Peter Cushing rules! Our TV listings incorrectly called this a Hammer horror, but it's an understandable mistake. Like "Hoover" and "Perrier", "Hammer" has become one of those brand names that's widely confused with the product itself. It's a slightly stagey seventies British horror movie - what else could it be but Hammer? Of course Hammer's time had passed in 1975 and this is more tongue-in-cheek than Hammer's horror output tended to be, but on the other hand it stars the magnificent Peter Cushing. Even in a mediocre role he's always good to watch, but here he's having the time of his life in one of his finest roles (Professor Paul Cataflanque). Cushing isn't just the best thing in this film. He is the film. The story's half over before he appears, but he still outclasses everyone and everything else on screen put together.
Cushing plays a professor of forensics who's been told by his superiors not to investigate some inexplicable deaths. You might as well tell a child to keep away from the candy store. Cushing plays Paul Cataflanque as the perfect gentleman (I adored the scene where his investigations lead him to a whorehouse) but also with enormous curiosity and a sense of mischief. He even does something interesting accent-wise. Legend of the Werewolf is theoretically set in 19th-century France, but only Cushing and Max the policeman deliver their lines in anything but classically trained Royal Shakespeare Company tones. Max is French throughout, but Cushing does something subtler. He's normally his usual impeccably cut-glass self, but when drinking he briefly lapses into Inspector Clouseau. Cushing is presumably suggesting that Paul Cataflanque worked hard at deliberately eradicating his boyhood accent, just as Cushing himself ditched his native barrow-boy accent before becoming an actor. Man, there's nothing I don't admire about his performance.
Everything else could be summed up in five words: "Cushing fantastic; the rest okay". The other characters are fine - not brilliant, but watchable. They're broader than you'd get in a Hammer horror, though, at times almost Dickensian. I'm not trying to imply that Legend of the Werewolf is classic literature on the level of Charles Dickens, but it's a 19th-century story that's full of larger-than-life caricatures (at times bordering on grotesques) rather than more realistic characters, including overt comic relief (Roy Castle) and a cardboard hero. The eponymous werewolf is ostensibly the film's lead, but he spends most of his screen time being angry, confused or unhappy. He's a country boy who's come to Paris, raised by wolves and not understanding much that happens to him. We might have been following Wolf Boy's life right from birth, but it's Cushing's movie and no mistake.
Things I learned from watching this movie:
- (1) when meeting a girl for whom you have romantic feelings, swing from a cage and hoot like a monkey.
- (2) werewolves' eyes are novelty marbles.
- (3) even pre-pubescent grunting wolfboys who've been raised by wild animals will wear furry loincloths to hide their naughty bits.
Sometimes we see in glorious wolf-o-vision, in which the screen turns red. This might be more realistic than you'd think, since I seem to remember that dogs only see in monochrome - and a wolf is basically just a big cuddly doggie. The werewolf astonished me by looking good; even today's movie werewolves look shite, but this is a wolf-man. He's man-shaped but with fangs, red-marble contact lenses and a haircut like Wolverine from the X-Men. On the other hand, even I can't find an excuse for the day-for-night filming, except to note that it's a Hammerism. In particular it doesn't help that these sunny scenes are side-by-side with actual night filming!
Mind you, I liked the historical detail, e.g. Roy Castle's darreugotype and its three-minute exposure time. Quite a bit of French flavour comes through despite the obvious Englishness of the production, mostly due to the Paris sets and the whorehouse, and it definitely feels 19th-century. The bits that don't star Peter Cushing are nice, with an unsophisticated sense of humour, but they aren't the reason why you should watch this film. It stars The Man. Bow down and worship.