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The cat and the canaries
An American couple who unexpectedly become guests in an English country house where odd things are afoot in THE LEGACY, the first feature from Jagged Edge and Return of the Jedi director Richard Marquand. Gort finds things to enjoy in a film that sometimes falls victim to its borrowings and the familiarity of some of its story components.
 

I doubt I'm the only one who fell a little bit in love with actor Sam Elliot for his portrayal of The Stranger in The Big Lebowski. I'd seen Elliot in other films and enjoyed his performances (think Virgil Earp in Tombstone for a start), but it was here that he became a cinematic icon, one I suspect he touchingly drew on for his role as cancer-stricken Marlboro Man Lorne Lutch in Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking. In common with stuntman-turned-actor Richard Farnsworth, I got to know Elliot through his roles as an older, grey-haired and moustachioed cowboy type. This is partly down to the simple fact that the majority of his early roles were in American TV series or movies, precious few of which I've seen or am even familiar with. My loss, perhaps. Thus when I sat down for The Legacy after making a sterling effort to avoid reading anything about it beyond its assigned genre, imagine my delight when the leading man turned out to be none other than Mr. Elliot, still sporting an admittedly cut-down version of his trademark moustache but with nary a grey hair on his handsome head. Good start, I'd say.

Elliot plays Pete Danner, whose interior designer girlfriend Maggie (Katharine Ross) has landed a job in Britain and quite fancies getting there ahead of schedule to take a few days and explore the English countryside. Initially reluctant, Pete agrees to travel with her and in no time at all they are tearing down country lanes on a motorbike that I assume Pete bought or hired on his arrival, given that it's a Triumph Bonneville. That said, Triumphs were once internationally popular and owned and ridden by the likes of Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman. And let's not forget that the hog Marlon Brando rode in The Wild One was his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T. I think I'm getting a little sidetracked here. I just really love those bikes.

Jason comforts Maggie after their near collision

Anyway, as Pete and Maggie speed round a woody corner they see too late that their way is blocked by an approaching Rolls Royce. The bike skids off the road, sending its driver and passenger tumbling, and I experience the teeniest pang of déja-vu. Wasn't this how David Cronenberg's Rabid began? Coincidence I'm sure. Fortunately, both Pete and Maggie fare better far than the badly injured Rose in Cronenberg's movie and are not seriously hurt. The banged-up bike, however, is going nowhere, so the car's concerned and debonair passenger Jason Mountolive (John Standing) invites the couple to his house. "You've got time to stop for tea," he says with a smile, adding, "In England, everything stops for tea."

I wasn't as surprised as Maggie to discover that Jason's house is actually a country mansion, and after dropping his visitors off at the front door, he and his driver Harry (Ian Hogg) drive to a different entrance out of sight of the others. It's here that we get our first sign that there's something a bit off about our Jason when he is helped out of the car by Harry in a manner that suggests his legs are barely functioning, legs that appeared to be working fine a short while ago when he bounced out of his car to come to Pete and Maggie's aid. And then there's his breathing. Not healthy at all. Almost animal-like, in fact. The camera also remains resolutely focussed on his feet, making you wonder what's happened to his face since it last put in a problem-free appearance.

Inside the house Pete and Maggie are met by a woman named Nurse Adams (Margaret Tyzack), who somewhat cryptically shows them to what she tells them is their room. They were only supposed to be staying for tea, but Adams assures them they'll be lucky to find transport of any kind this late in this neck of the woods. A little confused and just a tad disconcerted, Pete and Maggie opt to accept this unexpected invitation. It's a nice room, after all. Neither of them thinks to ask why the principal staff member of this particular house is not a butler but a nurse, one whose flowing headdress would have looked rather fetching at the outbreak of World War 1.

