The Legacy is one of those sophisticated devil-worshipper films that were popular during the 1970s following Rosemary’s Baby. While it has some narrative flaws, it was one of the staples of my late-night TV viewing as a teenager and I still have a fondness for it. The story plays out as if it were an old-fashioned, country-house murder mystery and features a number of grisly, magically induced baroque deaths. But there’s really little doubt about who’s responsible in the end.
Los Angeles architect Maggie Walsh (Katharine Ross) receives a job offer in England. The work itself isn’t clearly defined, but the letter encloses a check for $50,000 as a retainer–a massive amount of money in the 1970s–and asks that Maggie be in the UK by a specific date a couple of weeks away. Her business partner and lover Pete Danner (Sam Elliott)* is dubious about taking a job they know nothing about, but the check is certainly real.
Maggie decides to accept. In fact, she wants to go right away to spend a few days as a tourist and to look up “where her English blood came from” before meeting with her client.
During the opening credits, accompanied by the movie theme song sung by Kiki Dee, we see Pete and Maggie in London, then zipping around the countryside on a motorcycle. They pass through a charming little village, stop to have a picnic lunch beside a stream, then ride down a narrow lane where they swerve off suddenly into the trees to avoid a crash with a Rolls Royce coming up the other way.
The owner of the Rolls (John Standing) is extremely apologetic as he checks the couple for injuries. They aren’t hurt, but the motorcycle is a bit banged up.
The gentleman offers to take them to his house for a spot of tea while the local mechanic comes for the bike and repairs it. Only when they’re actually in the back of the limo does he introduce himself as Jason Mountolive.
After a brief stop in that village for Harry the chauffeur to speak to the garage mechanic, they drive on to Jason’s house, Ravenshurst, which is a lovely old mansion on a grand estate.
Jason sends his guests in through the front door, telling them that “Adams” will take care of them. He stays in the car as it goes around to the back. While he seemed perfectly fine while talking to Maggie and Pete after the accident, something is seriously wrong with him; he’s very weak, and the chauffeur has to help him out of the car and up the back stairs to his room.
Maggie and Pete, meanwhile, are impressed by the gorgeous interior of the house. They see no sign of Adams or anyone else, apart from a white cat with mismatched eyes like David Bowie–one green and one blue.
Adams (the magnificent Margaret Tyzack) appears on the minstrel’s gallery above the great hall. She’s the nurse who looks after Mr Mountolive, but she also acts as housekeeper. She shows the young couple up to their room–which surprises and bewilders them, since they thought they were only stopping in for a cup of tea. Adams explains that the village shops close early and there’s no hope of renting a car from the garage. They won’t mind spending the night?
Pete and Maggie agree to “rough it” in this modernized medieval splendor. To my disappointment, they never do actually get any tea.
After they’ve settled in, tried out the bed, and had a nap, they discover that they aren’t Jason’s only guests this weekend. The couple hears the sound of a helicopter landing on the front lawn. Pete watches from the bedroom window as four people get out, including Charles “It’s just a jump to the left” Gray.
Jason also watches the arrival of his guests from another window. He’s still up and about at this point, but it’s the last time we’ll get a good look at him until the end of the movie.
Maggie had no idea she would be at Ravenshurst this afternoon, but the conversation of these new arrivals informs us that she was expected: they ask the butler as he loads their baggage into a go-cart if “the American” is there yet. He affirms that she is, and that she’s brought a friend with her.
Pete decides to wash up before he and Maggie go down to meet the others. We are treated to the sight of Sam Elliott getting into a shower, but the water gets too hot and he can’t turn it off. He has to break the glass door to get out before he’s badly scalded. Not unnaturally, he blames this on British plumbing.
Maggie goes downstairs to ask for some first-aid supplies from the nurse.
I won’t be giving too much away to reveal that among Nurse Adam’s multiple duties, she is also the white cat. That’s thrown at the viewer almost from the beginning. But this is the only time during the movie where it’s hinted that the rest of the staff are cats as well. As Maggie approaches the kitchen and knocks on the door, we see a few quick shots of numerous cats on a big wooden table, on shelves, on countertops. When she opens the door a moment later, there are no cats in the kitchen. The servants–Harry, the butler, cook, parlourmaid, and the outdoor staff–are all seated around the table.
