Monday, June 6, 2022

“Everything Has to End Sometime…Or Another” - Legacy of Blood (1978) - Film #231

We return to the wonderful world of Andy Milligan with Legacy of Blood (1978), a remake of one of his early hits, The Ghastly Ones (1968).

The depth of your universe's critics' understandings of Andy Milligan's films will never fail to surprise me. For example, reviewer kdreynoldsno1 writes dismissively, "The script totally stinks." Reviewer jacobjohntaylor1 writes more dismissively, "This horror movie is just awful. It is not scary. It has an awful acting. It also has an awful story line. It just awful. It has an awful ending." And reviewer Coffee_in_the_Clink writes, "It drags along at a tedious pace and there is no semblance of talent anywhere to be seen."

Read on for the truth about Legacy of Blood...

A bearded man wearing a heavy plaid jacket stumbles around a beach, picking up a hat in one shot, and tossing it into the water as if it is a discus in the next shot. The man is Carl, and he lives with two bickering older women, Mary and Margaret Lennox, in late 19th-century New York. On a trip to the city bank, Carl is waylaid by a group of ne’er-do-wells, who give him some alcohol, drag him up onto a bridge, and then viciously toss him (definitely not a dummy) over the side onto the cement below.

Carl, already simple-minded, is now brain-damaged, and broken-armed  from the fall. (“He’s too stupid to get hurt,” his loving sister later remarks.)

Elsewhere, in Boston, a flamboyant man named James Smith and his wife Regina receive a letter in the mail from a lawyer informing them they need to be in New York by April 10. Also, another wealthy couple named Jennifer and Robert prepare to also go to New York, leaving behind their manservant Ito and their drunken actress mother to stay in their mansion.

Back in New York, Mary and Margaret try to feed Carl, whom they have of course relegated to live on a mattress in their dripping basement. “Food good,” they tell Carl to get him to eat. 

Elsewhere in New York, a woman named Louise scolds her daughter Charlotte for being rude to their maid (and perhaps uses Andy Milligan’s words to explain the source of many of his characters’ attitudes): “You’re getting stuck up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like just now with Susan, you acted superior to her. You know, Susan and her mother work for us because they have to. They don’t have everything they want the way you do. If you don’t watch yourself very carefully when you’re growing up, you’ll become very ignorant of other people’s feelings and the first thing you know, you turn into a not very nice person.”

It is Louise and her husband John who will be hosting James and Regina and Jennifer and Robert. The next day, after all three couples are together, Louise hosts her sisters Regina and Jennifer at a restaurant that bears a suspicious resemblance to a dining room in one of the sisters’ interchangeable mansions. The sisters order their luncheon in a matter of approximately five seconds, each speaking more quickly than the last, though they have barely had time to look at a menu. There follows one of Andy Milligan’s many dining sequences in which the centerpiece on the table is awkwardly tall as the women talk about the reason for their getting together: the reading of their father’s will.

During their conversation, Louise reveals that the reading of the will is to take place the next day on  Hanley Island in upstate New York. “Father was very definite about that,” Louise explains. “He was definite about all the arrangements.”

The conversation turns to their Papa’s burial, which they have all apparently missed. Louise says, in language that seems both stilted and coded, “He’s buried a few blocks from here…in a seamen’s cemetery. He insisted upon it. He spent so much time at sea and traveling that he wanted to be buried with ‘fellow travelers,’ as he put it.”

The sisters visit the seamen’s cemetery, which of course is attended by a pipe-smoking man with an eye patch. “Wasn’t a seaman. That’s all we got buried here, you know.” He tells the women about another cemetery nearby with the interesting name Blazing Star Cemetery. But Louise knows Papa was buried 20 years ago in an unmarked grade in this very cemetery. The caretaker finally remembers and explains in more language that appears to be coded mysteriously: “Yeah, I remember. A financier, something like that. You know, they shipped him in here standing up. He arrived packed in orchids. That body was packed in so tight that it took two of us with crowbars to get him out.” Also, there was a woman’s body locked inside, standing with him, which comes as a surprise to the sisters.

After the cemetery, the three sisters visit Louise’s spiritual advisor/fortune teller, Baba, who is of mixed Gypsy/Himalayan heritage. “You see, you Americans are not the only ones with mixed blood.” 

Unfortunately, the meeting ends with violence when Louise asks how their upcoming trip will be. He says one of them will not return. Then his assistant Ina attacks the sisters, and the consultation ends in a bizarre brawl, which I have to assume is fairly uncommon for spiritual consultations.

The filmmakers cut to Hanley Island, which is where we learn Mary and Margaret are taking care of Carl (and the family estate)—and they expect to be looked after in the will.

The next scene reveals the scheming lawyer who has handled the family affairs over the years. He tells his assistant Alice he needs to make some slight financial adjustments to the books. “After all these years of working with Mr. Handley’s money, the office is going to miss it.”

Alice replies, “Everything has to end sometime…or another.”

“I just didn’t think it would end so…soon.”

The film cuts abruptly to Carl stroking his pet rabbit in the basement, and then cuts even more abruptly to the reading of the will in the lawyer’s office. The lawyer, Schaffer (whom everyone always helpfully calls “Lawyer Schaffer”) explains that he doesn’t know what is in the will, and that it was drawn up when Papa lived in South America, though the lawyer’s father was involved in making the will official when Papa returned to Hanley Island. “Well, my dears,” he says, holding up an envelope. “This is it.”

