Friday, September 16, 2011

Legacy, The (1978)

... aka: Legacy of Maggie Walsh, The

Directed by:
Richard Marquand

Booking an interior design job from a mysterious client in London, who doesn't quite clue them in on what exactly they'll be doing but offers up a 50,000 advanced bonus, American architect Maggie Walsh (Katharine Ross) and her boyfriend Pete Danner (Sam Elliott), also an architect, decide to fly from Los Angeles to England for a few weeks. While they're out taking a country drive on their motorcycle, they're run off the road by a Rolls Royce being driven by Harry (Ian Hogg), the chauffeur of wealthy Jason Mountolive (John Standing). Because their bike is badly damaged, Jason offers to take them back to his home (a huge, ornate mansion called Ravenhurst) for some tea while they're waiting for repair work to be done. The two are set up in a guest room, explore around the home (which includes a huge indoor pool) and then begin to take notice of some rather peculiar behavior from the staff, their host (who we learn is terminally ill) and a handful of jetsetter guests who have just arrived there via helicopter.

Amongst the elite guests, we have Jacques Grandier (Lee Montague), who owns nearly every luxury hotel along the Mediterranean, Barbara (Hildegarde Neil), who owns the largest publishing empire in Europe, Maria Gabrieli (Marianne Broome), who is a championship swimmer and the most prominent hostess in Rome, Karl Liebknecht (Charles Gray), a former decorate soldier for Hitler, industrial complex making weapons. Clive Jackson (Roger Daltry, yes, that one), who is a successful musician. Somehow, using his wealth and "power," Jason had managed to turn all of their lives around. Each had a rocky beginning to life (one was an impoverished refugee, another a former Nazi soldier, another a Parisian hooker, etc.) and now they're all wealthy and successful. They're all beholden to Jason and must return to his mansion whenever he asks them to. The home is also fully staffed with a bunch secretive cooks, butlers, etc., who seem led by the mysterious Nurse Adams (Margaret Tyzack). Why Maggie (who's had a ring that matches one worn by the other guests and won't come off slipped on her finger by a rapidly deterorating Jason) has been summoned there is all part of the mystery.

After Pete is almost scalded in a burning hot shower, Maria turns up dead in the pool and no one seems to be willing to help them leave, Maggie and Pete decide to high tail it out of there. They steal a few horses, make it to a neighboring village and then steal a car, but no matter what road they take they end up right back at the house. Resigned to her fate, Maggie heads back in to face her fears head on. One of the guests seems to be using black magic to kill off the others. Someone is burned to death by fire that shoots out of the fireplace and then has their burnt remains fed to some vicious dogs. Daltry is given an unsuccessful tracheotomy after choking on a chicken bone and shards of glass from an exploding mirror impale one of the others.

Clearly made to cash-in of the 70s craze of Satanic-themed films spurned on by the box office success of THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE OMEN (1976), this major studio release has obviously been afforded a rather healthy budget and the whole thing has this glossy, professional sheen to it. Not only does the film look fantastic, but the cinematographer has really tried to spice up the proceedings with some interesting camerawork and odd camera placement (including one inside a shower nozzle!). The art direction is also exceptional, and the mansion the movie takes place in is incredible to look at it. Though the leads are a little on the mediocre side, some of the supporting performances are pretty interesting, particularly those given by Standing, Tyzack and Gray.

All that said, this film isn't very well-written. Apparently three different writers (one of whom was Jimmy Sangster) worked on the screenplay and it was drastically altered from its original version. What's left is muddled, confusing, full of obtuse biblical references and cluttered with so much mumbo jumbo that the plot ends up with more holes in it than Neil's pin-cushioned body. It also fails to deliver a single chill despite the awesome Gothic setting, probably because the movie can't decide whether it wants to be a moody Gothic horror film or a lighthearted mystery / romance romp. The score is also a little on the light side. Hell, the whole thing opens with a hokey love song ("a looooove that never grows ollllllld!") by someone named Kiki Dee and throughout the film we're continually tortured with an instrumental version of the same song. Needless to say, that really doesn't up the fear factor any.

But hell, let's just end this on a good note because, surprisingly enough, the movie itself ends up on a good note with a very interesting resolution to Maggie's predicament. I can't really spoil what happens but it really flips the concept of 'good vs. evil' right over onto its head and I didn't really see it coming.


Return, The (1973)

Directed by:
Sture Rydman

Ambrose Bierce (one of 13 children from an impoverished Meigs County, Ohio family) was a fascinating figure who not only was a prolific short story writer, but also a newspaper editor, critic, satirist, poet, journalist and soldier who served in the army during the Civil War. He dabbled in both business and politics, was nicknamed 'Bitter Bierce' because of his caustic, sardonic wit, traveled and worked abroad and famously disappeared never to be seen again sometime during the Mexican revolution (the 71-year-old was last seen in the presence of rebel troops). Bierce is perhaps most famous for his 1891 short story 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,' which has gone on to influence countless writers and filmmakers over the years and itself was filmed as a Cannes Award-winning short in 1962. Bierce also wrote several other ghost stories, which leads us to this short subject. It runs about half-an-hour and was based (only partially) on Bierce's 1891 story 'The Middle Toe of the Right Foot.' I'm not sure where (or even if) it was screened theatrically, but it turned up as part of the PBS series The American Short Story Collection sometime during the 1980s. Many episodes of that series were issued on VHS by Monterey as part of their "Short Story Collection" series. This one was paired with THE MAN AND THE SNAKE (1972), another Bierce adaptation, for the home video release. Both were made by the team of director / writer Sture Rydman, producer Elizabeth McKay and co-writer Brian Scobie.

Lonely spinster Miss Parker (Rosalie Crutchley) has been employed as the caretaker at a huge home for the last twenty years. It's been up for sale the entire time and over the two decades she's seen living there all alone, not one potential buyer has expressed interest in purchasing it or, hell, even renting out a room there. Could be because its reputation precedes it. Many years ago, an unhinged man who detests physical deformity in women ended up getting married and then presumably flipped out once he discovered his new bride had one of her toes removed. He was convicted of shooting her dead with a rifle on their wedding night and then was committed to an insane asylum for life. However, things aren't quite so simple, as a second potential suspect in the killing (a spurned admirer of the bride) was able to walk away a free man. Stephen Royds (Peter Vaughan) - an intense fellow who shows up there late one evening wanting to see the property - doesn't seem to care. In fact, he seems particularly interested in the home's sordid history and would like to see if the the rumors of the home being haunted are true...

Finding overlooked gems like this one is why I love doing what I do. Though not well-known and apparently seldom-watched (judging by the fact you can't even find a review for it anywhere online!), this is an outstanding and chilling ghost tale that deserves an audience. Making due with one location, two actors and absolutely no special effects or visual fireworks to speak of, this is a compact, well-told and economically resourceful tale that delivers creepiness in spades. The sparse yet claustrophobic art direction suits the premise perfectly, as does Douglas Slocombe's shadowy photography and a wonderfully eerie, otherworldly-sounding score from Marc Wilkinson. Though the film actually swipes several key images from the Bierce story, it also incorporates ideas from the work of A.M. Burrage; an author I'm unfamiliar with. Either way, the melding of two different authors is pulled off here flawlessly. Exceptional performances from both lead actors complete the package.

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