting one-third of his money!" Stricken by the accusation, Fischer drops his psychic shields but is immediately attacked.
Tanner is convinced that one of the "surviving personalities" is Belasco's tormented son, Daniel, and she is determined to prove it at all costs. She finds a human skeleton chained behind a wall. Believing it to be Daniel, Tanner and Fischer bury the body outside the house and Tanner performs a funeral. Nevertheless, Daniel's "personality" continues to haunt Tanner; she is scratched violently by a possessed cat. Barrett suspects that Tanner is mutilating herself. In an attempt to put Daniel to rest, Tanner gives herself to the entity sexually, but the entity brutalizes her.
Barrett's machine is assembled. Tanner attempts to destroy it, thinking that it will harm the spirits in the house, but Barrett prevents her from doing damage. She enters the chapel, "the unholy heart" of the house, in an attempt to warn the spirits, but she is crushed by a falling crucifix. As she dies, she leaves a symbol written in her own blood. Barrett activates his machine, which seems to be effective. Fischer wanders the house afterwards, attempting to sense psychic energy; he declares the place "completely clear!" in astonishment. Violent psychic activity soon resumes and Barrett is killed.
Fischer decides to confront the house, and Ann accompanies him despite her misgivings. Deciphering Tanner's dying clue, Fischer deduces that Belasco is the sole entity haunting the house, masquerading as many. He taunts Belasco, declaring him a "son of a whore", and that he was no "roaring giant", but likely a "funny little dried-up bastard" who fooled everyone about his alleged height. Even as objects begin to hurl themselves at Fischer, he continues to defy the entity, until all becomes still. A stained glass partition in the chapel shatters, revealing a hidden door.
Fischer and Ann discover a lead-lined room, containing Belasco's preserved body seated in a chair. Pulling out a pocketknife, Fischer rips open Belasco's trouser leg, discovering his final secret: a pair of prosthetic legs. Fischer realises Belasco had had his own stunted legs amputated, and used the prosthetics in a grotesque attempt to appear imposing. Belasco had the specially built room lined with lead, presaging the discovery of the electromagnetic nature of life after death.
With the room now open, Fischer activates Barrett's machine a second time, and he and Ann leave the house, hoping that Barrett and Tanner will guide Belasco to the afterlife without fear.Pamela Franklin as Florence Tanner
Roddy McDowall as Benjamin Franklin Fischer
Clive Revill as Dr. Lionel Barrett
Gayle Hunnicutt as Mrs. Ann Barrett
Roland Culver as Mr. (Rudolph) Deutsch
Peter Bowles as Hanley
Michael Gough as Emeric Belasco (uncredited)
Production began on 23 October 1972. The Legend of Hell House is one of only two productions of James H. Nicholson after his departure from American International Pictures — a company he had run, along with Samuel Z. Arkoff, since 1954. Nicholson died of a brain tumour in December 1972, before the film's release in June 1973. Nicholson's company, Academy Pictures Corporation, also released Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry through Twentieth Century Fox in 1974.
Matheson's screenplay drastically reduced some of the more extreme elements of the novel, particularly the sexuality.
The external shots of the house were filmed at Wykehurst Park, West Sussex. Mr. Deutsch's mansion in the opening sequence is Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. The interior shot of the long room is the palace's library.
The role of Belasco was played by an uncredited Michael Gough, familiar to modern audiences from his role as Alfred Pennyworth in the Tim Burton movie Batman. His part consisted of a couple of recorded lines and an on-camera appearance as an embalmed corpse seated upright in a chair.
The film features an electronic music score and sound effects created by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson recorded at Hodgson's Electrophon studio in London. The soundtrack is currently unavailable commercially.
Critical response to The Legend of Hell House varied. In 1976, Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Burnt Offerings, another movie about a haunted house, that "The Legend of Hell House brought out the fun in this sort of material very well." In his 2002 Movie & Video Guide, Leonard Maltin gave the film three of four stars and called it "Not the usual ghost story, and certain to curl a few hairs." Time Out called the film disappointing but approved of Pamela Franklin's performance. TV Guide stated that "While director John Hough does a fine job with the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night aspects of the material, he fails to breathe any life into Richard Matheson's woefully underdeveloped screenplay."
The Legend of Hell House was released on DVD by 20th Century Fox in 2001. The DVD included the theatrical trailer as a special feature.
In August 2014 the Shout Factory label Scream Factory released the film on Blu-ray. The release included a 30-minute interview with director John Hough, a commentary track by actress Pamela Franklin, stills gallery, original theatrical trailer, radio ads and reversible cover art featuring the theatrical artwork and customized artwork for the Blu-ray release.Dialogue from the film has been sampled in popular songs by the bands Anaal Nathrakh and Skinny Puppy, and in Orbital's "I Don't Know You People" from their 1999 album The Middle of Nowhere.
It inspired Martin Kunert and Eric Manes to create MTV's Fear.
Marvel Comics adapted the story into its Werewolf by Night comic book series.
Director Edgar Wright used the film as inspiration for his faux trailer Don't, featured in the movie Grindhouse.