There was a certain indefinable vivacity that permeated Hammer horror during the studio’s healthier years, roughly from the mid 1950’s through to the late 1960’s. America had come a-knocking, and major Hollywood studios like Columbia and 20th Century Fox helped shape Hammer into a veritable powerhouse of gothic horror. Amidst the popular vehicles which typically defined Hammer – that is, their Frankenstein and Dracula series – came a slew of lesser-known, but equally as impressive films. Amongst these, a small cache of projects co-produced with Universal around the end of the 50’s stand out. The Curse of the Werewolf is perhaps one of the most important of these films, and certainly it is one of the finest to emerge from that lucrative relationship.
The film begins with church bells echoing through a courtyard. A beggar, despite his ignorant and illiterate nature, knows it is not Sunday. Intrigued, he investigates and learns that the bells proclaim the marriage of a rather ill-regarded Marquis. The beggar knocks on the door to the wedding celebration and is quickly and soundly humiliated by the Marquis and his court, invited to drink himself drunk and in the end, thrown into a dungeon and forgotten about forever. Thus begins a rather lengthy and convoluted background story to the origin of the werewolf curse, and it is during these initial sequences that the film falters and drags its feet, displaying its weakest moments. However, there is such an air of campy melodrama and such pitch-perfect performances (most notably Anthony Dawson as the mad Marquis and the gorgeous Yvonne Romaine as the servant girl) that it’s hard to fault the film for noodling around a bit before getting to the point.
Enter Oliver Reed; The Curse of the Werewolf would mark his first major acting role, and even in those early days, Mr. Reed displays that scantily-concealed charisma that would soon make him a prominent leading man. He is, of course, a perfect choice to play a man struggling with inner demons. Reed was an infamous and rather nasty drunk in his life off-camera (and often on, for that matter); his silky veneer masked a decidedly malevolent beast beneath. Watch the film and you can see it in his piercing sapphire eyes, in that slight down-turn of his brow, the dark features of his face. He makes it look easy, yet not a wink of it contrived. Get him into the werewolf make-up and it’s a chilling sight – enough so that they decided to roll the opening credits over a close-up of his bloodshot eyes.
Reed leads us to the meat of the story as his character Leon comes to learn of his tainted past, why he has such awful nightmares, and why he more often than not awakes with blood on his hands. Leon leaves home to work at a vineyard. He falls in love with the vintner’s beautiful daughter. He kills and maims when the moon is full. And, as the film closes, church bells toll once again. And it is not for Sunday service.
The film takes place in Spain, apparently due to the fact that another film that Hammer was working on tanked, and the set was still intact so they decided to put it to good use. It creates an atmosphere that is appropriately gothic and creepy, and add to that a bizarre mix of English actors playing Spaniards and what bubbles up is a fairy-tale-esque sense of tone and environment. It looks and seems real enough, but underneath there is just something mythic about the story and setting, something that gives the film a feeling that’s out of time and place. As well, look for those few moments of impressive gore – moments that were excised by the typically finicky censors of the time, but have since been reinstated – which pop up unexpectedly and further add to the sinister mood of the film.
Thematically, there are the usual tropes for Hammer (and British films in general, I suppose) – class differences being one. The story involving the marquis and the beggar, for instance, as well as a plotline surrounding Leon’s love and the condescending bourgeois she was slated to marry. Also, there is a clear divide between the sexes that, while typical for the time, has become nearly laughable. Women swoon and scream on cue; the men brood and pump their chests. And, as with all werewolf stories, there is an undercurrent of duality – of man letting go of the monster inside of him.
Leon is a gentle man during the day, capable of deep love, not even able to shoot a squirrel on a hunting trip; yet night would bring out a different man. Should we pity the man, or curse the beast? Has there ever been quite a well-worn premise in the world of horror such as this? Perhaps not, but done well it is a definite treat, and this film is as good as any in that respect.
Perhaps most would not count this film with the best of the Hammer series, but I can’t help but smile at the sheer naiveté of the film-making; that ‘vivacity’ I spoke of earlier. It seeps into a load of director Terence Fisher’s work and, for this reviewer anyway, only seems to add to my appreciation of the film and Hammer horror in general. Something about the marriage of the werewolf legend and gothic melodrama works for me and I certainly think this is an underrated gem of a horror film.
Overall, The Curse of the Werewolf is an intriguing and absorbing watch. Highlighted by charming performances and gothic nuances, it starts off at a plod, but slowly pulls you in and builds toward a fantastic conclusion. If anything, this film marks a time when horror was simple and straightforward, a time of style and atmosphere, of charm and vivacity…a time when Hammer hardly even seemed to realize what they were on to.
Please feel free to discuss "The Curse of the Werewolf" here, in our forums!