According to the will, each couple must stay at the mansion (“in sexual harmony”) on the island for three days, at the end of which the final bequest will be revealed via another envelope. Also, if something “unforeseen” occurs, the eldest heir will redistribute the inheritance according to her wishes.

The three couples take a train upstate, and they are quickly on the island, where they carry their luggage across a filthy beach with the “help” of Carl, who drops several bags (and also grabs and accidentally kills a stray rabbit).

After dinner (with a surprisingly small centerpiece), the three couples are shown to their rooms, but they are interrupted when Carl throws a tantrum. Mary calms him down. “He’s not violent, is he?” asks one of the husbands.

Margaret replies, “No…not really.”

Margaret shows the couples to their rooms (which, of course, have numbers on the doors, even though the house is a private residence). In the film’s first scene of horror, when Margaret brings an oil lamp to Regina and James’s bedroom, she pulls down the blankets on the bed to reveal a horrific tableau of a dead rabbit and a note.

Regina reads the note: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit.” Cleverly, the quotation ends on the word “inherit,” tying the phrase to the current situation and Papa’s inheritance. In their own room, Louise tells her husband John that Regina told her about dreaming a similar situation just the other night. Louise also tells John about another experience Regina had years earlier that foretold their mother’s death.

Another scene of horror occurs a few minutes later when Regina and James discover the letter “X” painted on the outside of their bedroom door in red paint (or, possibly, blood!). James, instead of alerting anyone, takes a candle and walks downstairs to investigate. He is startled by John, who is also awake. The flamboyant James says, “I just came out. I heard someone upstairs and I came out.” The two decide to investigate the basement together. “I think we’d better check down there.”

“Good idea.”

They walk into the next room and James says, “I could use a drink.” They pour drinks and swallow them quickly. “My nerves are shot,” John says, “I’ll have another.”

James says, “I think that Carl is sicker…or smarter…than we think.”

“It wasn’t Carl,” John concludes, but he does not mention the basis for this conclusion.

Unfortunately for John, his drink must have been spiked, as he faints in the hall and is dragged away by a mysterious figure as the clock strikes eleven.

James investigates the basement, where he is interrupted by an unseen person. He turns. “Oh, it’s you. What are you doing up?”

The scene cuts to Regina brushing her hair in her room. In a suspenseful sequence, her door begins to open slowly, and then she hears a gurgling sound. She runs to the hallway, where she sees James hanging in the stairwell, dead.

In a distinctly Milliganesque touch, the film cuts from James’s dead face to Margaret chopping meat in the kitchen the next day. Margaret and Mary serve the surviving couples lunch while the grieving Regina lies on her bed upstairs.

Meanwhile, in a simple sequence of events in which Robert supervises Carl as he chops wood (a sequence that is explained in great detail beforehand so the audience will not be lost), Robert finds a panel painted with a red “X” in the basement. In a Milliganesque outburst of violence, Robert is suddenly attacked and strapped to a table, where a mysterious figure rips open his shirt and saws him to death. (Sadly, his body is never discovered.)

The survivors gather for dinner (they are of course more concerned about the turkey drying out than about James’s murder and Robert’s disappearance). In what is perhaps the films “centerpiece” sequence, they remove the lid from the turkey’s serving dish, only to reveal Regina’s severed head!

In the suspenseful lead-up to the climax, John investigates the basement, unaware that there is an “X” marked on the back of his dressing-gown. He finds a crucial clue: a photograph dated 1880 and inscribed “To my favorite daughter MH, love JH.” Before he can share the clue with anyone, however, his hand is nailed to the wall and he is killed with a pitchfork.

In the end, Carl digs up a box of clues under the porch, including the photograph. Seconds later, Mary is murdered with a cleaver and Carl is chased through the house. The killer is revealed to be Margaret, who is actually a half-sister to the others. Margaret threatens Louise with the cleaver and helpfully explains the backstory: “Forty years ago, I was the firstborn in this house, but Mama died when I was born. My Papa loved my Mama very much. He was so alone, so he married again. But he was so heartbroken that he only came back seven times. Seven visits.” She goes on and on about how the other girls’ mother hated Margaret, and how their mother bought two infants, Mary and Carl, to raise as Margaret’s siblings (the end point of this plan is not explained). Also, Margaret will frame Carl and kill him.

However, Margaret gets her just desserts when Carl grabs her leg, causing the cleaver to fly into the air and bury itself (somehow) in Margaret’s head.

There is nothing left to do but scream, so that is what Jennifer and Louise do as the end credits roll.

 Thematically, Legacy of Blood could be considered a quintessential Andy Milligan film, dealing as it does with relatives competing for an inheritance from their morally questionable patriarch. However, the story defies some expectations of Andy Milligan's. For one thing, the relatives get along fairly well and fail to yell at each other for most of the running time, until Margaret's secret is revealed near the end of the film. The presence of a hulking man not fully possessed of his faculties is another commonality with other Andy Milligan films, and here Carl is a quintessential Milligan character, dangerous but misunderstood, and the unwitting victim of generations of sinful behavior. A "legacy of blood" is a common theme among Milligan's films, but perhaps it is clearest in the film directly titled Legacy of Blood, where everyone from the lawyer to the sea captain/graveyard caretaker is fulfilling a role handed down to them by their ancestors. Even though Margaret receives her just desserts in the end, the filmmakers might be implying that the inheritances of evil will continue from generation to generation, never ending, even when someone takes a meat cleaver to the forehead.

And, above all, we can't forget the big centerpieces on the tables. What would an Andy Milligan film be without a big, bulky centerpiece?