Terence Fisher, 1961
Starring: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller, Anthony Dawson, Michael Ripper
A malevolent Marquis in 18th century Spain imprisons an innocent beggar sheerly for his own amusement. After years in prison, he loses his mind and becomes animalistic. When a beautiful young servant rejects the Marquis’s advances, he throws her in a cell with the beggar, who rapes her. She gives birth to a child before dying and a kindly gentleman, Don Alfredo, raises the baby as his son. When the boy, Leon, grows up, it becomes clear that something isn’t right about him and during the full moon, local animals are found slaughtered. Thinking he can suppress the urges, Leon sets off to work in a nearby vineyard, but falls in love with the owner’s daughter, Cristina, though she has been promised to another. When her father aggressively seeks to keep Leon and Cristina apart and his wolfish feelings return…
Though they would explore a variety of transformation-themed horror films over the years, Hammer’s sole attempt at a werewolf film — The Curse of the Werewolf — primarily succeeds thanks to the glorious Oliver Reed, appearing here in his first starring role. Handsome and occasionally hammy, Reed is perfect for the part as he’s able to capture a wide range, though Leon is generally either romantic, sensitive, or enraged. I’ve probably related this anecdote a hundred times on this blog, but director Ken Russell — who worked with Reed often — would communicate what he wanted from the actor by asking for a certain technique ranging from subtle to explosive: moody one, moody two, or moody three. I think this is a perfect summary of Reed’s acting style in general and he busts out moody three a fair few times in The Curse of the Werewolf. The effects from Roy Ashton are certainly not the film’s centerpiece, but they aren’t too overwhelming for Ollie to be able to emote even when he’s gone wolfish.
This might strike contemporary audiences as more of a period drama or tragic melodrama more than an outright horror film, but hey, it’s still a werewolf movie. The script is a bit confusing on exactly why young Leon becomes a werewolf. Is it because his mother is raped and the baby’s born on Christmas Eve (which another character repeats his unlucky)? Or because the beggar who rapes her — after years of imprisonment — has become more animal than human? I really have no idea, but the general conceit is that love can keep the wolf from his door and it’s the presence of first Don Alfredo, his adopted father, and later Cristina, that keeps him from changing. When he’s removed from Cristina’s influence in particular, he can’t control the beast within.
This film has the fairytale elements that mark some of the best of Hammer’s films and here the werewolf is not a monster, but a pitiable victim, a tragic Romeo. Though it takes awhile to get started — the first third is sort of wasted on Leon’s back story — this time is spend emphasizes the dichotomy that defines a lot of Hammer’s films: that human cruelty often directly causes horror and in particular it is a result of the actions from characters in the upper classes. In other words, the Marquis’s actions so many decades ago have led directly to Leon’s lycanthropy. And where he could have easily found salvation — in Cristina’s arms — he is tragically prevented by yet another greedy aristocrat.
While most werewolf films completely skirt Guy Endore’s inflammatory novel, The Werewolf of Paris, this is one of the few movies to actually stick with some of the plot, namely the rape sequence as an explanation for lycanthropy. And though it avoid much of the book’s sexual content, there are some seedy elements like the lecherous Marquis, the rape scene, and Leon’s brutal attack of a prostitute (seriously, this book is so brutal I can’t believe a direct adaptation hasn’t happened yet). Hammer moved the setting from France to Spain thanks to having some Spanish set pieces already built, but this seems perfectly normal to me because I’ve seen entirely too many of Paul Naschy’s El Hombre Lobo films.
It’s hard to pay attention to anyone else when Oliver Reed is on screen, but there are some solid performances. Keep your eyes peeled for Hammer regular (and favorite) Michael Ripper, the beloved Desmond Llewellyn (Q from many James Bond films), Anthony Dawson (Dr. No), and Clifford Evans (The Kiss of the Vampire) as the kindly Don Alfredo. Catherine Feller (The Girl with the Pistol) is a disappointing female lead and I really wish she had switched roles with gorgeous Hammer regular Yvonne Romain (Night Creatures), who has a small role as Leon’s unfortunate mother.
Of course The Curse of the Werewolf comes recommended — I would never speak ill of Oliver Reed — and I think anyone who loves Paul Naschy would find this to be a fascinating precursor to his werewolf cycle. Though his first film, the lost Las noches del Hombre Lobo (1968), was only released a few years later, he must have seen and been influenced by this film. You can find the Blu-ray import with some nice special features or as part of the Hammer Horror Series DVD set along with other underrated pleasures like Brides of Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, Paranoiac, Kiss of the Vampire, Nightmare, Night Creatures, and Evil of Frankenstein.