'The Legacy' (1978): A unique, refreshing horror gem (review)
4.5Overall Score

The 1970s and 1980s boast arguably the strongest lineup of horror films. With the likes of “The Exorcist,” “Halloween,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and “Hellraiser,” it’s often referred to as the golden age of horror. While the 90s saw its share of horror gems, the 70s and 80s truly dominated. Although it’s a lesser known flick, the 1978 horror film “The Legacy” is a unique, stylized horror flick that offers a fresh take on the genre.

Maggie Walsh (Katherine Ross) and her boyfriend Pete Danner (Sam Elliott) are a pair of interior decorators residing in California. A mysterious British client contracts their services. However, this anonymous benefactor doesn’t reveal their identity or the job. But with a substantial offering of $50,000, Walsh and Danner accept. Moreover, the couple opts to visit England early for a pre-work vacation.

A traffic accident leaves Danner and Walsh stranded. Seemingly by coincidence, the pair collides with a limousine carrying the mystery benefactor, Jason Mountolive (John Standing). Mountolive offers Walsh and Danner a lift to his sprawling estate, Ravenhurst. Upon arrival, Walsh and Danner learn that Mountolive invited five beneficiaries to his estate. Each of the guests is highly-accomplished. Strangely, despite Mountolive’s lively appearance the day before, the beneficiaries describe Jason as wasting away and dying. Maggie gets pulled into a twisting plot when she’s given a signet ring bearing the Mountolive family crest. She tries unsuccessfully to remove it. Further compounding the intrigue, the guests begin dying off in apparent accidents.

“The Legacy” doesn’t masquerade its supernatural elements. Nor does it attempt to hide the identity of the perpetrator. Rather, it’s fairly obvious from the onset that Mountolive is behind the deaths of his beneficiaries in various creative ways. These mediums are devilishly fun: choking on a chicken bone, drowning in a pool. Plus, the demises are all the more engaging because of the clearly shady circumstances. Clive Jackson (Roger Daltrey) who gets offed by a chicken bone didn’t eat any chicken. Maria (Marianne Broome) drowns in a pool despite being a renowned swimmer.

The style is superb. I enjoy the magnificent, rambling Ravenhurst. For the mansion, Daltrey offered the user of his estate in exchange for a small role in the film. The blatant witchcraft and occult themes which involve most of the guests reminds me of Roman Polanski’s classic “Rosemary’s Baby.” “Did they say what we’re gonna be buildin’?” Danner queries. Walsh replies that the invitation letter leaves this unclear. However, they do come highly recommended. “Highly recommended. By who?” Danner continues. The set up is fairly standard fare, but entertaining nonetheless.

There’s a solid mix of mystery and campiness. At the beginning, there’s an admittedly cheesy and overly happy montage where Danner and Walsh explore England with “Another Side of Me” by Kiki Dee. The soundtrack is at times too upbeat. Jarringly so. Later on in the film, there’s a lively sequence where Danner and Walsh attempt to escape which is when the black magic themes become even more apparent. It’s a joyous scene serenaded by cheery music that doesn’t fit with the overall theme of the film.

But it’s these aspects which make “The Legacy” such a unique horror romp. Unlike movies such as “The Exorcist,” “The Legacy” mixes horror and dry humor. It doesn’t really try to be frightening. Instead, it’s an offbeat flick with overt occult happenings and a strange albeit pleasant balance of horror-tinged and upbeat moments. The highlight is its memorable and unpredictable ending. It ranks among the most unique finales I’ve seen, and I honestly can’t think of another movie that concludes in such a shocking fashion. Walsh makes an uncanny decision, one that arrives as a complete role reversal for her character’s depiction at the film’s onset.

Even the making of “The Legacy” stands apart. Ross and Elliott met on set and ended up marrying. Plus, a novelization debuted which was concurrently written with the film. Yet while “The Legacy” hit theatres on schedule in Europe, it was delayed in North America. The novel though preceded the film and became a surprise hit. Therefore, when the movie did launch it performed incredibly well at the box office. So the delay actually benefited the movie.

Ultimately, “The Legacy” is not a film devoid of tropes. It’s a bit uneven in places, notably with its odd pacing and bizarrely unfitting joyful moments. Sam Elliott’s drawling accent also feels decidedly misplaced in the English countryside, particularly with his lines like “you’re gettin’ tough to deal with, Slim” which feel more at home in the American old west. But the setting is absolutely gorgeous with an English country backdrop and sprawling mansion. Guests are dispatched in creative ways. Additionally, the epic conclusion with a radical character choice makes “The Legacy” a shocking, delightfully refreshing thriller.