Ever since the devil got into horror movies, they have been more horrible but less enjoyable. The real legacy of "The Legacy," now at more area theaters than necessary, is a commercial one, the proven box-office power of old Beelzebub in pictures from the "The Exorcist" on.

"Legacy" is really Universal's answer to Twentieth Century Fox's profitable "Omen" series. The only thing that might be called a creative variation is that the satanic strain has been injected into the traditional old Gothic formula, the one that can be summed up as pale woman, dark house and lots of booga-booga-booga.

Unfortunately, even for devotees of the derivative, "Legacy" has all the scarifyin' power of National Geographic. It is a gross, hollow and hokey joke in which even the red herrings prove anemic.

The pale lady on the premises is Katharine Ross, than whom there may be few prettier but also few paler. As architect Maggie Walsh, she is lured to England by a mysterious force: a check for 50,000 big ones. Once there, she and her wooden-Indian boyfriend, played by eagle-eyed Sam Elliott, are spirited off to the mansion of the damned by the driver of a 1938 Rolls Royce who knocks their motorcycle out from under them.

"Why don't you come back to my house for tea?" he asks -- an invitation almost charmingly portentous at the time. Back at the house, though, we learn that the only surrogate suspense in the film is over the splashily gory ways in which victims will be killed off. It all boils down to that classic ad line for "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre": "Who will be next and what will be left of them?"

Alas, this is what most horrow movies boil down to now, and it's not terribly tasty. It takes a certain cinematic expertise and cunning to scare the bejeebers out of an audience; director Richard Marquand and the writers of "Legacy" settle for the easier, more common alternative -- the dogged, bloody, hoary gross-out.

Thus we get to see one of six mysterioso houseguests burned alive by an errant fireplace and his smoldering remains, in the film's crudest sequence, fed to the guard dogs in the courtyard. Another victim suffers multiple impalements from a shattered mirror, and poor Roger Daltrey (of The Who), who actually has about the most chipper countenance in the picture, gets eliminated on the dining-room table.

The perils besetting Ross and Elliott are more on the pedestrian, petty and inadvertently hilarious side. Elliott is almost scalded in the shower -- how's that for sheer, raving terror? -- and later, when the pair try to escape in the Rolls, THEY CAN'T FIND THEIR WAY OUT OF TOWN!!!They drive around and around, and the more they drive, the more hootable this numbskull predicament becomes.

Director Marquand approaches it all with a drably clinical eye; he doesn't even have a perverse sense of joie de mourir. Ross seems still and forever a Stepford Wife, coldly blank and utterly disinterested in either the trumped-up creepiness of the plot or buddy-boy Elliott. Perhaps it's because his mustache is so bushy that when they kiss, it slips into her nostrils.

Crafty old Hammer hand Jimmy Sangster wrote the story and contributed to the screenplay, but "Legacy" hardly ranks as craftsmanship on any level. The ad campaign, in which clips from the picture were used to push the paperback months before the movie came out, is the only thing about the project that suggests imagination run riot. It's a sad day when the merchandisers outdo the filmmakers, but then, it's getting harder and harder to tell them apart.