After Maggie gets some antibiotic ointment and bandages and goes back upstairs to tend to Pete’s cuts, Adams resumes her interrupted talk to the staff: Mr. Mountolive, as they all know, is very ill. In fact, he’s not expected to live much longer.
“Then who will be the new master?” asks the cook.
We do not hear Adams’s reply.
While Pete tries to phone the garage in the village about the motorcycle, Maggie meets a late arrival to the party, musician Clive Jackson (Roger Daltrey).
The thing that amuses me about Daltrey’s character is that he’s sold his soul to become a rock star, and he’s not even as big a rock star as Roger Daltrey is in real life without, as far as I know, selling his soul to anybody. Maggie has no idea who he is; he has to introduce himself when he first comes in, and she later asks if he and the others are all in the hotel business.
It’s Jacques who is a hotelier, owner of numerous deluxe hotels around Europe. As for the rest, Carl is a former Nazi who’s done very well in weapons manufacturing since the war, Barbara’s the head of an international publishing house, and Maria’s a champion swimmer. They all wear large and elaborate signet rings that feature the Mountolive family crest, which is seen all over the house. It’s even on the bottom of the huge indoor pool that we’re told Jason built just for Maria.
They’re all pretty frank about how they’ve achieved success in their individual fields, attributing it to (as Clive puts it): “Your friend and mine.” If they don’t explain what that means, it’s because they assume that Maggie already knows what they’re talking about.
Unlike most horror movies, where everybody is sinister and secretive, this group of guests is happy to answer questions honestly whenever Maggie asks them. The problem is that they don’t understand what’s really going either, as they’ll realize quite soon.
Maria’s the first to go, in a scene that disturbed me when I used to watch this movie on late-night TV, and remember most vividly. While the rest of the party is chatting in the great hall over pre-dinner drinks, she goes for a swim in her pool. After some underwater camerawork showing her swimming skills, she comes up for air–only there’s suddenly an invisible barrier on the surface of the water, trapping her. She can’t break through it and after a few minutes’ struggle, she drowns.
The butler reports that she’s had “an accident” and the conclusion is that she must have bumped her head while diving. Pete, who watched her swimming for awhile, doesn’t buy this explanation. He didn’t see a mark on her when he fished her out of the pool.
He’s not the only one; Carl and Jacques also wonder about Maria’s strange death.
None of the guests have seen Jason since they arrived. When Maggie is invited to see him that evening, she’s surprised at how ill he is, considering that he was up and driving around that afternoon. At first, she doesn’t realize that he’s the patient in the large bedroom that’s been converted into an elaborate isolation ward with all the latest medical equipment and monitors. The bed is swathed by white curtains and plastic drapes, behind a partition of glass. Nurse Adams keeps an eye on her patient’s condition from her station via a security camera.
The other guests (apart from Pete, who wasn’t invited) are already seated. Maggie joins them to hear Jason’s words, spoken in a raspy, breathless voice through a speaker:
“My legacy is passed… The ring each of you wear is a symbol of power, the power that brings us together. To you I bequeath my power, my knowledge, my estate.”
He’s already told Maggie that he’s waited a long time to see her; now, he asks her to come closer and receive the blessing of the ring.
She goes through a door in the partition and, as she pulls back the curtains around the bed, a withered hand with talon-like nails and wearing a signet ring emerges and seizes her by the wrist. Before she can break free, he’s placed a ring just like his on her finger.
To further Maggie’s distress, she can’t get the ring off. She’s still desperately trying to remove it her room later that evening. Pete, who remains a rationalist, says that her finger’s swollen and the best thing to do is relax. While he’s out trying to phone the garage in the village again, the white cat comes into their room to comfort Maggie.
Carl and Jacques discuss Jason’s bequest. They understand it as a sort of tontine: the estate was to be divided between the six of them–five now that Maria’s dead. They agree that her drowning was suspicious; expert swimmers don’t bump their heads. But Jacques doesn’t see how it can be murder. He (and Barbara later) rather naively says that the only motive would be money, and they all have plenty of that.
