Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ten Reasons THE LEGACY (1978)

In interviews Sam Elliott called THE LEGACY (1978), a film he co-starred in with Katherine Ross (they met and fell in love on set) "fifteen years behind its time." Well, as so often happens, thirty years later and we're all the way around again to where this weird 30s old dark house 70s devil movie hybrid is right in the moment, eternal as the gleam in Sam Elliott's cowboy eye. Trailing Satanist glory as it descends the stairs, THE LEGACY (1978) has recently been given a genuinely gorgeous Blu-ray upgrade courtesy Scream Factory and, like Elliott's sturdy mustache and his co-star (and future wife) Katherine Ross's shiny auburn hair, 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, but I do recall being pleasantly spooked by its TV spots and the cover of the novel at the grocery check-out as a 12 year-old kid back in '78. I remember the white cat, the creepy hand, the marble pool and the endangered hero's awesome mustache (though in my memory it belonged to Nick Nolte). I never looked for it later on VHS because so many critics at the time had panned it. Well, fifteen or so years later, it turns out those people were wrong! Turns out I love most everything about this great, great terrible movie. I love its roiling roster of British characters, all playing eccentrics, libertines, war criminals, and rock stars that start dropping like flies in various OMEN-like ways almost as soon as Ross and Elliott are shown to their room (like they've been... expected). Far from the dreary 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 and ROSEMARY'S BABY, in that order.

And most of all, those of us who love badass bitches. This ain't no goddamned Stepford, sister.

(Mild Spoilers ahead)

1. Katharine Ross

Never more beautiful or assured, with that great long straight chestnut hair and autumnal wardrobe, Ross in LEGACY is like the 70s incarnation of Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Babalon Working's Marjorie Cameron, Isis, and Paulette Goddard in CAT AND THE CANARY. And unlike so many of the 70s iconic beauties, she could act when the situation demanded it yet also knew when it was best not to. Mature (she was 38!) and intelligent, swept along in this weird tide of a tale, there's no whining about her wanting a baby or not having one or getting too much sex or not enough or whatever some weak-ass male writer's idea of character development happens to be. She's equal partners with old Sam and when she SPOILER, inherits her powers, her 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

From their very first kiss you can see he's falling for this chick, Sam is--not his character--he's not that great an actor. If he was acting it, he'd be Brando. Instead he's a good-hearted lug of the cowboy mould, who's totally unprepared for the beguiling force behind Ross's witchy magnetism.

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, such men could even forge a new path, one uniquely 70s, one that's been sadly untraveled the last 30 or 40 years, one of true equality based on individuality and mutual respect for each other's archetypal gender power. It's inspiring as a man watching Elliott slowly bring his American white cowboy male character back from the brink of British black magic feminism's emasculating abyss. A foreigner at a strange party he can never leave, he is--as in some supernatural version of Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade--considered purely ornamental. 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 (and temper tantrums--the natural male response--only prove the bitches right!). Smashing through windows and wrecking equipment at the big climax, he becomes almost the monster of the piece, like he's going to kill 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 Manly beauty, Sam's part of the Kris Kristofferson / Jon Voight school of sensitive ass-kickers, a group of men so cool and badass they blazed a whole new trail of how to be macho while helping--purely by not hindering-- the breakout of women's lib, which was erupting all around them and even right in their own beds. These dudes might feel left out and sidelined as whole swaths of their once undisputed power changed hands but--instead of staying sulky and sheepish--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 their security blankets and smash their way back to parity, Mary Tyler Moore hat-throwing-style. When it came to learning how to cast off gender oppression, they weren't too proud to take their cue from the girls who'd just cast off theirs.

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 with a very bizarre all-white marble swimming pool room. There are a few moments when the couple are wearing all white in this white room, when one think perhaps this is an allegory for heaven, or a halfway limbo ala CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Sometimes a sort of waxiness takes over but overall the dusky great Allan Hume / Dick Bush photography is given full resonant expression: magic hour shadows, deep blacks, extreme angles, vertical and diagonal POVs, 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 here that same landscape and sky looks plenty ominous, sexy, and cool. I'm so happy to finally make peace with British exterior shots! You don't even know how I suffered, all those sad, washed-out Hammer villages on old UHF TV creature features when I should have been out playing whiffle ball. 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!

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

Guts, glory... Ram
4.  Michael J. Lewis' Score
Orchestral and at times predictable, Lewis incorporates synths with stunning affect, and doesn't get too up into the helicoptering 'Mickey Mouse' scoring. Percolating and ooze and sly menace in the Carpenter 'carpet' style, Lewis sometimes browses around a giallo vibe with barbed guitar stings and echo-drenched female vocalizing (that soars briefly into a melody Streitenfeld co-opted for Prometheus). In other words, Lewis keeps it simple and cool rather than showing off his symphonic training every five seconds like certain others who shall be nameless. 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
So good as the high priest Mocata in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and as Blofeldt in Bond films and in ROCKY HORROR and... everything - those steely blue eyes, that face like a disguise he's about to tear off, the lordly (but immanently down for a fight) voice, he's one of a kind. And 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 frantically checks the exit doors in THE BLACK CAT. 

 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. And giallo + old dark house is a combo sadly underused in the 70s (SEVEN DEATHS IN A CAT'S EYE, but what else?)

7.  Hauntological British Occult conspiracy and Telekinesis

Reincarnation, witchy genes, 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 restraint. Even the white nurse / white cat thing is done with minimal glare and Margaret Tyzack brings just the right mood of calm professionalism.

8.  Roger Daltrey chokes to Death

This strange being with the tiny body, little carny hands, huge head and wild mane of hair, is here playing a rock icon much like himself, whose links to this weird ghostly mansion estate indicates black magic got him where he is today - as if  we didn't bloody know. And leave it to a nouveau riche Acton guttersnipe like Roger to give us most of the exposition on how rich and powerful everyone there is. So naturally he dies, choking to death at the buffet. Not that you asked but THE LEGACY is actually the 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 -i.e. the 70s. 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 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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