Legend of the Werewolf *** 1975


Why has Legend of the Werewolf been so hard to locate since it flopped in 1975? One’s gratitude in seeing Freddie Francis’ 1975 horror film pop up on Amazon Prime is muted by the dismal condition of the print; with other Cushing films like Horror Express and Scream and Scream Again so wonderfully restored, it’s a shame that Legend of the Werewolf is presented in Awful-o-vision. That said, there’s lots to enjoy here in this rare Tyburn production.

The setting is Paris, presented in a laughably cheap way by a couple of street-signs and a zoo entrance. It’s within this zoo that Etoile (David Rintoul) forges a bond with some wolves. Etoile was raised by feral wolves after they killed his parents at midnight on Christmas Eve; there’s a vaguely blasphemous nativity vibe to these early scenes. Etoile is drawn to the local brothel, a popular venue which the characters wander freely in and out of as if it was a rural fast-food outlet. Etoile’s master, a zookeeper named Zookeeper, is played with paint-stripping bluster by a post-Fagin Ron Moody; he fancies the local girls, and Etoile shares his passion, but this raised interest leads him to murderous rampages. Professor Paul Cantaflanque (Peter Cushing) is supposedly charged with disposing of the corpses, but in a pre-The Alienist move, launches his own investigation as to who, or indeed what, is responsible.

Shot at Pinewood Studios, but with little in the way of spectacle, Legend of the Werewolf sees a number of Hammer staff jumping ship into a sinking life-boat. John Elder aka Anthony Hinds provides the script, while Roy Castle turns up as a photographer and Hugh Griffith as Etoile’s first mentor, an eccentric circus-owner. All are substantial pluses; the debit sheet is marked by the awful red filter that supposedly represent wolf-o-vision, the strange silver-fox make-up of the wolf, and Amazon’s laughable English-as-she-is-spoke subtitles, ranging from ‘He’s saving up his Sioux’ when the word required is sous, or such infelicities as “Exhausted?’ Yes, I must be getting (g)old!”

Other critics have pointed out that, despite the familiar presence of the likes of Michael Ripper, Legend of the Werewolf doesn’t feel like classic Hammer, and they’re right; the Tyburn experiment didn’t last long, with The Ghoul the only other major genre offering. But Cushing is a perfect centre, genial, serious, an unable to give a dull line-reading; he makes something special from a well-written character. Horror was already leaving such genteel stylings behind by 1975, but Francis’s film is something of a last gasp. Cushing presumably banked his cheque, thumbed through his Star Wars script and wondered what was coming next…

Non-Fiction 2019 ****


Olivier Assayas made something of a dent in public perception of mobile phones in Personal Shopper; technology has been something of a theme for the French film-maker, and having Kristen Stewart’s character menaced by an other-worldly spirit through a mobile phone raised a few questions; what kind of payment plan would a ghost use? Would an exorcism require a PAC code?

Fortunately, Assayas is not a character to get bogged down in such trivialities, and his latest, Non-Fiction, is a wonderfully intelligent look at the impact of the internet on the publishing industry. We begin with an author and a publisher sitting down for lunch in a fashionable bistro. The author wants to know if the publisher will schedule his new book; the publisher has other ideas. As played by Guillaume Canet (Alain, the publisher) and Vincent Macaigne (Leonard, the author), there’s a battle of wits going on that doesn’t end when the check comes. Alain is no fuddy-duddy when it comes to publishing, and sees how twitter, blogging and other modern forms of expression might free ideas and intellect. Leonard has been cannibalising his private life as material for his books, and when writing about a film featuring French creatives, it’s no big spoiler to reveal that both men are having affairs.

Which leads us to Juliette Binoche, who previously played a character very much like herself in Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, and portrays Selena, a sought-after actress who stars in a binge-watchable police mini-series. At one point, she discusses a potential audio-book with her husband, with one Juliette Binoche considered as a star-name to pull in the punters. Such playful touches are very much in tune with Non-Fiction’s mood, which enjoys the double-dealing and false-friendships of publishing for what they are, the product of ingenious minds not quite smart enough to beat the system.