Roger Daltrey as Clive Jackson

A short while later the couple's canoodling is disturbed by the sound of a helicopter landing on the lawn outside. More guests have arrived, some of whom react a little oddly when they hear that Maggie was invited to the house by Jason, who remains conspicuously absent from the gathering. Last to show his face is the cheery Clive Jackson, a rock musician of some fame who is played by none other than Roger Daltrey. He does feel a little incongruous in this otherwise aristocratic company, and rumour once had it that he only landed the part because he loaned his house to the filmmakers to shoot in. Which is clearly untrue. The Mountolive mansion is played by Loseley House in Guilford and as far as I'm aware, Mr. Daltrey never lived there. It matters little, as Daltrey is on good form here and proves a likeable addition to an already interesting cast that includes familiar faces Lee Montague as Frenchman Jacques Grandier and an underused Charles Gray as former Nazi Karl Liebnecht. And yes, both are saddled with iffy European accents.

By this point Pete and Maggie have begun to suspect that something odd is afoot, particularly after Pete becomes trapped inside a scalding hot shower stall from which he only escapes by breaking its glass door. I'm awarding the film points here, as so many others would have made the glass unbreakable to up the supernatural factor of what Pete tetchily dismisses as "British plumbing." When he and Maggie join the other guests – who are suggestively referred to more than once as The Six – they learn that Jason is upstairs and dying, confusing news for two people who recently saw him in what appeared to be rude health. Eventually everyone is summoned to Jason's bedroom so that he can make final speech, and he does indeed appear to be at death's door. Surrounded by white curtains and tubed up to a life-support machine, he hoarsely summons Maggie then forcibly jams a signet ring on her finger, a ring also worn by members of The Six. Here she gets her first look at Jason as he is now and the sight prompts her to scream and fall into a dead faint. Once recovered, she frantically tries to remove the ring but it's clearly going nowhere. It's shortly after this that the first of the guests dies in mysterious and possibly supernaturally influenced circumstances.

A couple of viewings in I'm still not quite sure how I feel about The Legacy. There's certainly much to be said for its low-key approach to the mystery of just what is going on at Maison Mountolive, yet for that to really work we need to be as mystified as Maggie and Pete and experience any discoveries in tandem with them. If you're not one for horror movies, that may well be how it plays, but if you're a genre fan the chances are you'll have a good idea what's going on long before the film is ready to confirm it for you. It probably doesn't help that it borrows ideas and motifs from Richard Donner's The Omen, Dario Argento's Suspiria and even Michael Winner's The Sentinel, and there's more than a whiff of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians to the proceedings. The deaths are all colourful (note the first of those film influences), but for the most part it's the non-supernatural aspects that have the biggest impact. These range from an emergency tracheotomy to shots fired at Pete from the rooftop of the house, something actor Sam Elliot really sells as a genuine threat (watch the instinctive way he pulls open a door for protection when he dives behind a car). The nastiest one of all provides the film with its most effectively grisly scene, one involving a pack of hungry dogs and a bag of... oh, you wait.

Maggie and Pete make an escape attempt

The performances of the two American leads are very nicely pitched and Elliot and Ross make for an engagingly convincing couple (the two actors met on this film and were married a few years later). And while horror fans will likely be well ahead of them when it comes to the big mystery, watching them work it out and respond appropriately still makes for intermittently enjoyable viewing. I liked these two, and thus found myself caring for their fate. They're also not idiots. Long before they realise what's behind the oddness they decide that their best bet would be to get away from Mountolive Hall, and indeed make convincingly determined moves to do so. When their improvised plan stumbles, it's through no fault of their own, but a neat bit of geographical strangeness that was recycled by The Blair Witch Project 21 years later. I was also impressed by the unexpected moment when Maggie confronts the guests about what she suspects is going on, and instead of laughing at her or dismissing her claims as is the genre norm, they freely and even cheerfully admit it to her face.

