Modestly likeable, but that's entirely due to its cast. The production and the script deserve no mercy.
This film is most famous for its whodunnit aspect. "After all the clues have been shown, you will get a chance to give your answer. Watch for the werewolf break!" They're not kidding, either. Towards the end of the film, everything stops for thirty seconds and the screen is filled instead with a big ticking clock as we're supposed to try to wonder who's really a lycanthrope. This is as corny as hell, but awesome. I love the idea of a werewolf whodunnit, but unfortunately this isn't it. A good Agatha Christie will contain the following elements:
(a) Murder. This is a bloodthirsty genre we're talking about here. You need a nice juicy crime to kick-start the story, yet in this horror-dunnit no one dies until well after the halfway point. Things build thereafter, though, until by the end there's a respectable body count.
(b) Clues. There's nothing! It's entirely random, with almost no indication as to who might or might not be the werewolf. Maybe a vampiredunnit might have worked better? There's no motive for us to investigate, since the werewolf is a ravening beast who kills simply because it's a monster. There's the opportunity angle, i.e. "Colonel Mustard was in the drawing room", but that isn't really tackled in any depth. The only proper clue as far as I'm concerned (an actor's reaction) turns out to have been a red herring. Admittedly the film plays fair. The werewolf really had all along been secretly one of the main cast, rather than something arbitrary and pointless like the restless spirits of the dead or some random bloke in the woods. Nevertheless they could still have done more, even within the rules of the detective story. I've seen more than one Murder on the Orient Express suggestion, for instance. Like most people I didn't guess the werewolf's identity, but that's partly because it's a bit "oh".
As a horror story too it needs work. The set-up is that a rich hunter has gathered a party of possible werewolves to his country house for some blood sports. This sounds better than it is. Everyone just wanders around being crotchety at each other in a way that would have seemed mildly sub-standard even in Agatha Christie, with no real sense of danger for almost an hour. Frankly I'm not wild about the Rich Sadist story device, which by its nature will tend to feel arbitrary and to work needs a real scene-stealer of a central character, preferably someone mad or reckless enough that you can believe his guests really might start dying at any moment. Almost any change would have upped the stakes. Maybe the guests weren't invited but instead were the last survivors of a werewolf attack, barricading themselves in and watching each other like hawks? Maybe the werewolf could have started taking action to defend itself even when in human form?
In fairness though, the film's based on a James Blish short story, so I suppose they felt constrained to follow the original's lead. I hope that's the case, anyway.
As for the production, we have depressing amounts of day-for-night filming and the world's most adorable werewolf. He's an alsatian. Admittedly they've done their best by putting a mane on him, but he's not even grumpy. You look at this tongue-lolling doggie and... no.
Why would you watch this film, then? Why, I'll tell you. 1. Charles Gray. 2. Peter Cushing. I can stop there, actually, since they're enough in themselves. Cushing is underused, but as the resident werewolf expert Dr Lundgren he gets lots of wacky exposition to deliver in a goofy accent. Did you know that lycanthropy comes from the lymphatic system and that silver can't hurt werewolves unless there's wolfsbane pollen in the air? Well, you do now. Charles Gray meanwhile gets nothing to do except be a snooty arrogant git to everyone, so is needless to say perfect.
Other actors include Michael Gambon (underwhelming), Ciaran Madden (plank) and Marlene Clark (dubbed). Somehow I don't think they wasted much time on rehearsals. The actor who seems to be having the most fun, surprisingly, is Tom Chadbon from City of Death, although I should also give a nod to Anton Diffring.
Weirdest of them all though is Calvin Lockhart as Tom, the loony who's set all this up in the first place. You see, this is clearly a role for a rich theatrical old ham in late middle age. However this is 1974 and so Amicus brought in an American blaxploitation star, Calvin Lockhart, complete with funky blaxploitation beats on the soundtrack. It makes the film unique, anyway. This is certainly a movie with character, but Lockhart seems to have let it all go to his head. His wife sounds conventionally American, but he's doing the most extraordinary accent, as if either he or his character is trying much too hard to be a posh elderly Englishman. He's okay apart from that, but that's rather like saying "the athlete ran a good race, considering he'd tied massive lead weights to his feet." Lockhart didn't end up having the biggest CV, but apparently he was both a blaxploitation star and (according to imdb) the first black actor to play lead roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He's also in Predator 2.
To be honest, I wanted to like him more than I did. He's memorable more for who he is rather than anything he's actually doing. However he isn't helped at all by the director making him look like an idiot. He has more than one chance to shoot the werewolf at point-blank range and doesn't. The first time involves him letting rip for several seconds with a machine-gun without effect, then his second chance has him just standing there like a lemon without even shooting at all. I can't believe the writer meant those scenes to turn out like that. For me all this killed the film's ending. These story developments could have been good, but it's hard to take attempted tragedy seriously when it's the victim's own stupid fault for all but letting the monster walk up to him. Shoot, you cretin! Shoot! Wow, what a loser.
There's a "dog fights werewolf" scene, by the way, which was apparently a first for horror. This is faintly disturbing to watch since you'll wonder how they filmed these two dogs attacking each other without having them fight for real, but I don't think either of them got hurt. The most famous "dog fights werewolf" scene to date is in Bad Moon (1996), apparently.
This film is an oddity, but that doesn't make it good. In some ways it's Agatha Christie to its bones, with a remarkable cast doing nothing much in an English country house. Peter Cushing and Charles Gray almost carry the film on their own. I wanted more of them. However you've also got the Hammer-wannabe Amicus tone and then the blaxploitation angle, completing the set of horror icons with Blacula (quite well known) and Blackenstein (don't ask). Calvin Lockhart has a huge role in the film, getting more to do than all the others put together, so you can't accuse Amicus of throwing him in out of tokenism. They're genuinely trying to do blaxploitation and ironically it's Lockhart and his accent that are doing the most to undermine that.
Personally I found it a bit boring. It never really took flight as far as I'm concerned, but it has its fans. I don't know anything else like it, at any rate.
Oh, and one last thing. 1970s porn star moustaches.