Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Legacy

The Legacy (1978)
Dir. Richard Marquand
Written by Patrick Tilly, Paul Wheeler, Jimmy Sangster
Starring Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross, Charles Grey, Roger Daltrey (?!), John Standing

This poster is OK, but I dunno, seems a little staid, are we sure the kids are gonna go see this? Needs something...
Ah! There we go!
Well, it’s that time of year again, folks! Here we got a movie starring Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross, Roger Daltry of all fool people, plus a solid supporting cast of great British character actors like Charles Grey (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT), John Standing (THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, V FOR VENDETTA), Lee Montague (JESUS OF NAZARETH, MAHLER), Margaret Tyzack (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), Hildegard Neil (ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA). It’s co-written by the great Hammer Studios scribe Jimmy Sangster (who wrote many if not all of Hammer’s classics, including their genre-defining DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN), and what the hell! it’s directed by Richard Marquand of RETURN OF THE JEDI fame. Which of course raises that most terrifying of all questions in the world of obscure horror movies: “wow, look at this pedigree! How come I never heard of this before?” Every year you get one like this. And there’s always a reason, and usually it’s a pretty ironclad reason.

Well, to no one’s surprise, there’s a reason this one has been completely forgotten, but at least it’s a slightly different reason than, say, the despairing incompetence of BLEEDERS or the inexplicable non-plot of PRISON or the bungled opportunities of THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS or the perpetually shrinking anti-mystery of TRANSMUTATIONS. It’s closer to the reason you have never heard of THE AWAKENING: it’s consistently competent, but even more consistently boring. It’s a perfect study in how you can get good writing, solid direction, handsome cinematography, and above-average acting and still have it add up to not very much.

The plot is perfectly workable for this sort of thing; unexceptional American Katharine Ross (THE GRADUATE, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) and her comically Sam-Elliott-esque boyfriend (Sam Elliott, ROADHOUSE, FROGS) end up summoned to England to do a mysterious job (what, specifically, their profession is, I could not parse, and come to think of it they never actually show up or do the job they supposedly came over for), but end up in a motorcycle accident with a polite English gentleman named Jason Mountolive (John Standing), who positively insists they come stay at his quaintly sinister palatial country manor (which, it turns out, is in real life owned by Daltrey, who apparently offered its use if he could have a role in the film). Once there, they are surprised by the arrival of five other weirdos (Grey, Daltrey, Neil, Montague, Marianne Broome) with mysterious pasts, and quickly discover the homeowner is not quite what he appears to be. Soon, people are dying in mysterious ways, and you better believe it’s got something to do with the titular legacy.  

That sounds decent enough, right? And it sort of it. Almost none of THE LEGACY is actively bad. OK, the mucilaginous disco number that keeps clawing its way into completely inappropriate scenes is pretty egregious (“This does feel like a specifically disco kind of exciting,” quipped viewer Dan P in perhaps the single best line of the whole month), but mostly this is a movie which is never bad, without ever actually getting good. I suspect it was originally intended as a gothic mystery --which is what the screenplay, and the presence of Sangster in general seems to imply--, but it’s never very mysterious or very gothic, despite the genre-appropriate locale. As written, it needed to be a lot more sinister and foreboding than it ends up; the setting is right, but it’s inexplicably brightly lit and cinematographers Dick Bush (yes, really) and Alan Hume frame everything with a lackadaisical disinterest in conveying any kind of tone. So the plot is pretty much abandoned to its own devices, and I’m afraid it doesn’t quite cut it. It’s mildly mysterious, but in service of a mystery which turns out to be irritatingly straightforward; it doesn’t even offer any red herrings or anything, it turns out in the end that everything was exactly what it looked like from the start, and Katharine Ross is the only person who seems dim enough to be surprised by that point.

