Monday, 2 November 2015

Legend of the Werewolf (1975, Freddie Francis)

Only three features were produced in the mid-1970s by the Tyburn Film Productions Ltd of father and son team Freddie Francis and Kevin Francis, and all three of this triptych of terrors were of the Gothic and ghoulish persuasion that the name of the production company intimated - not that i suppose that anyone expected a company named after the famed gallows (the 'Tyburn Tree') that had seen the dangling deaths of many a murdering brigand, convicted traitor and religious martyr to be releasing any kind of sugary Disneyesque output.

Tyburn's first real offering (after 1973's Amicus-style portmanteau movie Tales That Witness Madness, helmed by Francis senior and released under the banner of World Film Services) was Persecution (aka: The Terror of Sheba, 1974, Don Chaffey), featuring Hollywood legend Lana Turner as the domineering mother of Ralph Bates in a melodramatic thriller reminiscent of Robert Aldrich's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).  A year later, Freddie Francis (who had begun his film career as cinematographer on such movies as Cyril Frankel's Never Take Sweets from a Stranger [1960], Karel Reisz' Saturday Night and Sunday Morning [1960] and Jack Clayton's The Innocents [1961] before going on to direct Hammer chillers Paranoiac [1963], Nightmare [1964], The Evil of Frankenstein [1964] and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave [1968]) would himself direct two horror pictures to be released by Tyburn, both starring Hammer horror stalwart Peter Cushing.  One was The Ghoul, a fog-shrouded Roaring Twenties-set potboiler influenced by H. P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror", featuring future star of television's Survivors (BBC TV, 1975 - 1977) and Italian splatter classics Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979, Lucio Fulci) and Zombie Holocaust (1980, Marino Girolami) Ian McCulloch, as well as Alexandra Bastedo of The Champions (ITC, 1968 - 1969) and Vicente Aranda's Iberian reworking of Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla", La Novia Ensangrentada, aka The Blood Spattered Bride (1972).

Tyburn's alternate 1975 offering was Legend of the Werewolf, utilising - like it's Ghoulish sibling - a script by Hammer's Anthony Hinds (written under his usual nom-de-plume of John Elder) that had been dormant and unproduced since a year or so after Hammer had made Hinds' The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, Terence Fisher).  Originally titled Wolf Boy, Elder's scenario was reworked to incorporate elements from another script optioned by Tyburn, Plague of the Werewolves written by Frederick Warner - who had contributed additional scenes and dialogue to Persecution the year before.

Opening with a prologue narrated by Cushing, the film sets its scene with the birth of a child to a family of gypsies fleeing persecution in the early years of the 19th century.  With the mother dying in childbirth and the father killed by a pack of wild wolves in the forest, the child - marked as an Outsider tinged by tragedy from birth - is raised in Mowgli-esque fashion by the wolves that slew his family until he is captured as a feral youth by a traveling circus after being shot by circus strongman Tiny (Norman Mitchell) as they both hunt a rabbit (rifle beats teeth, in case anyone wondered).  Taken in by the itinerant show's impresario-cum-ringmaster Maestro Pomponi (an amusing eccentric comic turn by Hugh Griffith) and his tattooed lady wife, the boy is names Etoile (meaning 'star', as anyone with a GCSE in French or an arcane major in the Major Arcana of the Tarot will be able to tell you) and exhibited by the circus as 'The Wolf Boy', snarling loincloth clad in a cage for the coins of the gawping villagers visiting the show.  This geek freak proves unique enough to turn around the fortunes of Pomponi's show, and young Etoile is provided for and raised to manhood in the company of the carnies.

Now a young man, Etoile (David Rintoul, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 1980 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and the titular Doctor Finlay [1993 - 1996]) finds himself undergoing some strange chemical changes and growing lots of bodily hair (but that's puberty for you!) and engaging in some carnivorous lunar activities under the baleful glare of the full moon, tearing out Tiny's throat on his first lupine rampage.  Cinematographer John Wilcox (who had worked with Freddie Francis on The Evil of Frankenstein and The Skull [1965], as well as photographing both of Milton Subotsky's Doctor Who film adaptations Dr Who and the Daleks [1965] and Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 A. D. [1966], The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires [1974] and The Ghoul) gives us a unique 'Wolf's Eye View' perspective shot, with a tracking subjective camera with a red filter roving through the trees - and later, the cobbled Parisienne streets - as the lycanthrope stalks his victims.

