Why has Legend of the Werewolf been so hard to locate since it flopped in 1975? One’s gratitude in seeing Freddie Francis’ 1975 horror film pop up on Amazon Prime is muted by the dismal condition of the print; with other Cushing films like Horror Express and Scream and Scream Again so wonderfully restored, it’s a shame that Legend of the Werewolf is presented in Awful-o-vision. That said, there’s lots to enjoy here in this rare Tyburn production.
The setting is Paris, presented in a laughably cheap way by a couple of street-signs and a zoo entrance. It’s within this zoo that Etoile (David Rintoul) forges a bond with some wolves. Etoile was raised by feral wolves after they killed his parents at midnight on Christmas Eve; there’s a vaguely blasphemous nativity vibe to these early scenes. Etoile is drawn to the local brothel, a popular venue which the characters wander freely in and out of as if it was a rural fast-food outlet. Etoile’s master, a zookeeper named Zookeeper, is played with paint-stripping bluster by a post-Fagin Ron Moody; he fancies the local girls, and Etoile shares his passion, but this raised interest leads him to murderous rampages. Professor Paul Cantaflanque (Peter Cushing) is supposedly charged with disposing of the corpses, but in a pre-The Alienist move, launches his own forensic investigation as to who, or indeed what, is responsible.
Shot at Pinewood Studios, but with little in the way of spectacle, Legend of the Werewolf sees a number of Hammer staff jumping ship into a sinking life-boat. John Elder aka Anthony Hinds provides the script, while Roy Castle turns up as a photographer and Hugh Griffith as Etoile’s first mentor, an eccentric circus-owner. All are substantial pluses; the debit sheet is marked by the awful red filter that supposedly represent wolf-o-vision, the strange silver-fox make-up of the wolf, and Amazon’s laughable English-as-she-is-spoke subtitles, ranging from ‘He’s saving up his Sioux’ when the word required is sous, or such infelicities as “Exhausted?’ Yes, I must be getting (g)old!”
Other critics have pointed out that, despite the familiar presence of the likes of Michael Ripper, Legend of the Werewolf doesn’t feel like classic Hammer, and they’re right; the Tyburn experiment didn’t last long, with The Ghoul the only other major genre offering. But Cushing is a perfect centre, genial, serious, an unable to give a dull line-reading; he makes something special from a well-written character. Horror was already leaving such genteel stylings behind by 1975, but Francis’s film is something of a last gasp. Cushing presumably banked his cheque, thumbed through his freshly-delivered Star Wars script and wondered what was coming next…