A woman dies giving birth in the nineteenth-century French countryside on Christmas Eve, and the baby is brought up by wolves. As a result of these unusual circumstances, the boy is a werewolf. Years pass and the feral child is adopted by a travelling carnival, the owner of which dubs him Etoile; but his act becomes harder to sustain as he grows and becomes accustomed to civilisation. The adult Etoile leaves the carnival and finds work at a zoo – after which mysterious and gruesome deaths begin occurring in the vicinity…
Hammer made only one film about lycanthropy – Curse of the Werewolf from 1961 – but anyone curious as to what a second Hammer werewolf film might have looked like could get an idea from watching Legend of the Werewolf. Although made by rival studio Tyburn, some key talent from Hammer was involved: star Peter Cushing, director Freddie Francis and writer Anthony Hinds (alias John Elder) – who, as it happens, wrote and produced Curse of the Werewolf. Even the werewolves seen across the two films have remarkably similar make-up jobs.
Unsurprisingly, Hinds’ plots for the two films also overlap. Each has a prologue steeped in folklore, in this case incorporating superstitions regarding Christmas births (a detail also found in Curse) and the mythical upbringing of Romulus and Remus. Moving from legend to literature, we then have the sight of the young Etoile frolicking about like Mowgli; if nothing else, this is a werewolf film with a refreshingly eclectic range of influences.
Even after putting on clothes and getting a job, Etoile is wholly innocent of urban ways. He befriends a sex worker, but when he sees her with a client he assumes that the man is attacking her and so fights him off. The concept of the werewolf as a noble savage is entirely logical but also surprisingly underused, helping Legend of the Werewolf to stand out in the subgenre.
Unfortunately, things start to go wrong with the plot thread involving Peter Cushing as a forensic detective who tries to track down the werewolf. The main problem here is that the film treats this as a straight murder mystery – even though the audience knows full well who the killer is. We are left to watch him stumble around town until he eventually runs into the werewolf, a murder mystery with no mystery.
Cushing himself is as watchable as ever (and compared to Ron Moody’s scenery-chewing turn as the zookeeper his acting comes across as the pinnacle of subtlety) and the film gives him some amusing moments of ghoulishly camp humour as he flaunts evidence before his weaker-stomached associates. But his journey is sorely lacking the urgency of Van Helsing’s mission to destroy Dracula or the archaeologist’s entanglement with the mummy.
This is a shame, as Hinds’ script clearly had care put into it. From the mythic resonance of the lycanthrope’s origin through to the speech in which Cushing cites the growth of tadpoles into frogs and the continued existence of moon-worship to bolster the idea that a man can become a wolf, the film takes pains to make the werewolf a figure of credibility, not just a jumble of decades-old clichés.
Alas, Legend of the Werewolf’s plotting misjudgements end up scuppering this potential. At least, that is, until the climax, where Cushing makes a heartfelt appeal to the werewolf’s humanity, and we get a tantalising glimpse of the film that could have been: a worthy successor to Curse of the Werewolf.