On LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF

A look at the obscure 1975 British werewolf movie

One of the rarest of lycanthrope-centric films is the unfortunately late, Oscar-winning British cinematographer (David Lynch’s The Elephant Man) and noted horror filmmaker (Dracula has Risen from the Grave, Tales from the Crypt) Freddie Francis’ little discussed 1975 Hammer-esque wolfman shocker Legend of the Werewolf. And really, I have to ask why it’s so obscure, because the movie is rather fantastic.

As the films’ star Peter Cushing (whose work here is first rate as always) so helpfully explains in Legend of the Werewolf’s weird opening sequence, it has been said that the beasts of the forest shall watch over and protect human children on Christmas Eve, because, well, their forefathers and mothers did it for Jesus, so if they didn’t do it too they’d be jerks. This bit of made up myth provides credibility for the ensuing tale of poor little Etoile, a baby who, after his immigrant parents are chomped on by a pack of starving wolves, is inexplicably adopted by the now sated pack. He grows up like a sort of lupine Tarzan, a wild untamed thing who is eventually ‘rescued’ by a sleazy carny (the amazing, wild eyed actor Hugh Griffith from, among many, many other fine films, Ben Hur) and top billed in his skid row circus as the feral ‘Wolf Boy’. Eventually Etoile grows into a strapping young lad (played by veteran actor David Rintoul who appeared in Roman Polanski’s excellent thriller The Ghost Writer) who makes the rather startling discovery that, when under pressure of full moon, he grows fangs, sprouts fur, pops his shirt and end up looking a lot like Oliver Reed did in Terence Fisher’s 1961 Hammer horror classic Curse of the Werewolf.

In fact Jimmy Evans’s Roy Ashton-esque make up schemes for Etoile’s furry face and transformations and the idea of a Christmas curse aren’t the only things that recall that admittedly superior film. See, Etoile ends up ditching his promising career as a rabid roustabout and flees to late 19th century Paris (the Fisher film was based on Guy Endore’s novel “The Werewolf Of Paris” and both pics were penned by Anthony Hinds, under his pseudonym John Elder) where he gets a gig working at a zoo run by Oliver! heavy Ron Moody and falls in love with a beautiful whore, a woman who – like Reed’s squeeze in CURSE- seems to temper his inner lycanthrope. Of course all goes sour when a jealous Etoile turns wolfy and rips the throats out of the local bordello’s patrons (complete with red optical effects, the kind that Francis was fond of playing with) and it falls on the narrow shoulders of Peter Cushing, here playing an intrepid police pathologist, to line Etoile’s homicidal cloud with a sweet silver lining.

Legend of the Werewolf was produced by Tyburn Films, a tiny, short-lived UK studio founded by Francis’s son Kevin and one that sought to capitalize on Hammer’s massive, decade spanning, international success. Problem was, by 1974 Hammer Horror was already passé and, after one more picture (1975’s fine John Hurt/Ian McCulloch vehicle The Ghoul) Tyburn took a permanent dive.

In Canada (where I was born, raised and still live) a little budget video distro outfit called Interglobal Home Video ended up distributing Legend in the 1980’s. I bought that VHS cassette for $10 at a local Kmart and I’m certainly glad I did. Because I’ve never, ever seen the film legitimately available in any other format on these shores. Needless to say, I treasure my copy…

Though hampered by its low budget, and aforementioned plot familiarity, and though its not necessarily Francis’s best work (though it’s about a gazillion times better than his worst film, 1970’s awesomely insane caveman vs. Joan Crawford opus Trog) –Legend is a well paced, blackly humorous, creepy and oh-so-very British slice of rough-around-the -edges, modestly budgeted Gothic horror. And Hammer vet Harry Robinson’s brash, often romantic score amplifies the production value considerably.

You should find it. That beaten up tape of mine has seen the insides of no less than 7 VCR’s and it still goes strong, it still pulls it’s LP recorded weight with blood dripping, hairy backed finesse and flesh shredding, electro-magnetic grace. A muddy rip of that VHS is on YouTube (and on bootleg DVDs) and it’s a perfectly acceptable (though faded and fuzzy) version to at least get the sense of the film. Here’s hoping someone cleans this wonderful little flick up and dresses it up for Blu-ray someday…

Originally published in Chris Alexander’s Blood Spattered Book

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