Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ten Reasons THE LEGACY (1978)

In interviews Sam Elliott called THE LEGACY, the weird 30s old dark house 70s devil movie hybrid in which he co-stars with future wife Katherine Ross, "fifteen years behind it's time." Well, as so often happens, thirty years later and we're all the way around again to where it's right of the moment, like the eternal gleam in Sam Elliott's cowboy eye. Trailing Satanist glory as it descends the stair, THE LEGACY (1978) has been given a genuinely gorgeous Blu-ray upgrade courtesy Scream Factory and like Elliott's sturdy mustache, it turns out to be right painterly, the kind of film any man would be proud to hang behind his gun rack in the den.

I'd never seen this film until this Blu-ray, never heard anything but bad reviews. I remember seeing the spots for this a lot on TV as a 12 year-old kid back in '78--the white cat, the pool, Sam's 'stache--all burned into my sponge-like childhood memory (though I remembered Sam as blonde like Nick Nolte). It came around the same time as BURNT OFFERINGS commercial and it just seemed like we were being saturated in gory supernatural thrillers with big casts and old weird houses with pools. Later if it came out on video I never saw it. I never looked for it because so many critics had said it sucked. Those people were wrong! Turns out I love most everything about this great terrible movie. 

What helps it a lot is what it doesn't have: there's a minimum of the usually ubiquitous thriller scenes of the heroine in a nightgown padding around the darkened mansion investigating strange noises, and even fewer soft focus dream sequences. Instead is a roster of British and German eccentrics, libertines, war criminals, and rock stars, and they start dropping like flies in various OMEN-like ways almost as soon as Ross and Elliott are shown their room. Far from the dreary 10 LITTLE INDIANS x OMEN English drawing room gore slog it's been painted as, this turns out to be a treat for anyone who loves James Whale's OLD DARK HOUSE, Hammer's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (Charles Gray), and ROSEMARY'S BABY, in that order. 

1. Katharine Ross

Never more beautiful or assured, with that great long straight chestnut hair and autumnal wardrobe, she's like the 70s incarnation of Cleopatra Nefertiti Babalon Marjorie Cameron Isis Scarlet Woman. And unlike so many of the 70s iconic beauties, she could act when the situation demanded it, and knew when not to.  She looks great here but she also looks mature (she was 38!) and intelligent, swept along in this weird tide with her man Sam. There's no whining about her wanting a baby or not having one or getting too much sex or not enough. She's equal partners with old Sam and when she inherits her legacy her whole face seems to change shape, expanding into an uncanny extra dimension of glacial stillness which shows why she was so effective in THE STEPFORD WIVES.

2. Sam Elliott

This is the era of some real strides in depicting assertive hot women who can believably order men around and sleep with them without emasculating them. If their mustaches were on straight, and they'd smoked enough to get a nice deep live-in voice, their men could even forge a new path, one of true equality based on individuality and mutual respect. So here's Elliott, singlehandedly bringing his character back from the brink of British black magic feminism's total wash-out of the straight American white cowboy male. A foreigner at a strange party he can never leave, yet is considered superfluous and expendable, mere arm candy for his woman. At first his crankiness seems to indicate he's destined for death or irrelevance, or that his macho genes are straining at being considered the weaker sex. Smashing through windows and wrecking equipment at the big climax, he becomes almost the monster of the piece, like he's going to rain on the parade of his lady in order to ensure she doesn't outgrow him.

Well, I should have given more credit to old Sam. A warrior from the Iron Age of cowboys and the Kris Kristofferson / Jon Voight school, a group of men so cool and badass they blazed a whole new trail of how to be macho while helping, by not hindering, the breakout of women's lib, which was erupting all around them like a myriad black hole tentacle whirling of tossed Mary Tyler Moore hats. These dudes might feel left out and sidelined as whole swaths of their power changed hands but, instead of staying sulky, they recognized their sulkiness as immaturity rather than something they needed to act on in order to preserve the status quo. At the same time instead of being completely whipped and beaten, they had guts enough to throw down and smash their way back to parity, Mary Tyler Moore-style.

3. The dusky beautiful cinematography 
brought to vivid 3-D clarity via the Shout Blu-ray

The 3D clarity and glistening deep colors are perfect for the setting, a big weird English mansion called Ravenhurst, with a very bizarre pool room which I remembered clearly all this time from the TV spots. There's a few moments when the couple's wearing white on white in the white room, when you think perhaps we're in heaven, or a halfway house, ala CARNIVAL OF SOULS. And sometimes the waxiness glistens too much, but overall the dusky great Allan Hume / Dick Bush photography is given full resonant expression, with a lot of magic hour deep blacks and the extreme angles. The vertical and diagonal POVs inside the mansion are hypnotizing, lots of looking down from ornate stairs, the creepy nurse's face bleeding into the myriad portraits. I usually hate the way rural England looks in daytime shots--the uniformly sickly grey sky, the landscape all washed out, dreary and depressingly still. But in THE LEGACY, that same landscape and sky looks plenty ominous, sexy, and cool. I'm so happy to finally make my peace with British exterior shots! You don't even know how I suffered. And that Bentley is hypnotizing in the pristine HD cleanliness.