The Legacy was originally written by Hammer's ace screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, but his script was reshaped by Patrick Tilley and Paul Wheeler into its current form. Sangster was not remotely happy with the result, writing dismissively in his 2009 memoir, Do You Want It Good or Tuesday?, "somewhere down the line, when the other guys were brought in, and Richard Marquand was taken on as director, the whole thing became a mess." And yes, this was Return of the Jedi, Eye of the Needle and Jagged Edge director Marquand's first feature, and from a filmmaking perspective he does a very solid job, though is aided admirably by acclaimed cinematographer Dick Bush (The Blood on Satan's Claw, Tommy, Sorcerer) and master editor Anne V. Coates, she of Lawrence of Arabia, The Elephant Man and Erin Brockovich, to name but a few. As a result of this collaboration between crew and cast, The Legacy is a well-made, well-acted and often entertaining film. It's just that as a horror movie – and the passing of time and an over-familiarity with some of its key elements are contributory factors here – it's not tense enough to be scary, not original enough to be surprising or – one aforementioned sequence aside – not nasty enough to be shocking.

sound and vision

When you elect to play the film you're offered the option to watch either the original 102 minute UK cut or the 100 minute version prepared for American release. The US cut has been remastered in HD and is framed in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, while the UK version is an open-matte, 1.33:1 transfer in standard definition. If this is your first viewing, go with the US cut, as the differences between the two are not significant.

Sam Elliot as Pete and Katherine Ross as Maggie

And the US cut looks terrific, with the picture really popping on brighter daylight exteriors but still holding its own indoors or when the light level drops. The contrast is never aggressive yet still ensures the black levels are appropriately inky. The colour is on the warm side, not unusual for a British film of this vintage, but when brighter and pastel colours do appear, they are attractively rendered. There's no damage here and I didn't see any dust spots. A fine film grain is visible for those of us who warm to such things.

The UK cut is standard definition and hasn't been restored. I've seen a lot worse, and the colour and contrast is better than I'd expected. It matters not as version is primarily for reference purposes.

The Linear PCM 2.0 stereo track has some minor range limitations (no beefy bass hits here) but the dialogue, effects and music are always clear, and there is some detectable stereo separation on some sound effects.

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are available on both versions of the film.

extra features

An Extended Legacy: Version Comparison (10:16)
For those unwilling to sit through both cuts of the film a few times with pencil and notebook in hand, this featurette usefully identifies all of the differences between the original UK cut and the one prepared for the film's American release. In most instances the footage exclusive to the UK (or in one case the US) version is textually introduced and played, but in a couple of cases both versions are played together to allow direct comparison. The differences are minimal and appear to be largely about the timing and pace of scenes, and where the changes are slightly more substantial I find it hard to say which version I prefer. Really glad this was included. By the way, it's not on the Special Features menu but is one of three options on offer when you elect to play the film.

Maggie helps a cat thaat is not what it seems

Audio Commentary with Kevin Lyons
This commentary by Kevin Lyons, editor of The Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Film and Television, is a treat. Lyons admits to being a little dismissive of the film on its release but that he's come to really like it since, then sets about trying to convince us of its many and varied qualities. And while he did not significantly alter my own views, for my money he does an absolutely bang-up job. He highlights the work and careers of the actors, director Marquand, cinematographer Dick Bush and editor Anne V. Coates, though like me is not a fan of Michael J. Lewis's sometimes inappropriate score. He ticks off a few of the obvious influences and even suggests a couple more that may or may not have been coincidental. He also repeatedly references the film's novelisation, notably when it differs from the film or clarifies elements about which the film is vague. I really enjoyed this.

An Editing Legacy (13:48)
One of British cinema's finest editors, Anne V. Coates, looks back at how and why she became an editor (she saw it as a possible route into directing at a time when women were rarely allowed near the director's chair) and what she looks for in a script when deciding whether to take a job on. She had fond memories of The Legacy, particularly of director Richard Marquand and producer David Foster, and of being allowed to direct second unit on scenes involving Mountolive's car, including a hair-raising near-collision in which it gets pranged. She recalls visiting Roger Daltrey's farm with her children, one of whom is Anthony Hickox (she was married to Douglas Hickox of Theatre of Blood fame), who went on to direct his share of genre movies, including Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Warlock: The Armageddon. This was shot for an earlier American Shout Factory release but is a most welcome inclusion here, given that Coates passed away last year.

The Make-up Effects of 'The Legacy' (10:47)
The film's specialist makeup artist Robin Grantham looks back at how he got into the business, the break he was given on The Land That Time Forgot, and working for Ken Russell on Lisztomania. There are some specifics on the makeup effects in The Legacy, as you'd expect, so definitely save this one for after the film. Another Shout Factory extra.

Ashes and Crashes (4:01)
Second unit director Joe Marks talks briefly about his work on the film, recalling that all he really wanted was an on-screen credit. He didn't get it.

Nurse Adams to the rescue...or not

Theatrical Trailer (1:43)
A fluffy, 4:3 framed but rather neatly edited sell that's loaded with spoilers.

Image Gallery
A 56 slide gallery featuring promotional stills of varying quality (the Spanish ones are particularly garish) and a few interesting posters.

Between the Anvil and the Hammer (27:06)
A documentary short directed for television by Richard Marquand back in 1973 that looks at the work six Liverpool policemen of differing posts and ranks. A blend of interview, narration and on-the-street footage, its principal focus is the relationship between the police and the local community. A little stiff in places by present-day standards, it still boasts footage that would not be out-of-place in a modern Street Crime UK style reality-TV series. There are some choice moments here. One beat cop almost parodies that stock gun-stays-in-the-holster character from American police dramas when he proudly states that he's never drawn his baton, while another ponders on the fact that beat bobbies don't carry guns and reasons that's not such a bad thing as we don't want to end up like America. The best chance grab of all occurs when a beat cop being interviewed as he walks suddenly breaks off to rush over and arrest a man he's spotted trying to steal a car.

Booklet
I do like the fact that Indicator start their booklets off with the complete credits for the films they accompany, rather than just the main ones. Nothing more to say on that, just an observation. The opening essay on the film is by writer and journal editor Julian Upton, and includes observations and information not found elsewhere on this disc's extras. Next there's a piece by Alan Jones and Mike Childs written for Cinefantastique (I may have this issue somewhere) after a visit to London's Bray Studios to watch the film being shot. It includes quotes from some of those involved it its production and again highlights details not found elsewhere in the extras. In an extract from his 2009 memoir, Do You Want It Good or Tuesday?, Jimmy Sangster then concisely outlines his problem with the changes made to his original script. Following this, there are extracts from the novelisation by John Coyne, with an emphasis on scenes that differ from those in the movie, plus some choice extracts from a few uncomplimentary contemporary reviews. Rounding things off is a short but welcome piece on Between the Hammer and the Anvil, which has no credited writer. The booklet is generously illustrated with production stills.

summary

An interesting and often enjoyable work that nonetheless lurks in the shadow of the films from which it takes influence (well, maybe not The Sentinel). Good performances, confident handling and sharp editing help, as do some decent effects and a couple of spectacular stunts. Time has not been kind to the film's efforts to keep what's going on a mystery or alarm us with it or a late film makeup effect that has the ring of late period Hammer about it, but I can't help suspecting I'll be pulling this disc off the shelf again in the not-too-distant future. As ever, Indicator's Blu-ray has done the film proud – great transfer, both cuts of the film and some damned good extras, particularly that commentary and the always fine booklet. Genre fans who prefer not to have the horror shouted at them should definitely give this a look.

The Legacy Blu-ray cover
The Legacy

UK / USA 1978
100 / 102 mins
directed by
Richard Marquand
produced by
David Foster
written by
Jimmy Sangster
Patrick Tilley
Paul Wheeler
story
Jimmy Sangster
cinematography
Dick Bush
Alan Hume
editing
Anne V. Coates
music
Michael J. Lewis
production design
Disley Jones
starring
Katherine Ross
Sam Elliot
Roger Daltrey
Charles Gray
Lee Montague
Hildegard Neil
John Standing
Margaret Tyzack
William Abney
Patsy Smart
Ian Hogg

disc details
region 0
video
1.85:1 / 1.33:1
sound
LPCM mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Version comparison
Audio Commentary with Kevin Lyons
Interview with editor Anne V. Coates
Interview with makeup artist Robin Grantham
Interview with second unit director Joe Marks
Trailer
Image gallery
Booklet

distributor
Indicator – Powerhouse Films
release date
29 July 2019
review posted
1 August 2019

See all of Gort's reviews