Blu-ray

{Blu-ray Review} Another Way of Life: The Legacy (1978)

“What if it’s some kind of black magic?”

Released in UK cinemas in 1978, The Legacy represents an intriguing mishmash of horror subgenres, some of which were on the wane by the late ‘70s, while others were just starting to rise.

The shadow of Satanism shockers like The Omen, which had just come out a couple of years before, may hang most heavily over The Legacy, but they also rub shoulders with elements from old dark house chillers, Hammer’s gothic horrors, supernatural gialli like Suspiria, and even proto-slashers.

Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions
Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions

The film’s look and the seriousness with which it treats its subject matter even call to mind films like Nicolas Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now—as does Sam Elliott’s very manly mustache—even if The Legacy can’t aspire to such artistic heights as that film.

UK film critic James Oliver has pointed out the similarities between The Legacy and Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which came out only the year before, but in some ways The Legacy also feels something like a bridge between Argento’s Suspiria and Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake.

There’s the competition within a fairly small group of powerful practitioners of black magic, there’s the young foreign woman who comes in to be the proverbial chosen one, there’s a deformed and barely alive benefactor who isn’t really seen in full until the final reel, pulling the strings.

Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions
Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions

With its memorable cover art featuring a cat’s head and a sinister, clutching hand, The Legacy became a mainstay of the VHS horror market after its theatrical run in the U.S. in ’79. It was directed by Richard Marquand, who would go on to helm Return of the Jedi, from a screenplay by Hammer’s own Jimmy Sangster, among others.

While that seems like it would explain the creaky English manor house setting on the film, Sangster has actually written that his original draft of the screenplay took place in a hospital in Detroit, and that, “God only knows where the English country house appeared from. I’d given up on them years ago.”

Wherever the English country house came from, it’s hard to imagine The Legacy without it. For all those other horror subgenres I mentioned up above, the one that The Legacy might most closely resemble is an Agatha Christie whodunnit. In fact, it’s basically And Then There Were None with Satanists.

Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions
Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions

Everything is played with an extremely straight face, but that doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t fun. The buttoned-up British setting combined with over-the-top horror shenanigans keeps things enjoyable, even while the film drags in spots.

It helps that The Legacy boasts a solid cast of grown-up actors. Katherine Ross and Sam Elliott’s mustache play the American couple who are lured to the English countryside for a job only to find themselves trapped in a manor house full of dark secrets, surrounded by uncommunicative locals, sinister servants, and unseen figures watching them from cutouts in the wall while breathing laboriously.

The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey helps to fill out the rest of the cast, which includes a rogues’ gallery of aristocratic Satanists; a German arms dealer, a publisher, the owner of a string of hotels, and so on.

This roundup of the usual suspects are played by genre stalwarts like Charles Gray, John Standing, and Margaret Tyzack as the white-garbed Nurse Adams whose two-color spectacles call to mind the heterochromic white cat that haunts the film.

Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions
Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions

Where Agatha Christie had her “Ten Little Indians” (or other, even more racist variants), here we have the “select six,” a group of wealthy individuals who owe their fortunes—and, indeed, possibly even their lives—to the mysterious master of the house, who makes Ross’s Margaret a member of the devil’s half-dozen by slipping a phoenix ring onto her finger that she can’t remove.

While The Legacy spends a lot of time playing coy with what’s really going on—and, indeed, the plot to lure Ross and Elliott to England seems unduly complicated—when it does finally make with the revelations, it does so in a surprisingly pragmatic manner. When Margaret confronts the six and asks if they practice black magic, Daltrey’s character informs her that it’s, “just another way of life.”

That their unseen benefactor is a stand-in for the devil is similarly obvious, and, in case it’s not, is spelled out explicitly more than once. When Margaret asks one of the six about him, she is told that, “He will fulfill every whim, every fancy, every dream. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man. When he gives you gifts, I tell you accept them. Enjoy them.”

It’s all very familiar, even while tropes from any half-dozen movies are jumbled together to form the film’s haphazard screenplay. Naturally, before all is said and done, there is a painting that looks just like Ross’s Margaret. It’s that kind of movie.

Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions
Photos Courtesy of David Foster Productions

When the magic happens—mostly in the scenes that yield the film’s body count—it’s both obvious and subtle. Perhaps the best of these is the first kill, a drowning sequence that is at once simply accomplished and chilling in its implications. There are also mirror shard stabbings, an impromptu tracheotomy, and a pretty creepy burnt body that’s still twitching a bit.

Sam Elliott’s mustache attempts to flee the manor house with Ross’s Margaret in tow, first by horse and then by stolen Rolls Royce, but their route takes them back to the front of the house, no matter how many country roads they try. It’s a simple bit of movie black magic, but effective nonetheless, which might also be a good description for The Legacy as a whole.

The region-free Indicator Series Blu-ray release comes with an extensive booklet covering everything from the production of the film to contemporary critical evaluations to the novelization by John Coyne. Pretty much all of the quotes in this review have been culled from it.

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