Non-Fiction swims very much against the current when it comes to film-making; Assayas allows the audience to sit back and listen to the conversation, making up our own minds about the people involved. It’s this dinner-party chat that makes Non-Fiction such a pleasure to participate in. The performances are perfectly pitched, the story is relevant and original, and the whole package should be firmly recommended to discerning cineastes.

Non-Fiction opens in the UK on October 18th and can be streamed here


Svengali 1954 ***


Yet another baffling and yet still welcome random choice from Amazon Prime, the 1954 version of Svengali arrives in a print processed in the Awful-o-vision labs, with characters and set-dressing glowing and fading mid-scene and a pervasive air of murk that’s appropriate for the subject matter of male dominance. If you’ve heard men described as Svengalis, then we’re talking about control freaks, but the Svengali features here is even freakier than that. Played by Donald Wolfit, Svengali looks like Bela Lugosi playing Fu Manchu as Genghis Khan, and his every appearance provokes mirth. Wolfit’s protrayal of Svengali feels incredibly racist, although it’s not clear which particular race should be offended. An artist of some kind, he stalks the demi-monde of turn of the 19th century Paris, with acolytes including such richly Gallic actors as Michael Craig, Harry Secombe and Are You Being Served?’s Alfie Bass. The object of Svengali’s desire is Hildegard Knef, who plays an artist’s model from Ireland, going by the splendid name Trilby O’Farrell. As often as Trilby disrobes in private, Svengali loves to tickle the ivories in public, and clears crowded night-clubs by performing the death match; his plan is to hypnotise poor Trilby and convince her she’s a world-class singer. Given Wolfit’s bizarre antics, it’s hard to see what Trilby sees in him as he mumbles about ‘the music of the spheres’ and offers such romantic blandishments as ‘Sing, you clumsy oaf!”.  It’s a shame Amazon couldn’t find a better print that this, with all kinds of marks and splatter not helping a pretty dank looking film, but the eccentric performance of Wolfit gives Svengali all the fascination of a ten car pile-up; notorious as one of Britain’s most famously self-absorbed actors, Wolfit’s huge, unhinged performance was probably visible from space, and his gleeful, scenery-chewing antics genuinely have to be seen to be believed.

As Above, So Below 2014 ***

As Above, So BelowIf the found-footage genre has been done to death since The Blair Witch Project, As Above, So Below shows there’s some life in it if there’s a bit of imagination required. Coming off Quarantine and Devil, John Erik Dowdle has got the required horror chops for this neat low-budget chiller in which a group of adventure hunters get lost in the catacombs beneath Paris. Using real locations is a big plus here, as well as making the nature of the threat hard to fathom. Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) and her band are in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, but instead find themselves victims of a malignant force using their backstories to torture them. The usual grappling, gore and yelling is offset by a clever idea in which the explorers have the ground shifted away beneath them, leading to a wonderful visual in the final scene. There’s so many bad examples of found-footage; As Above, So Below is one of the few good ones.

3 Days To Kill 2014 ***


As a producer, Luc Besson has churned out so many impersonal thrillers that it’s surprising that his collaboration with McG is grounded in a domestic situation; Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is give a few days to live, and returns to Paris to make peace with his ex-wife (Connie Nielsen) and his daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld), neither of whom are particularly sympathetic since they’ve been side-lined to allow Renner to perform his heroic duties before.  Renner is offered a temporary stay of execution by operative Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), and struggles to balance his family reconciliation with the missions that Vivi sends him on. ‘Welcome to the century’ snaps Zoey as she installs Icona Pop’s I Love It as Renner’s ringtone, and 3 Days to Kill has a great joke whereby Renner’s phone goes off an inappropriate moments. Some of the other humorous touches are regrettable, and McG doesn’t seem to have much more than style to offer; his film has too much lame family friendly comedy, and too little action, although there are moments when the two gels nicely, such as a discussion about the differences between moustaches and goatees. 3 Days to Kill has a wayward tone, but represents a welcome return to the action genre for Costner.