The Legacy: “A Dated Horror Heirloom for the Late ’70s”

The Legacy: “A Dated Horror Heirloom for the Late ’70s”

Released to Blu-ray by the excellent Indicator label this week, The Legacy is a 1978 British-American horror mystery starring real-life couple Katherine Ross, Sam Elliott and The Who’s frontman Roger Daltrey.

Ross and Elliott star as Maggie Walsh and Pete Danner, lured from their home in California to England on the promise of $50,000 salary for an interior design job – the details of which are elusive and sketchy. Initially and rightfully reluctant to comply with the request of such an obscure assignment, Pete ultimately chooses to go along with it all because of Maggie’s desire to learn more about her English ancestry. Upon finding themselves at the sprawling country estate of their enigmatic benefactor Jason Mountolive (John Standing), the couple are introduced to five other house guests, each highly accomplished in their respective fields (which include the arms-trade, athletics, the music business and prostitution!) who seem to place great and ominous emphasis on the fact that, with Maggie’s arrival, they are now six. When Maggie and Pete are informed by Margaret Tyzack’s sinister housekeeper-cum-nurse that the previously healthy looking Mountolive is now wasting away with very little time left to live, they find themselves caught in a web of supernatural intrigue as their fellow guests begin to fatally succumb to a series of apparent accidents. What’s going on? Well, it seems that Mountolive has got Maggie here on false pretences; he believes her to be the reincarnation of his mother, Lady Margaret Walsingham, once burned at the stake for heresy. Having done a deal with the devil, Jason has lived throughout the ages but now wants Maggie – his great-granddaughter – to succeed him as the head of his powerful satanic cult which, upon his own overdue demise, must rid itself of all its members before its rightful heir accepts the peculiar legacy.

The Legacy was a story devised and co-written by one of the founding fathers of Hammer Horror, Jimmy Sangster, and it’s easy to trace its lineage back to those glory days of British horror. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Sangster; if The Legacy had appeared just a decade earlier it would perhaps be one of the many beloved cult hits from his former employers but, unfortunately, by the time that The Legacy was released in 1978, these kind of horror films were simply no longer relevant. Audiences expectations of the horror genre had changed considerably with the arrival of films like The Omen, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and The Amityville Horror. The desire for this kind of decidedly English country house chiller had long since passed, making this a rather dated horror heirloom, irrespective of the perceived allure that a couple of attractive American stars and a rock god leading a cast that is otherwise made up of old faithfuls like Charles Gray and Lee Montague could actually bring.

The Legacy was the feature film directorial debut of Richard Marquand. Previously a documentary filmmaker, the Welsh born Marquand would later go on to helm the third instalment in the original Star Wars franchise, Return of the Jedi, having impressed George Lucas with his 1981 WWII suspense thriller Eye of the Needle. As with many debut efforts however, The Legacy is problematic, often struggling with its pacing. It’s only 100 minutes long, but there’s a few dull stretches here that actually make it appear longer. One of Sangster’s greatest strengths during his time at Hammer was the ability to turn in a rattling good yarn that didn’t outstay its welcome, but this knack seems to allude him here and I’m not sure if its his screenplay (which he wrote with Patrick Tilley and Paul Wheeler) or Marquand’s direction that is to blame. One thing is certain however; the film doesn’t pay off the way anyone had hoped. I don’t think changing tastes are wholly the issue in this regard either. I think the way the whole thing is assembled would have proved problematic even when this kind of thing was at its peak. A further example of the film trying to play to the audiences of the late ’70s is evident in the jarringly upbeat soundtrack that is all too often at odds with the action it accompanies. Kiki Dee’s track ‘Another Side of Me‘ is a pleasant, romantic ditty that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear in a horror but, as it plays over a title sequence that depicts Ross and Elliott happily discovering England, you can forgive its optimism. It’s the later use of cheery, up tempo music during an otherwise desperate escape sequence as the pair are stymied by English country roads that feels so mismatched. Fine for an adventure movie maybe, but it singularly fails to imbue the proceedings with the ominous, dread-inducing atmosphere this moment demands.  That said, if the pair at least attempted to slow down and take in some of the many road signs they’re hurtling past, they may have stood a chance at escape!

The Legacy may be far from a hit, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a degree of fun to be had with it. For a start I personally quite like to believe that neither Ross or Elliott were acting here; that the luxuriously hirsute Elliott really had followed his beautiful sleek-haired wife to the UK on a whim and that the sceptical, scornful and disgruntled behaviour he subsequently displays is actually down to the fact that he’d rather be back home making a western or something instead. And OK, I know that’s not feasible because the couple actually met and fell in love during this very shoot but hey, let me watch the movie how I want to watch it yeah? Joking aside, Ross and Elliott make a gorgeous pair who are likable and easy for the audience to root for as they find themselves stranded far from home and plunged headlong into this supernatural mystery.  There’s also a fine, creepy performance from Tyzack, whose starch-white uniformed character is from that fine tradition of sinister and austere housekeepers and nurses that has previously included Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Billie Whitelaw as The Omen‘s Mrs Baylock. Tyzack’s character seems determined to stand apart from these greats however, as she is shown to shapeshift into an equally spotless white Persian cat – all the better to keep an eye on those house guests! Charles Gray, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the next best thing in the supporting cast, though admittedly the role of a highly-decorated former Nazi turned successful arms dealer is no real stretch for a man whose stock in trade was urbane villainy. As a fan of The Who, I was intrigued to see this simply because of Daltrey’s presence, but it’s fair to say that this is not one of his finest performances and the moment where his character announces that he’s in the music business is captured by Marquand with the kind of archly knowing wink that’s about as subtle as the drummer of your band parking his Rolls Royce in a swimming pool.

Crucially, for a horror film, The Legacy just isn’t frightening. There’s a sense of atmosphere yes, but it’s more in the traditions of an Agatha Christie-style inheritance murder mystery than anything that was going on in the horror genre at this point in time. Indeed, the film doesn’t even seem to want to try and scare audiences and,  in the rare moments that it actually does, it unsurprisingly fails – as evinced in a reveal that seems to rely upon nothing more than a cheap Halloween mask that wouldn’t even give the most nervous and highly-strung of children a sleepless night. Nevertheless there’s some ingenuity and flair in the creative dispatches of its supporting cast and it does at least boast a unique and unpredictable ending. The film is nicely shot by Dick Bush and Alan Hume, making great use of the beautiful Chiltern Hills and rural Oxfordshire locations, and this looks even more gorgeous now thanks to Indicator’s crisp high definition remaster. Also on this release, you’ll find two versions of the film; one being the UK release which runs to 102 minutes and the US release which runs just two minutes shorter and includes different shots, along with an audio commentary and Marquand’s 1973 Central Office of Information film on the Liverpool police force, Between the Anvil and the Hammer.



Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

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