Saturday Nightmares: The Legacy (1978)
The Legacy has all the makings of a typical 70s pedigree horror film: marquee stars (Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott), a competent director (Return of the Jedi’s Richard Marquand), and lavish production values. At first glance, it’s the kind of movie that looks like it might easily play on a double bill with The Omen, The Other or even The Sentinel. But, like the sprawling estate in which this film is set, looks are often deceiving and The Legacy not only becomes something incredibly difficult to recommend but, also, amazingly difficult to resist.
It beings well enough. Decorators Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott are hired for an odd gig in England: All they’re told is that they have to show up and do a job. With a fifty thousand dollar payday in their pocket (and check number ending in 666), they pack their bags and head overseas for a bit of pleasure mixed with their business. Their holiday is short-lived, though, once they find themselves in a roadside ‘accident’ with ailing millionaire Jason Mountolive. With Elliott’s motorcycle nearly totaled, they head back to the rich man’s estate, only to find themselves among an assortment of mysterious guests – most of them related by one common thread.
The Legacy piques your attention from the start because we’re never sure where it’s going. Who are these guests and why does everyone seem to have been expecting Katharine Ross? Why is Mr. Mountolive rarely seen throughout the proceedings, and what the hell is wrong with him? What’s the deal with the sinister white cat? Slow builds are characteristic of many 70s genre films and, for a while, it feels like The Legacy is simply following suit. Then it begins bumping off members of the cast – each ‘accident’ more hilarious than the last – while offering little pieces of what will ultimately result in an unsatisfying pie. This might’ve been an intriguing idea in the planning stages, but it’s as if it never developed beyond that. And what ultimately separates The Legacy from other turkeys is how the awfulness sort of sneaks up on you, amplifying in such tiny increments that it’s almost an hour into this before you realize you’re in the middle of a colossal clusterfuck.
For starters, nobody behaves as you’d expect them to. Not even a little. Elliott and Ross spend a reluctant evening in the house while their motorcycle is repaired in a nearby village. Why then, do they put zero effort into leaving the next morning? It’s late afternoon by the time Elliott even thinks about checking on his bike and by that point they’re easily coerced into staying another night. Why? And it’s on that night where the first guest meets an unfortunate end (by drowning in the large indoor swimming pool). Yet, this still doesn’t scare off our intrepid decorators.
Furthermore, there’s very little insight provided into the other guests. It’s not spoiling much by revealing that they’ve gathered for a reason and what’s more: they seem to be expecting their deaths. The script was penned by frequent Hammer Films collaborator Jimmy Sangster, which makes the ineptitude of the story all the more baffling. This was far from his first time at the dance.
Sangster shouldn’t shoulder all the blame, though. Director Richard Marquand tackles this material like it belongs in a different genre altogether. The accidental deaths don’t produce much more than unintentional laughter (how else are you supposed to react when The Who front man Roger Daltry is offed by choking on a chicken bone?), while the lack of any dreadful atmosphere is a major oversight. Surely the extensive mansion locale could’ve been exploited for a scare or two but, instead, Marquand strives for shocks by giving us a bare-assed Sam Elliott trapped in a scalding hot shower. Seriously.
The word misfire comes to mind when describing The Legacy. How else do you sum up a supernatural horror film that culminates in a standoff between a crossbow-wielding Sam Elliott and some inept, would-be assassin with a rifle? Moments that should be scary don’t even play out that way: when our sickly millionaire is revealed (quite early) to be something other than human (ambling his way up a staircase while wheezing), he takes time to stop and pet the cat. The scene should up the ante by showing our heroes are in grave danger but how can we be scared when our antagonist stops off to shower his cat with affection? Then there’s the long-awaited bit where our protagonists finally make their escape, only to be thwarted by an ever-changing landscape which loops them back to the mansion no matter which path they take. It’s a pivotal moment in the film but you’d never know it by listening to the zany, whimsical music attached to it.
As unsuccessful as this is, it can be pretty damn entertaining if one manages to take it with a few grains of salt. It’s hard not to be delighted by the bit where Sam Elliott is accosted by a sinister nurse; only to hurl the elderly woman down a flight of stairs while she screams out in cat meows! And when our dashing hero rushes to his girlfriend’s aid, he’s content to trash the room in a fit of rage, rather than pulling her to possible safety. And if that’s not enough, you’ve got to hear the villain’s final justification for the madness. It’s not only convoluted, but it leaves the viewer asking one question: “Huh?”
It’s hard to hate a movie that spends most of its time being so off-the-wall ridiculous. The Legacy doesn’t remotely work in the way it was intended to but, despite a few dull stretches, there’s plenty of nonsense on display to enjoy.
Plus, Sam Elliott has a great ass.
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