That said, don't judge by the pics here which I scrounged around the web, for you, Marianne!

Guts, glory... Ram
4.  Michael J. Lewis' Score
Orchestral and at times predictable, Lewis incorporates synths too, and it doesn't get too up into the helicoptering Korngold-John Williams style. His score percolates and oozes with sly menace in the Carpenter carpet style and sometimes browses around a giallo vibe with echoing female vocalizing and twangy guitar octaves. In other words, Lewis keeps it simple and cool rather than showing off his symphonic training every five seconds. And there's even a great tacky 70s theme song sung by someone named Kiki Dee.

This is from DEVIL RIDES OUT, but you get the picture
5. Charles Gray
He's the guy so good as the high priest Mocata in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and as Blofeldt in Bond films and in everything - those steely blue eyes, that face like a disguise he's about to tear off, the rolling highbrow sophisto (but immanently down for a fight) voice. He's grand here as a man "decorated three times by the Nazis." When he's shooting his crossbow with fellow unholy ringbearer Lee Montague while noting Eliot's arrival as 'the uninvited guest' you'll be reminded of Lugosi and Karloff playing chess while David Manners sulks around trying all the usual means of departure in THE BLACK CAT. That's two great horror films in one single ten reason entry. 

 6. Old Dark House Ambience + Giallo-esque Deaths
 A mysterious dying monster behind a white curtain (like the old witch in SUSPIRIA --which came out the same year of THE LEGACY and has more than a few similarities) announcing only one of the assembled six will wield the ring of ultimate black magic power (a Tolkien boom was also in full effect); Katharine Ross it seems is the designated one, and 'Satan's power' isn't just the vast and unfathomable wealth of his sprawling estate, if you get my meaning.

7.  Hauntological British Occult conspiracy and Telekinesis

Reincarnation, witchy past, unholy ghost power, telekinesis, remote viewing, and a refreshing lack of viable Christian options or outright clarifications of just what sort of black magic is at work (no hail Satan chants and goat horns); it's left to the imagination without being too concerned with subtlety either. A rare combination to get right: bombast and class. Even the weird white nurse cat thing is done without obviousness and Margaret Tyzack brings just the right mood of calm professionalism.

And to cement the British Hammer link, Jimmy Sangster co-wrote the screenplay!

8.  Roger Daltrey chokes to Death

And then there's the weird elfin gnome-ishness of Daltrey: this strange being with the tiny body and huge head and wild mane of hair. And he's playing a rock icon much like himself, whose links to this weird ghostly mansion estate indicates black magic got him where he is today. Clutch, because it's believable. I've met him and man is he ever short, like a little hobbit with tiny hands. And leave it to a nouveau riche ex-Acton street rat like Roger to give us most of the exposition on how rich and powerful everyone there is. So naturally he dies! It's gratifying. THE LEGACY is actually second film from the 70s I've seen where someone dies from choking to death and no one gives him/her the Heimlich maneuver. My own grandmother knew to give me the Heimlich when I was just a child; she saved my life with it, years before this movie was even made! So it was not unknown, at least in Sweden, though according to CNN:
"In August 1974, editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association contacted the doctor who had developed a new method to save someone from choking -- then a major cause of death in the United States. His new technique was saving lives across the country, and they wanted to tell him they were publishing a story about it, and were going to name the procedure after him" (CNN)"
Either way, watching Daltrey choke to death at the buffet table is twice as agonizing as everyone just stands around freaking out. Is that really what they did back then? Heimlich, you saved my life a dozen times, me alone!

9. Town and country weapons and adventure
There's some solidly imagined escape attempt sequences with the estate vividly depicted from the towers down to the stables. All the rustic one lane roads lead back to the mansion; they try to escape via horses, saddled on the sly which Sam does with a relaxed quick assurance of the real cowboy, and their mad ride to freedom manages to be 70s rustic lovely while also scary (the way the score slowly shifts from an orchestral western-style ride along back to menacing again is letter-perfect); the near mauling by the hunting dogs, the crossbow vs. shotgun duel--all very town and country (where double barrel shotgun and crossbow must be continually reloaded as they would be in real life, a truth which seldom engages less imaginative screenwriters). The weapons all fit the location perfectly, creating a much tighter unified whole than EYE OF THE DEVIL which loped along a similar track but--the Sharon Tate scenes aside, was a snooze.

10. Great Ending
 I can't spoil the ending but let's just say that no one fucks with the kid, whatever that means. I really liked all the directions it was going, I didn't know whether to hope for Sam's bloody death or root for him, the last thing I wanted was to see him instill some last minute bad faith 'better my girlfriend be dead than a Satanist' edict, or convince her to return unto old patriarchal hierarchies because all she really wants in life is to be bossed around and gotten pregnant. It didn't happen! This was the age of feminist horror and this fits the bill admirably.

It also makes sense that Elliott and Ross met on the shoot, married, had a kid and went on to a groovy life, and are still going strong. I'm not sayin' it takes occult magic to keep a Hollywood couple together for so long but to use one of his LEGACY lines back at him, whatever he's doin'.... he's doin' it right.

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