“What about power?” Carl responds. “Jason’s power?”
Later that night, one of the servants carries a bundle that looks like a body out of the house and dumps it.
Over breakfast, Nurse Adams informs Pete and Maggie that the police took away Maria’s body very early that morning and will want to talk to them, since they were the last people to see Maria before her accident. They can’t leave Ravenshurst. Since he’s seen no sign of police, Pete’s suspicious about this too. He and Maggie decide to leave any way they can.
This is my favorite part of the movie, because I love things that apparently distort our usual sense of dimensions and spacial realities.
Maggie and Pete sneak into the stables to borrow a pair of horses, with some vigorous objection from the stablehands who try to prevent them leaving. They ride across country until they reach the strangely unpopulated village. No, wait. The butcher–who looks looks remarkably like the butler–comes out of his shop after they ride past.
When they get to the garage, they find the motorcycle disassembled and parts scattered on the floor. The mechanic isn’t there, but we hear the sound of a cat meowing.
As the couple wonder what to do next, the chauffeur drives up to the post-office/village shop and goes inside. Maggie suggests they take the Rolls. Which they do.
Harry watches them from within the shop, but doesn’t seem very upset as they drive off. The postmistress looks exactly like the cook.
Maggie and Pete make their escape dashing down the winding country lanes… until they come to the front gates of Ravenshurst.
Thinking they’ve taken a wrong turn, they head down another road, but wind up back at the gates again.
They drive faster and more frantically, but the lanes all look alike. No matter which way they choose, left or right fork, they always come back to Ravenshurst.
Eventually, Maggie realizes the truth and gets out of the car to return to the house. As she says to Pete, they can’t just stand around outside. She explains that all they’ve experienced is some kind of Black Magic. He scoffs at the idea.
Barbara willingly answers Maggie’s question about the significance of the rings they all wear. It means that they’re all beholden to Jason and have not only received their wealth through him, but the fulfillment of their whims and fantasies. She speaks very highly of Jason; she’s known and loved him for 25 years and thinks he’s a wonderful man.
“When he gives you gifts,” she advises Maggie, “accept them. Enjoy them. Trust Jason.”
Pete calls the whole thing “bullshit!”
Clive’s the next to go. His death isn’t as disturbing to me as Maria’s, but it’s certainly unpleasant. While cheerfully explaining the advantages of modern-day witchcraft to Maggie over a buffet supper, he begins to cough and has difficulty breathing. He collapses on the floor, taking a tablecloth and half the serving platters with him.
Nurse Adams quickly has him up on the now-cleared table and tries to remove the obstruction from his throat before he chokes. That failing, she grabs a knife for an emergency tracheotomy. Not that this helps poor Clive either, but she does get the chicken bone out of his windpipe.
Later, Carl reminds Maggie that Clive didn’t have any chicken; he was eating pate and ham.
It’s during her conversation with Carl in the library that Maggie sees the portrait of Jason’s ancestor, Lady Margaret Walsingham, who was burnt as witch during Queen Elizabeth I’s time. Lady Margaret looks astonishingly like Maggie. The resemblance is emphasized by the square-necked evening gown that Maggie’s wearing, lent to her by Barbara. The woman in the portrait is wearing one of the signet rings.
There’s also an old book written by Lady Margaret that Carl offers to Maggie that will help her understand. She sits with Pete on the stairs and reads the pertinent passage about how Lady Margaret signed up with Satan, but seems to have found a loophole in handing over her own soul:
“Thou shalt be my welcome debtor and thou shalt pay thy debts to me at a later time. For I shall press thee to my service… and my six Sealbearers shall assemble in my last days. I shall select one among them to carry my soul forward.”
Up in the library, Carl meets his fiery death, and disappears from the room so completely that when Maggie and Pete come in a few minutes later, there’s no sign of him. Adams says that Carl was called away suddenly to Munich, but they know he didn’t come out through the only door, since they were sitting just below it.