Fleeing the scene of his crime and becoming one of the few young people to run away from joining the circus, Etoile finds himself in 1800s Paris, where he secures employment at a run down menagerie presided over by a dissolute zookeeper (a wonderfully grotesque and caricatured performance by Ron Moody) and finds solace in caring for his near-kin, the wolves.  The naive young shapeshifter finds himself the victim of another curse - that of love - when he quickly falls hard for Christine (Lynn Dalby), one of a group of attractive young ladies who visit the zoo during lunch hours from their place of employment across the road - a brothel run by Madame Tellier.

With his turbulent emotions running wild, Etoile finds himself once more becoming a raging animal at the whims of the lunar cycle and his bloodstained times of the month (i'm probably overdoing this metaphor, yeah?) sees him targeting with his teeth some of the gentlemen callers to the Madame's establishment.  These Jack the Ripper in reverse style scenarios see men in top hats and capes being stalked through the fog shrouded streets on their way home from their assignations to meet a decidedly unhappy ending.  perhaps there is a parallel to be drawn betwixt these men having paid for and used these young women like meat to satiate their animal urges now being torn into strips of flesh by a creature of pure bestial instinct and unfettered id.  probably, but i was about ten when i saw the movie and i was just happy with the gore to be honest.

The always reliable Cushing gives a good turn as police pathologist Paul Cataflanque (the name being mined for humour in an exchange with Moody's Zookeeper: 'Mister Cata...?' '...Flanque', smiles Cushing.  'Flonk!' deadpans Moody), who along with his assistant Boulon (David Bailie, or davidbailie as i believe it is nowadays spelled) investigates this trail of eviscerated corpses that the local prefect of police (John Harvey) has down as the work of a wild animal, leading to an order for the wolves of the zoo to be destroyed - an order that it falls on Etoile to carry out in an agonising sequence as he tearfully kills the creatures that are more his kin that cruel mankind.

Solid if unspectacular direction from Francis and some good performances lift the material even as the paucity of the films budget is belied by some of the Pinewood backlot sets and locations, and the misspelled French of the street signage.  The werewolf makeup by Graham Freeborn (son of Stuart Freeborn, the creator of and visual inspiration for Yoda of the Star Wars saga) is good, though highly reminiscent of Roy Ashton's vulpine version of Ollie Reed in Curse of the Werewolf, and the sequences as Etoile prowls through the darkened sewers - killing a ratcatcher played by Hammer veteran Michael Ripper on the way - are quite atmospheric and effective.

Also featuring a cameo from Roy Castle as an effete aesthete of a photographer called in to record a scene of slaughter in daguerreotype to his horror, Legend of the Werewolf along with its Ghoulish sibling marks a watershed moment in horror, as the golden age of the British horror film's last gasp.  Tyburn Film Productions would go on to make the Peter Cushing Sherlock Holmes film The Masks of Death for television in 1984, as well as two documentaries (G'Ole! [1983], about the 1982 football World Cup, and the 1989 biography Peter Cushing: A One-Way Ticket to Hollywood [1989]) but no more features.  Hammer Films were well into their long decline, and would release To the Devil, a Daughter in 1976 as their last horror feature for more than three decades, whilst Amicus Productions had ended their horror cycle with the Peter Cushing and Vincent Price vehicle Madhouse in 1974, and would peter out with the creature feature sequel The People That Time Forgot in 1977.  So as this era of the British horror film came to a close, it seems fitting that stalwarts of the scene both in front of and behind the camera, in the persons of Cushing and Francis, should be there to see it out.

1 comment:

  1. Poor little starry wolf-boy :-(

    Peter Cushing has a very watchable face. I could look at it for hours.