FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Jan 30, 2020

A Tale of Two Caretakers

"I watched you go down, just as I watched her a year ago. Even in the same dress, you couldn't compare."

I felt a strange wave of affection towards the messy 1978 film The Legacy the other night. It's a very strange movie–probably not "good," if you care about that–but every time I watch it, I love it just a little bit more. I mean, it's got the smoldering babe coupling of Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross, wealthy Satanists, so many cats, an evil Frenchman, a sensitive 70s horror movie theme song, a fey Nazi, crossbows, black magic rings, beef jerky's really something to behold even when it's not.

This time around I was really struck by the sinister Nurse Adams, the caretaker of the deathly ill, reclusive millionaire Jason Mountolive. If there's a main "villain" in The Legacy, it's her. She's mysterious, she prevents our heroes from going where they please and/or leaving the estate, and when death occurs she always seems to be nearby, whether in human or cat form. (Yes, she can shape-shift into a cat. What, you can't?)

More than anything, however, I was taken aback by the subtextual similarities between Nurse Adams and another sinister cinematic caretaker–possibly the most famous sinister cinematic caretaker of them all–Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca (1940).

(Side note: please forgive any janky-looking screenshots in this post...I have no way to get good captures from a Blu-ray.)

(Another side note: the limited edition Blu-ray of The Legacy from Indicator is stunning and jam-packed with bonus features.)

Mrs. Danvers is perhaps the most memorable thing about Alfred Hitchcock's take on Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca. (Stephen King even named a (benign) housekeeper after her in the "Father's Day" segment of Creepshow.) She haunts Manderley as much as the ghost of Rebecca does, looming over The Second Mrs. de Winter and cruelly pressuring her to kill herself.

There's been miles and miles of column inches devoted to Danvers's motivations and inspired debates over whether or not she's a lesbian. Yes, the film is nearly 80 years old and her sexuality is still a point of contention. Danvers is instantly recognized in a "gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us" kind of way by gay audiences who are accustomed to finding themselves and their stories in the subtext of a film. (If you don't understand or know anything about the concept of queer coding in cinema and you care to learn more, I suggest you give the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet a peep. It's a good enough place to start.)

Quite simply, straight people simply have never had to read anything into a movie to see themselves. They're just...there, front and center, and they always have been. Because the need for subtext has never been a concern, they also often can't see it, regardless of how obvious it can sometimes be, and they refuse to be convinced of a character's sexuality (well, more to the point, a character's non-heterosexuality) if it is not blatantly stated and explicitly displayed. Essentially, necessity has spurred evolution, and gays have developed a kind of Predator-vision when it comes to looking at films, know what I mean? Cinephile allies may develop this to a lesser extent, or at least they might not refute a suggested gay outright.

Love doesn't have to be requited in order to exist, and it's obvious that Rebecca de Winter wasn't obsessing with her housemaid the way the housemaid was obsessing with her. Danvers waxes rhapsodic over the dead woman's clothes and beauty and manner of being. She reminisces about all her time spent brushing Rebecca's hair, about Rebecca calling her "Danny." Whatever fantasy she had in her mind about herself and Rebecca is destroyed when the truth about Mrs. de Winter is revealed: she wasn't a paragon of saintliness that maybe felt a connection with Mrs. Danvers...instead, she was sleeping with a lot of men. Danvers sets Manderley on fire and dies in the flames, echoing one of her taunts to The Second Mrs. de Winter: "He never loved you, so why go on living?"

Which brings me, at long last, to Nurse Adams in The Legacy. There's a lot of shared DNA between her and Mrs. Danvers, but their arcs are strikingly different.

In case you have no idea what The Legacy is about, here's what it's about: American couple Maggie and Pete find themselves in dotty old England after a mysterious, lucrative job offer. One motorcycle accident later, Maggie and Pete find themselves stuck in dotty old Mountolive Manor alongside six other folks who reveal themselves to be Satanists. Their patron, Jason Mountolive, is dying and is going to bequeath his legacy–get it??–to one of them. One by one the six die until there is only Maggie, who inherits Jason's super Satan powers and fortune. It's...complicated.