One can certainly imagine many ways in which this could have been made to work, with fairly minimal changes in script or performance. Obviously, the easiest route would have been to play up the gothic atmosphere and lurking menace, like they would have when Sangster was still working for Hammer. For a more modern approach, you could also play the scenario as more ambiguous, and make it seem like a slasher or a murder mystery, make us wonder who’s behind the killings (the movie that exists makes it clear whodunnit almost immediately). Alas, the movie chooses neither route. In fact, it doesn’t really seem to choose any route. Apparently sensing at the last minute that it desperately needs more whammy, it rather noncommittally drifts into being a by-the-numbers body count ten-little-Indians slasher by the end, except that the kills are nothing special (one of them is a guy choking on a chicken bone, not exactly riveting horror cinema in my opinion) and only five people die. But even at that, it also fumbles around with a protracted gunfight and various assorted detritus which clash bizarrely with its halfhearted instinct for setpiece death scenes. So it’s a gothic murder mystery bodycount movie, which isn’t very gothic or mysterious and doesn’t have much bodycount. What does that leave us with? Not a hell of a lot. Director Marquand is not without talent (in fact, he is able to scrounge some small interest during the scattered action-y scenes), but never finds an angle on this material. The result is a movie which is all dressed up with nowhere to go, mostly too restrained to get any mileage out of its hoarier aspects but certainly much too schlocky to transcend its genre trappings and become something else.

Unfortunately, this isn't in the movie. But obviously it should be.

As we discussed in PAY THE GHOST, this sort of misfire is a good reminder that making horror films requires a unique, more cinematic approach than other genres. Marquand, like plenty of other mainstream directors before him who took a horror gig or two at some point, was no doubt thinking this schlock is easy, if Jesus Fuckin’ Franco can put together a horror movie, then surely I, a well-trained and highly competent professional with a real budget and professional actors, should be able to knock this out in my sleep… only to find out it’s not quite so simple in practice. The things that most movies coast on --good performances, high production values, realistic dialogue-- won’t help you here. Here, you gotta use those ol’ Tools Of Pure Cinema to communicate how and why we should feel afraid. Fear is something with a very nebulous tie to reality. Realism isn’t going to save you here -- only art can do that. Too often we confuse good cinema with a reasonable approximation of real life; horror, by its very nature, puts the lie to that. Nightmares live in our soul, not in the literal world. If you're too squeamish to go bold on style, you're never going to get there. The lesson was learned. Marquand never returned to the genre. He did co-write the story for the 1993 Jean Claude van Damme action / familial drama NOWHERE TO RUN, though, so I find it very hard to stay angry at him.

Anyway. Right! THE LEGACY. It’s hard to stay focused on it, because it barely seems to stay focused on itself. The cast is fine, some even have a good moment or two, but no one really gets anything awesome to do, because there's nothing awesome in this movie (though thank God for Daltrey and Elliot, who at least ensure this isn’t entirely a repressed stuffy uppercrust British affair, and bring a few flickers of life to their extraneous characters). However, I do like the scene where Ross --haltingly, a little embarrassed-- asks if her eccentric cohorts are, uh, um, maybe involved in --this is silly, you're gonna laugh but-- uh, some kind of black magic? The affirmative response she gets is so cheerful and unabashed that I wish more of the movie had that kind of directness. But if there’s any reason to remember this movie at all, it’s the obvious highlight of the whole thing: lots of movies have gratuitous shower scenes, but how many of them use that beloved genre trope to completely forgo women, and instead focus their attention on Sam Elliot’s ass? Too few, I think. Too few. And I’m probably not the only one who thinks so: Elliott himself complained the movie was “15 years behind its time,” (he’s not wrong, but the problem isn’t that it’s old fashioned, the problem is it’s boring) but at least one person must have enjoyed that shower scene: Ross and Elliott, who met on the set, married a few years later, and they’re still together. How’s that for a legacy?

Good Kill Hunting

The Legacy of Maggie Walsh
It is a Legacy of Living Death. If it is, I totally missed the part where they make that clear.
There does seem to be some kind of legacy, sure.
10-Little-Indians, Supernatural Horror
Sam Elliot, Katherine Ross, Roger Daltry
Jimmy Sangster, possibly Charles Grey
Sam Elliot butt!
Dog attacks, and there’s a sinister white cat who never actually attacks anyone but does seem like a jerk.
No, although a ghost is mentioned in passing, possibly as a joke by the homeowner
There’s definitely something like that going on here.
Strongly implied to have some kind of were-cat situation
Yes, several times we see that our heroes are being watched.

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