Four investigators assemble at the mansion of Emeric Belasco - a long dead, evil millionaire - to exorcise the malevolent presence there. Unfortunately, the house has a reputation for killing off psychic investigators, so how will these ghost busters succeed where the others have so drastically failed?
The Legend of Hell House was adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel, "Hell House", and is basically a variation on Shirley Jackson's classic "The Haunting of Hill House", with some debauchery thrown in. It is presented in the form of a science experiment, complete with captions informing us of the date and time, and the practical Dr Barrett (Clive Revill) leads the other two, Florence (Pamela Franklin) and Fisher (Roddy McDowall) - both psychics - in the assault on the spirit of Belasco. There's even a statement at the start of the film endorsing the paranormal happenings.
Contrasted with this pragmatic approach is the creepy atmosphere of the house, all oppressive shadows, wood panelling and heavy chandeliers. The phenomena consists of the usual crockery rattling and flying cutlery, and there are many scenes of supernatural pandemonium to keep things interesting: an attack by a black cat, possessions, strong winds from nowhere, you know the type of thing.
While this means that the action can get pretty repetitive as you wait around for the next assault between hushed conversations, there are a few original touches. The sexual side of the phantom is explored, when the otherwise dull wife of Dr Barrett (Gayle Hunnicut), is overcome with, er, "autoerotic phenomena" and tries to seduce Fisher (of course, the fact that she'd be after Roddy McDowall requires some suspension of disbelief). Events go even further when the fragile Florence is seduced by a ghost herself, with unpleasant consequences.
Hell House manages a chilly ambience and some good fright episodes, but it too easily falls into the old cliché of science being no match for the otherworldly, despite a big computer being introduced about halfway through (and it's funny how a reel-to-reel tape recorder can convey a semblance of scientific authority, isn't it?). On the other hand, it does tie things up with a genuinely odd explanation, the performances show real conviction, and as haunted houses go, it's one of the most formidable. Music and spooky sound effects by Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire.