Although appearing several years after the final death knell had already sounded for Hammer Films in its usual form, it appears no-one remembered to tell the makers of creaky British-made Gothic yarn “The Legacy” that time had moved on by 1978 and that devilish doings set in and around old English country manor estates were no longer the currency of box office horror. This film must have looked so very old-fashioned to a cinema audience already weaned on the unrelenting terror of “The Exorcist”, by the time it was released in 1978. Curiously enough, though, it doesn’t really matter too much now: we can watch this latest, rather nice-looking all regions DVD release from Odeon Entertainment, and transport ourselves back to the cheesy fag end of British horror in the 1970s while noting that the film, which originates in a script penned by Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster, actually plays like an over-long feature-length episode of the ‘80s anthology series “Hammer House of Horror” (if only a rather average one) excepting its been executed on a much bigger budget which somehow also finds room for an incongruous romantic theme song by MOR songstress Kiki Dee. The fish-out-of-water American leads who get transported from their habitual sunny Los Angeles climes to the mist-shrouded depths of the Surrey countryside by the end of the pre-credit sequence (which then leads into a titles montage of the couple cavorting through picture postcard images of London and Ye Olde England) and who are played by an aging gracefully Katherine Ross (“The Graduate”, “The Stepford Wives”) and unwilling seventies male sex symbol Sam Elliot (here looking like a Littlewoods catalogue model – all Tom Selleck moustache and chunky knitwear) are a reminder of those early Robert L. Lippert-financed Exclusive productions from the ‘50s and other British seventies TV thriller anthologies being syndicated in the states at the time, like Brian Clemens’ “Thriller” -- which also went through a phase of doing that thing of importing American stars to pep up the transatlantic ratings of budget-conscious British fare. There are moments here when the result of these particular efforts feels more “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “A Fish Called Wanda” than “The Omen”, as a procession of forelock tugging villagers and eccentric, well-spoken British toffs driving Rolls Royces predominate among the supporting roles, dispensing clichéd homilies about how in England ‘everything stops for tea’ and how, apparently, in the far-flung wilds of Hampshire, no-one ever has cause to rent a taxi, so you strangers will just have to spend the night in this conveniently located mansion amid a rambling Elizabethan-era estate. Helmsman Richard Marquand’s directorial career was cut short prematurely but he somehow managed to graduate from this competently managed occult potboiler to working for George Lucas on “Return of the Jedi” and later, the bloody ‘80s suspense thriller starring Glen Close, “Jagged Edge”, before being struck down by a fatal heart attack aged forty-nine. “The Legacy” takes the form of a standard country house mystery story but one eked out by an army of screenwriters who transformed Sangster’s original material (which was apparently set in a hospital in Detroit!) into an unrecognisable collection of baroque supernatural set-pieces welded together by a supporting cast of respectable British thesps (and an embarrassing turn from Roger Daltrey sporting Kevin Keegan’s curly perm) espousing an incomprehensible plot that exudes an air of having been cobbled together without too much regard for coherence – a trait which its illogical occult trappings just about allow it to get away with in much the same manner as Dario Argento’s similarly themed “Suspiria”, released around the same time.
Ross and Elliot play a photogenic, LA-based design duo -- architect Margaret Walsh and decorator Pete Danner -- who give the impression of being more friends with benefits than traditional girlfriend/boyfriend material. They’re contacted by a mysterious British organisation and offered $50,000 in advance to travel to England where they will be asked to carry out an unspecified job, the details of which aren’t to be fully explained to them until after they’ve arrived. Setting aside his natural suspicions at such a contrived plotting device, Pete eventually reluctantly agrees to the trip and after a spot of tourist sight-seeing in London, the duo take a motorbike ride through those traditional narrow, tree-lined country lanes so familiar to viewers of “The Avengers”, “The Persuaders” and other British produced action series of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and get ploughed off the road into a leafy ditch by a Rolls Royce sporting personalised number plates. The duo are invited back to the vehicle occupant’s rambling country estate by way of apology, while Pete’s damaged bike is repaired by gruff locals in a nearby village composed of quaint thatched cottages. Their host turns out to be a friendly, tweed suited English millionaire gent by the name of Jason Mountolive (John Standing), who promptly takes a funny turn and disappears immediately upon their arrival at his Elizabethan stately home (filmed at Loseley Park near Guildford, Surrey).
