The Legacy February 1, 2021
he Legacy (1978) is like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) with an occult edge. This is an interesting idea — one is surprised some variation of it hadn’t been put on screen earlier — but this interesting idea isn’t expanded into that interesting a movie. The direction by then first-time filmmaker Richard Marquand, who’d go on to make Return of the Jedi (1983) and Jagged Edge (1985), is
so free of necessary tension it can feel inanimate. When a character is gruesomely killed, there is no suspense or urgency to lend succeeding scenes a sense of real danger. It’s like Marquand was shrugging when he was generating otherwise disturbing images of someone burning alive, someone falling off a roof, someone getting every inch of their body impaled after they're showered in glass shards. Behind-the-camera lethargy aside, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the movie; as it thrummed along I really did want to find out how it was all going to pan out. And the lead performances from Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott are imbued with the right amounts of bemusement and lived-in chemistry (they play a long-term couple) to make us care about what happens to them. They’re better than the movie, and this somewhat elevates it.
In The Legacy, Ross and Elliott are Maggie and Pete, L.A.-based interior decorators. At the beginning of the movie, they're summoned by phone to rural England for a gig that’s supposedly going to net them some $50,000. The caller won’t reveal what it is they want the couple to do; although they say an acquaintance “highly recommended” their services, they won’t share the name of that enthusiastic client. Pete is understandably skeptical when he hears the news — $50,000 is great, but shouldn’t they know more before agreeing to anything? Maggie, by contrast, is practically giddy, and it’s her giddiness that wins out. “We can go to the country — ride some horses, catch some fish,” she says with a grin, thinking more about this all-expenses-paid trip’s leisurely perks than its business. “There ain’t gonna be any sunshine over there,” Pete flatly replies.
In a successive montage, which cobbles together picturesque moments from Maggie and Pete’s first few days in England, it seems the former was right to be so optimistic. Lovingly stitched-together clips of the couple strolling through parks, feeding ducks, ambling through outdoor markets, serenely zigzagging on country roads on Peter’s motorcycle, stops-by quaint hamlets — often basked in the glow of the sunset — suggest a particularly well-made tourism-agency ad. It’s pretty persuasive. (These images are backed by a Kiki Dee ballad called “Another Side of Me,” and it’s so soaringly schmaltzy we can’t help but be a little touched by its slushy earnestness.) This euphoria is abruptly cut short, though, when Maggie and Pete turn a blind corner one afternoon on the road and nearly hit an oncoming vehicle. Their life-saving swerve unfortunately still puts them directly in the path of a tree (better than the unfriendly hood of a moving car), and Pete’s precious motorcycle is pretzeled. The music stops, and the photography loses its blissful gleam. Maybe this trip isn’t going to unfold the way they’d imagined.
Maggie and Pete are fortuitously given a lift by their clients — the exorbitantly wealthy Mountolive family. The couple’s temporary vacation home becomes their customers’ spacious manor, which is replete with enormous ceilings, bronze light fixtures, checkered floors, and interior design so ornate that the pool room, for instance, is decked out in Greek columns, Renaissance-evoking paintings, and tasteful splashes of gold. One wonders what this family could possibly need done to their living quarters that would require a $50,000 retainer. This mansion is prettily laid out, but there’s something sinister about the grandiosity — like this pile of accessories is burying a secret. (To be fair, I'm not sure an over-decorated mansion can't not emanate bad vibes.) Especially in the evenings, the film boasts a creepy visual style; cinematographers Dick Bush and Alan Hume shoot and frame almost everything as if something was going to jump out at you and bonk you on the head.
Maggie and Pete reasonably think they’ll only stay overnight — hear some details about their prospective job and head out. But it turns out any interest in interior design was actually a front, and that the couple — really, Maggie specifically — had been called over for reasons that will remain murky for a while. When they find out that they’ve been lied to, the couple understandably tries to bolt. But escape isn’t so simple. Maggie and Pete learn as much when they try to flee by horse (which entails a sweeping sequence set to music that recalls the Charlie’s Angels theme song), then by stolen car. The road somehow just keeps leading them back to the house — like this particular patch of land turned into an earthy ouroboros once they crossed its boundaries. Was some kind of supernatural switch flipped when Pete’s bike slammed into that elm's
When the couple finally gives up on trying to leave prematurely, the Mountolives get a little more generous with what they share. It seems that Maggie is a descendent of the dying master of the house. Before he takes his last breath, he wants to organize his inheritance, with all his living relatives, (visually united by their phoenix-crested rings) gathered around him. The trouble with this inheritance is that it is rooted, apparently, in an age-old deal with the devil. (You’ll get anything you want as long as you play by Lucifer’s rules.) Those who will not receive this “legacy” (only one person can have it) are not to simply be turned down — they are to be killed, and there’s no saying who will and who won’t be claimed. (Shortly after Maggie and Pete start unpacking, more family members arrive at the estate via helicopter; they emerge swathed in expensive furs and look cockily expectant.)
Elliott once said in an interview that he felt like The Legacy was about 15 years behind its time. This observation is pretty on the money. The movie is most in line with the occult-oriented thrillers of the 1960s, particularly The City of the Dead (1960) and The Devil Rides Out (1968) (in which cat-eyed Legacy cast member Charles Gray co-stars). But it doesn’t feel like an homage to five-minutes-ago horror trends; it goes through the motions they'd started. It has the feeling of a last breath rather than a latter-day attempt to reinvigorate something stale — a late arrival to a party. Without Ross’ hippie-long brown hair, Elliott’s signature handlebar mustache, and the overwrought supporting turn from the Who frontman Roger Daltrey (acting like a human pug as the coke-sniffing baby of the family), one might assume this all was taking place in the early ‘60s and not late the following decade. Marquand doesn’t seem interested in finding anything new to say by way of the occult horror subgenre — he doesn’t even that efficiently rehash old tropes.
The Legacy isn’t a badly made movie — more so one that trusts a certain framework and doesn’t feel the need to deviate from it. Still, I suspect it will be comfort food for the horror aficionado. It’s a competently put together diversion. Toward the end of the movie, Pete asks Maggie what she’s going to do with her inheritance, and she replies, with a note of sadness, “anything I want.” In a film that so limitedly expands on the legacy of the previous decade’s occult thrillers, it’s a response that feels far less limitless than it’s meant to. B-