Empty Balcony: Legend (1985)

We’re still burning through reviews that were intended for Tom Cruise month. This film is where I began to realize I might not want to watch 31 Tom Cruise movies:

I knew there were going to be some tough watches this month. It’s impossible to run through 31 of a star’s films and not find at least one film made for a completely different type of viewer than myself. In Legend, the 1985 fantasy film from writer William Hjortsberg and director Ridley Scott, that audience was one that likes a fairy tale. That’s what Legend is. It draws stark lines between good and evil, takes place in an enchanted forest, features a damsel in distress, and shares its overall creature aesthetic with Halloween displays at a big box store.

Fairy tales are a type of story much older than film. As such, they have a different narrative sophistication. Some are quite clever, but in a generic sense, fairy tales are simple stories of magic. It’s that simplicity that rankles during the first half hour or so of this film.

Light and dark, good and evil, are in balance in the world of Legend. Darkness is personified as a horned, red-skinned devil, played by an unrecognizable Tim Curry. He hatches a plan to extinguish the light and make evil reign over the world. To do this, he needs the horns of the two purest creatures in the forest, a pair of unicorns. But, they only appear before people of innocence. None of Darkness’s ghouls and goblins apply, so they shadow a young woman, Legend 1985 movie posterPrincess Lily (Mia Sara), as she traipses through the forest and carries on with young Jack (Tom Cruise). They find the unicorns and one loses its horn (Lily is also kidnapped for good measure), beginning the process whereby the sun sets for the last time.

This opening act is dreadful. The fantasy world as portrayed by Scott and Rob Bottin, who handled the makeup, is fully realized. But it’s a land viewed only through a lens slathered with Vaseline and devoid of all nuance. It’s very pureness and simplicity is what makes it repellant. In trying to be faithful to the storytelling ideals of fairy tales, if that is what Scott and company were trying to accomplish, they’ve instead plopped this film into the storytelling equivalent of the uncanny valley. Legend looks like a fantasy film, it plays out like a fantasy film, but it also creeped me out a little while I was watching.

I had just about tuned out after the first thirty minutes, but by the time Jack and his forest friends make their way to Darkness’s castle to rescue Princess Lily, I had snapped out of my reverie. By this time, Legend had morphed into an adventure film, and in that it works better. It was hardly enough to make up for all the sap of the first act, but at least I was paying attention now.

Tim Curry, despite being layered in all that makeup and latex, gives a wonderful performance as Darkness. Besides spreading evil over the land, Darkness wants a mate, and decides forcing Lily to be his bride is the way to go. Curry and Sara share a number of scenes in Darkness’s dining hall, and the interplay between the two is the best part of this film. Darkness, it turns out, is a character as simple as the story. He wants Lily to love him just as much as he has decided he loves her, and grows mad every time his overtures are rebuffed. Lily does well to play along and be demure. She has no idea that Jack is trying his damnedest to reach her, so she appears to be doing her best to delay the inevitable.

Legend is almost a really good film. But it tries so hard to adhere to that fairy tale ideal that it suffers for it. Add in a soundtrack from Tangerine Dream (there is a version with music by Jerry Goldsmith that I did not see) that belongs in a different movie, and the film assaults its viewers. What was supposed to be a sublime, dreamlike experience of film is instead a largely unpleasant slog. At least Curry was good. As for Cruise, a couple of times he tried on an accent, but that was it for his efforts at acting. He was just a pretty face.

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