However, the running of the place, which is handsomely clad in Tudor/Jacobean dark oak wainscoting and adorned with old ancestral oil paintings, is administered by a large retinue of servant staff and for some reason Ravenhurst employs a full-time nurse -- Nurse Adams (Essex-born theatre actress Margaret Tyzack) -- to preside over Jason Mountolive’s mysterious, debilitating malady, which apparently means he has not got that much longer to live. Also, there are loads of smug looking cats slinking around the place, a suggestive detail which is never fully explained. Strange events occur on the couple’s first morning when Pete gets locked in the glass panel shower as scolding hot water suddenly cascades from the showerhead for no reason. Soon the couple are joined by a diverse collection of eccentric but super rich European guests who have been invited to stay by Mountolive for some sort of get-together to discuss an inheritance, and the couple begin to realise that their presence has been planned in advance -- the mysterious non-existent design job being simply a pretext to get them (or rather Margaret) into the country. Among the throng helicoptered onto the manicured archery lawn outside the Ravenhurst estate, is millionaire French hotelier Jacques Grandier (Lee Montague); a former Nepolitan brothel madam turned championship swimmer (?)Maria Gabrieli (real-life Olympic athlete Marianne Broome); fashion guru Barbara Kirstenburg (Hildegard Neil); and ex-Nazi turned arms dealer Karl Liebnecht (Charles Gray, who has a ball hamming it up with the aid of his lovingly exaggerated Germanic accent). This little lot aren’t too backward in coming forward about the fact that they all belong to a Satanic secret society – a powerful illuminati if you will – all of whom have gained their great riches by pledging their loyalties to Mountolive, who is in turn the ancestor of a pair of Elizabethan aristocrats -- Lord and Lady Walsingham -- burned at the stake (by the orders of Queen Elizabeth I herself, no less!) for dabbling in black magic and witchcraft back in the 16th century. Later, Roger Daltrey turns up late as an unlikely music mogul and producer called Clive Jackson, who has a taste for the Satanic-inspired good life. (‘We don’t fly around on broomsticks. We’ve got helicopters and Rolls Royces … it’s quite nice really’)
Mountolive seems to have a particular interest in Margaret though, summoning her to a special bedside induction ceremony along with all the other acolytes, where he seems to have taken rather a turn for the worse since we last saw him: now he’s hooked up to high-tech life-support equipment, shrouded behind obscuring white veils while his worsening condition is being constantly monitored on security cameras by nurse Adams; when Margret is beckoned forward to be ‘blessed’ with the coven’s signature ring which afterwards cannot be removed, Mountolive’s hands are seen by her to have become horribly transformed into gnarled talons and his head is a rubbery misshapen monstrosity. The other members of the cult seem to believe they have been brought here to decide who gets to inherit Mountolive’s satanic power upon his death, but before long the Agatha Christi-like “And Then There Were None” vibe is compounded by the fact that these doyens of the Devil start getting killed off one by one in grandly overwrought supernatural-based accidents. Marquand’s staging of these sequences is often nicely done and the macabre, Omen-like deaths are quite memorable, particularly Maria’s dispatch in the large indoor swimming pool which suddenly develops an impenetrable film across the top that traps her beneath the surface. One particularly nasty sequence sees a gruesome emergency tracheotomy having to be administered by the nurse with a kitchen knife after someone starts choking on a chicken bone (even though they’ve only been eating ham and pate at the buffet … spooky!) There’s a Suspiria-esque death-by-glass-splinter killing after a mirror shatters by itself and hurls hundreds of broken shards into the unfortunate victim stood in front of it at the time, and Liebnecht’s demise involves Charles Gray being consumed by a huge ball of flame which flairs from the ornate fireplace in the study. Ravenhurst’s dodgy staff subsequently appear to be surreptitiously bunging bin bag-wrapped bodies into lakes in the dead of night or feeding human remains to the hounds rather than call in the authorities about the spate of weird deaths taking place at the mansion and so, understandably, Margaret and Pete decide to attempt an escape from their enforced confinement, only to find that all picturesque country roads around the nearby village appear to lead back to the Ravenhurst estate! Meanwhile, the other survivors are getting ever-more twitchy as well, begining to suspect that one of them is offing the others in order to make sure that they’re the one to inherent the Walsingham powers from Mountolive.
It’s hard not to become aware around the half-way mark that the film is noticeably languorous in some of its pacing, much of the content is completely absurd and later plot twists and revelations involving Margret being the apparent reincarnations of a 16th century witch, seems to have been added without regard for how to make sense of it at the end; and yet everything is always delivered with a straight face even if much of the plot simply doesn’t make an awful lot of sense when you consider how all the various elements of it are supposed to fit together. Yet, I have to say, I found this ludicrously old-fashioned British shaggy dog’s terror tale quite entertaining and very well made, with lots of atmosphere and enjoyable performances from a classy cast who know they’re slumming it somewhat, but have evidently determined to enjoy themselves anyway. Odeon Entertainment’s UK DVD, part of its Best of British collection, provides an excellent transfer and a decent sounding Dolby Stereo audio track. Disc extras consist only of trailers for other Best of British titles but the DVD case comes with excellent liner notes by James Oliver, in which we learn that some of this was actually shot at Bray studios – a fitting coda to a heritage of horror which had clearly seen better days, but which is still capable of entertaining us with its unique stylings all these years later. “The Legacy” is well worth adding to your British horror flick collections.
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