We first meet Adams as she watches Maggie and Pete embrace heterosexually when they arrive at the Manor. Adams and Pete are immediately at odds with each other. Pete wants to skedaddle ASAP, but Adams insists they stay at the Manor overnight, prompting Pete to sarcastically call her a "nice lady." Maggie convinces him they should stay.

How dare they!

A white cat is frequently spotted lurking around the Manor, meant to be a harbinger (if not the direct cause) of evil and death. By the end of the film we know that it's a shape-shifting Adams, and looking back at all of the appearances of this white cat gives us a rather informative glimpse into Adams and her...let's call them "interests."

Here is the cat, hanging out at the pool, watching something intently.

Here is Pete, hanging out at the pool, watching something intently.

What are they both watching with such intent, you ask?

Why. it's just a Lady Satanist, taking a relaxing, sexy dip in the pool.

You see, as "heterosexual" is considered default, it's automatically assumed that Pete is gazing at Lady Satanist with lust. So why can't Nurse Cat do that as well? Perhaps she'd like to gaze as plainly as Pete does, but she can only do so in her feline form. Lest you refuse the notion of queer coding and think sure, and later that Lady Satanist ends up dead in the pool! Nurse Cat was just watching her with a sinister gaze, not a lusty one, I offer a later scene, wherein Maggie is alone in bed and thinks she spies Nurse Adams watching her from the doorway:

When she pulls back the gauzy curtain, however, it's just that innocent ol' white cat again.

Maggie then brings the cat into bed with her, and they spend a lot of time cuddling. I mean, it's a cute cat, I'd cuddle it too.

But that's not just a cat, that's Nurse Adams, and she is literally just there to chill in Maggie's arms. In a stellar performance, that cat actor is really selling the bliss Adams is feeling! You can practically hear kd lang's "Constant Craving" playing softly in the background.

This bliss is viciously shattered when Pete enters the bedroom very heterosexually and clam jams it all to heck. Nurse Cat is immediately outta there, and as she jumps down she gives one of those guttural growls that cats do, you know, where they are royally pissed off and about to fuck shit up.

Near the end of the film, Pete attempts to stop Maggie from claiming her Satanic superpowers, but Nurse Adams blocks him from entering Jason Mountolive's medical chamber. Finally the hatred that's been brewing between the two of them boils over and they have a physical fight over, essentially, Maggie. Though she's in human form, Adams hisses and growls, and it's bonkers and hilarious–even more so when Pete throws her down the stairs and she meows all the way down. But! Nurse Adams is dead, and Pete, the walking personification of pure mustachioed heterosexuality, has won the day.

Or has he? Maggie, imbued with those Satanic superpowers, picks up Adams's lifeless (and once again feline) body and lo, Nurse Cat lives again. Maggie holds onto her, and Pete...well, he is so mad about it you guys.

Maggie is now the head honcho at Mountolive Manor and all of the servants line up to pay their respects. Nurse Adams decides this is the perfect moment to give Maggie a flower, as if they are both nervous 14-year-olds at a cotillion. Pete glowers (of course), but Maggie is into it.

In the film's final moments, all seems to be hunky-dory for Pete and Maggie. She has fully accepted her powers and her place, giving him one of the black magic rings to binds them together. While they sure chuckle about it, Maggie may not have the best of intentions: the ring cannot be taken off. This could mean that someday Pete will inherit Maggie's powers, or it could mean that someday she will kill him. (I told you, this movie is messy.)

Whatever the future holds for Pete, however, Nurse Adams will be there the entire time. Unlike that other sinister cinematic caretaker, when the truth about her mistress/obsession is revealed, Adams doesn't burn down the manor and die in the flames. Instead, she dies at the very heterosexual hands of her mistress's boyfriend...and then her mistress brings her back to life. Move over, Mrs. Danvers. Meow!


CashBailey said...

I will never be as manly as Sam Elliot, and that makes me sad.

Stacie Ponder said...

Who could be? He's the apex specimen. We should send him off into space like one of those golden records.