Pete remains skeptical about witchcraft, and calls the resemblance between Maggie and the portrait “laughable.” He doesn’t know what game these people are playing with Maggie, but the deaths are real enough. He sees what’s left of Carl’s body disposed of in the stableyard, and gets hold of the ring from the remains before he’s chased off by a pack of massive guard dogs. When he comes back into the house via the library window, he tells Maggie about it.
Maggie, meanwhile, has discovered a collection of newspaper articles about the other, now mostly late, guests. Each was involved in a death that foreshadowed their own: A girl who worked for Maria drowned in a pool; Clive gave a musician in his band drugs that led to a choked-on-his-own-vomit death; Carl was implicated in an arson case where a man was killed; and Barbara was connected to a stabbing at a society party.
Maggie is quick to perceive that these people are being punished in kind for their past sins. Since Jacques is the exception, he must be the murderer. She and Pete go to Barbara. Barbara still trusts Jason, but she also sees the danger. She phones downstairs to the chauffeur to say the she wants the Rolls so she can leave right away… but it’s too late for her.
Jacques, who’s been lurking in the corridors while all this is going on, loads up a shotgun and heads for the roof to wait for Pete and Maggie to come out at daybreak. Their ultimate confrontation when he starts taking pot-shots at her boyfriend doesn’t turn out as either he or Maggie expected.
The murder mystery aspect of it doesn’t come off as well as it should, in spite of the traditional reading of the will scene, and the bodies of the potential heirs piling up. I think it’s because we never really have the opportunity to view any of these individuals as possible suspects. There just aren’t any good clues pointing to, for example, Carl for the viewers or the other people in the house to follow, or even to Adams/the white cat although she always seems to be around when things are happening. In this respect, the film is closer to a supernatural slasher with a more mature cast and a much nicer house.
Not all the special effects hold up well, which I think is why the later deaths don’t have the power to disturb as much as the first two do. The flames that engulf Carl, the shards of broken glass that fly at Barbara, look cheesy. Maria’s drowning death is more simply and effectively done, and Clive’s doesn’t even involve special effects apart from a bit of stage blood on Roger Daltrey’s throat.
Then there are the plot gaps. Some of it–the tontine, the reason for the six Sealbearers–I infer from the dialog. Jason explains things to Maggie right before he dies, but he doesn’t explain everything adequately.
One point in particular I wish would have been made clear is whether Maggie is supposed to be the reincarnation of Lady Margaret Walsingham or, like Jason, a descendant and therefore the rightful heir to the power and the estate. Either would explain why he knew about her and lured her to England so he could accidentally/on purpose meet her and get her to Ravenshurst in time for his demise. It’s never made plain that he’s responsible for that mysterious job offer at the beginning of the film, since we never hear about it again, but I think we can take that as given; the account number on the check Maggie receives is 129666. Perhaps these issues were made more plain in the novel this movie is based on, which I admit I’ve never read. I can’t say how much was lost in the adaptation.
Okay, those are my problems with this movie. What do I like about it?
I’ve already mentioned the escape scene, where Maggie and Pete keep coming back to Ravenshurst. It’s a great piece of editing, reflecting their confusion as they drive down one lane after another and pass the same landmarks again and again from different directions, and all the intersections look alike.
I like the cast, especially Sam Elliott as the American planted in among the collection of British supporting actors, without being one of those loud and tone-deaf caricatures that sometimes show up in British films. Pete gives the story a kick it wouldn’t if Maggie had come to England alone. She’s American too, but she seems to fit in with this group, sensing almost instinctively what’s happening even before she understands it. Pete, who wasn’t invited, never fits. He’s skeptical of everything from the first and says so at every opportunity. He also provides a bit of action to keep things lively, stealing horses, kicking stablehands, getting shot at or chased by dogs, shattering glass. And if you’ve ever wanted to see Elliott and Margaret Tyzack in a knock-down fight, this is the movie.
I like the idea of cats as servants. I can’t even get my calico monsters to pick up after themselves.
And I love the house. It is a place you’d like to come back to.
*I had the idea that Ross and Elliott were already a couple when they made this film, and had chosen it as a project they could act in together. But in one of the extra features on the BluRay, I learned that this was in fact when they met.