One of my favorite werewolf movies has always been Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961). Directed by Hammer’s A-List director Terence Fisher, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF features both memorable scenes of fright, a strong performance by Oliver Reed as the werewolf, and superior make-up by Roy Ashton.
However, I can’t deny that this movie does suffer from some very slow pacing and some weak story elements, so much so, that over the years, its reputation has diminished, while Universal’s THE WOLF MAN (1941) keeps getting stronger.
Now, there is another werewolf movie out there, the seldom seen LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF (1975), produced by Britain’s Tyburn Films, a company that tried and failed to compete with Hammer and Amicus, that has something that neither of the aforementioned werewolf movies have, and that something is a someone: Peter Cushing.
Peter Cushing didn’t really make a lot of werewolf movies. He appeared in THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974), and he fares much better here in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, a movie that has always been dismissed as an inferior cousin to Hammer’s superior THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.
But in the here and now, one can almost make the argument—almost-— that it’s LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF that’s the superior movie.
I say “almost” because seriously, LEGEND is hindered by some weaknesses that can’t be ignored. However, it has enough strengths where it can seriously be involved in the conversation of classic werewolf movies of yesteryear.
LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF tells the story of young Etoile (David Rintoul) who like Mowgli in THE JUNGLE BOOK was raised by wolves. While still a boy, he’s discovered by the owner of a travelling circus and joins the show as “wolf boy.” As an adult, he runs off to Paris where he finds work at the local zoo, specifically handling the wolves there. But it’s at this time that he discovers he’s a werewolf, but he’s also a particularly selective werewolf, because as a human, he has a crush on a local prostitute, and as a werewolf, he’s able to kill only her clients.
Hmm. Perhaps this one should have been called LEGEND OF THE JEALOUS WEREWOLF.
The subplot in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF involves medical examiner and coroner Professor Paul (Peter Cushing) who while he’s not rolling his eyes at the local authorities, likes to play amateur sleuth. And when the werewolf murders start to happen, and the police are clueless, Professor Paul decides to solve the case himself, and it’s here where Peter Cushing enjoys the best scenes in the movie.
For Peter Cushing fans, LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is a must-see film, as it provides Cushing with nonstop memorable scenes, both full of humor as he belittles the authorities, and poignancy, as he’s the one man who actually understands the werewolf. The scene at the end of the film where he confronts the werewolf in the Paris sewers is one of the best scenes in any werewolf movie period. Really!
So, you can list Peter Cushing as the number one reason LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is a classic horror tale.
The second reason is the make-up. Borrowing heavily from Roy Ashton’s classic werewolf make-up in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, the make-up team of Jimmy Evans and Graham Freeborn gives us the screen’s second blonde werewolf. The werewolf make-up here is very good. That being said, it’s not quite as good as Ashton’s, and it’s also not original, since it looks exactly like the make-up on Oliver Reed in CURSE.
Probably the biggest knock against the film is its cheap production values. LEGEND simply doesn’t compare to the opulent sets and costumes found in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.
THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF was directed by Terence Fisher, one of the best horror movie directors of all time. LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF was also directed by a veteran of the genre, Freddie Francis. Francis’ reputation is more as a cinematographer and did his best work on movies as a cinematographer rather than as a director. But his horror films in general are pretty good. Probably my favorite Freddie Francis directed horror movie is DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), Christopher Lee’s third Dracula movie. LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is probably my second favorite Freddie Francis-directed horror movie.
He includes some nice touches, like close-ups of the werewolf’s bloody teeth, shots that are particularly effective.
Also working against LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is it arrived on the horror scene late in the game. In 1975, JAWS took the world by storm, and modern werewolf classics like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) and THE HOWLING (1981) were just a few years away. Audiences in 1975 weren’t all that interested in a werewolf movie that seemed more at home a decade or so earlier.
THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF also featured Oliver Reed in the lead role. LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF features David Rintoul. And while Rintoul is just okay here, I don’t think you need Laurence Olivier playing a werewolf. For what he was supposed to do, Rintoul is just fine, but he never received the praise which Reed did for his werewolf portrayal a decade earlier.
What LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF does have is a veteran cast. In addition to Peter Cushing, the film also stars Ron Moody as the cantankerous zookeeper. Moody won the Best Actor Oscar in 1968 for his portrayal of Fagin in the musical OLIVER!, incidentally, directed by Oliver Reed’s uncle Carol Reed, who also won Best Director that year, and OLIVER! won Best Picture as well. Moody is excellent here in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, and the scenes he shares with Peter Cushing are well worth watching.
Hammer’s favorite character actor Michael Ripper is also in the cast. Ripper also appeared in Hammer’s THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, and not only that, but his characters have the dubious distinction of being murdered by the werewolves in both movies!
The screenplay by John Elder (aka Anthony Hinds) is also not a strength. While the story told in the movie is decent enough, and the Peter Cushing storyline a very good one, the dialogue throughout most of the movie is sub par.
Long considered a tepid entry in the werewolf movie canon, LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF is trending upward. It’s getting better with age, and in spite of some obvious weaknesses which still need to be considered, it does feature two acting greats, Peter Cushing and Ron Moody, who add a lot to this otherwise standard werewolf picture.
Is it really better than THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF? No, I wouldn’t say that. But the gap between these two movies is no longer as wide as once thought. Watch out CURSE. The LEGEND is growing!
Me, I like werewolf movies that are about the werewolf — not as a pet dog for vampires. Howl on!