by Steve Habrat
After successfully resurrecting three of Universal Studios’ most renowned ghouls (Victor Frankenstein and his monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Count Dracula in Horror of Dracula (1958), and Kharis the Mummy in The Mummy (1959)), the increasingly popular Hammer Films then set their undead sights on the Wolf Man. In 1961, director Terence Fisher released The Curse of the Werewolf, which found Hammer revamping the howling menace with plenty of candle wax blood and more cleavage than you can shake a furry paw at. Based upon the novel The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endor, Fisher and screenwriter Anthony Hinds (who penned the script under the name John Elder) craft an origin heavy tale that once again put a fresh spin on what Universal had already memorably done with Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941. Moving the action from Paris to Spain, The Curse of the Werewolf reinvents the werewolf lore before finally baring its fangs in the final twenty minutes. Make no mistake, both the origin tale and the characters are all handled with plenty of care, but The Curse of the Werewolf is dragged into mediocrity through a struggling performance from Oliver Reed, one of Hammer’s favored sons, who can’t quite seem to win over our empathy.
The Curse of the Werewolf opens in 18th century Spain, with a raggedy beggar (played by Richard Wordsworth) arriving in a village that seems to be abandoned. After stumbling upon a group of locals in a nearby pub, the beggar learns that the town is celebrating the marriage of Marques Siniestro (played by Anthony Dawson). The beggar decides to travel to the Marques’ castle in the hopes of finding some food left over from the celebration. After being humiliated by the Marques in front of a room full of guests, the beggar is tossed into jail where he befriends the jailer’s mute daughter (played by Yvonne Romain). Many years pass and the beggar, who is still behind bars, begins to slip into madness. After having a nasty encounter with the aging Marques, the mute girl is thrown into prison with the beggar, who proceeds to rape the poor girl. The mute girl manages to escape her torment and makes her way into the countryside where she is discovered by the kind Don Alfredo Coreldo (played by Clifford Evans), who takes the girl in and discovers that she is with child. Upon learning this new, Don Alfredo’s housekeeper, Teresa (played by Hira Talfrey), is appalled to learn that the baby will be born on Christmas day, something that is considered very unlucky by the locals. Several months later, the mute girl gives birth to a baby boy, Leon, on December 25th. All seems normal at first but Don Alfredo begins hearing rumors of an animal that prowls the night and attacks local livestock. After discovering that Leon suffered a nasty gunshot wound while he was “sleepwalking,” he decides to put bars on the boy’s windows, fearing that the boy has been cursed because of his birthdate. Once again the years pass and Leon (played by Oliver Reed) is all grown up and ready to leave home, but his old curse comes back to haunt him when the moon is full.
Like all of Hammer’s other monster rival offerings, The Curse of the Werewolf works hard in separating itself from what Universal Studios had done. Screenwriter Hinds reworks some of the werewolf mythology, suggesting that the werewolf curse is something that one is born with and that constant love and affection can keep lycanthrope at bay. It’s a nice change of pace, but Hinds and Fisher are relentless with their backstory. The origin tale itself takes up over half the film, allowing us very little time to actually empathize with adult Leon and his full-moon transformations. As far as the werewolf itself is concerned, Fisher is patient with his monster, keeping him largely off-screen until the last fifteen minutes of the film when we get to witness him prowling rooftops and scampering through town as villagers light torches and holler for his demise. In true Hammer fashion, the attack scenes in The Curse of the Werewolf are shockingly bloody and violent—the camera lingering on slashed faces and leaking claw marks. It is definitely not something that you would have seen in the Lon Chaney Jr. original from 1941.
While the heavy emphasis on the werewolf’s origin tale tripping the film up, The Curse of the Werewolf is also a bit flat due to the casting of the lead role. There is no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee anywhere in sight, but rather there is Oliver Reed, an actor with leading man’s looks but none of the magnetism that Lee and Cushing radiated. Reed struggles to make his anguish look convincing, his shakes, shivers, and sweats never looking like they are coming from a dark and terrifying place. In the scenes where he isn’t asked to grapple with his transformation, he fares a bit better. He seems like a polite and pleasant young man when he finally departs home and his romance that he strikes up romance with Christina Fernando (played by Catherine Feller) has some deep and passionate moments, but it’s not enough to hold his performance together. The standout of the picture is without question Anthony Dawson as the vile Marques. He only shows up at the beginning but he sure is a nasty and disgusting piece of humanity. Yvonne Romain is sweet and strikingly beautiful as the mute girl who gives birth to Leon. Keller’s Christina is basically the worried girlfriend who strokes Leon’s hair when he falls into one of his sweating and shaking fits. Clifford Evans tackles a grim role with Don Alfredo Corledo, Leon’s father figure who slowly realizes what he must do to rid his adopted son of this awful curse.
Another fumble made by The Curse of the Werewolf is the make-up effects and a certain end transformation scene that features some seriously cheap effects. As far as the overall look of Leon’s hairy werewolf, he looks okay at a brief glance but there is nothing that really sticks with the viewer. It has a vague demonic look, especially when Reed shoots piercing stares your way, but it doesn’t leave the impression that Jack Pierce’s make-up still makes today. The other bumpy moment comes when Leon begins to transform into a werewolf. The viewer is treated to a close-up of the some of the fakest looking hands you have ever seen, the back of Reed’s head as he makes growling noises, and a brief mid-transformation glimpse of his face. On the one hand, it’s understandable considering the film was made in 1961, but there were transformation scenes that were infinitely more frightening that came before this. Overall, The Curse of the Werewolf packs plenty of moments that generate some heart pounding suspense and anticipation, but the story takes way too long to finally unleash full on terror. Then there is Reed, who frankly was miscast in the role of Leon. Despite its flaws, Fisher and Hinds never forget to explore the bestiality of man, even the one’s that seem extremely mild mannered.
The Curse of the Werewolf is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Horror legend William Castle will be forever remembered as the king of gimmicks. He had a skeleton dangle over his audience in perhaps his most well known film, House on Haunted Hill, and he slapped buzzers on various seats and had Vincent Price encourage viewers to scream bloody murder during screenings of cult favorite The Tingler. Another one of Castle’s elaborate gimmicks came with Mr. Sardonicus, his chilling 1961 answer to the gothic horror offerings from Hammer Studios. Lacking the color cinematography Hammer was noted for but certainly not shorting the audience on macabre visuals, talk of ghouls, grave robbers, disfigurement, and leeches, Mr. Sardonicus is an atmospheric tale that cleverly allowed the audience to pick how they wanted to bring this underrated effort to a close. Mr. Sardonicus has sadly never enjoyed the success that some of Castle’s other work has, but don’t be fooled, this film is actually one of Castle’s better horror outings. The film features a solid build up, marvelous set design, eerie exterior shots that look like they were lifted right out of Hammer’s Horror of Dracula or The Curse of Frankenstein, and make-up effects that are guaranteed to have you fighting to keep down your lunch. And to think this movie is based around a short story by Ray Russell that appeared in Playboy!
Mr. Sardonicus begins in 1880, with renowned physician Sir Robert Cargrave (played by Ronald Lewis) being urgently summoned by his past lover, Maude (played by Audrey Dalton), to her secluded new castle that she shares with her mysterious husband, Baron Sardonicus (played by Guy Rolfe). Shortly after arriving, Robert is met by Baron Sardonicus’ fiercely loyal servant, Krull (played Oskar Homolka), who is in the process of torturing a terrified servant girl by sticking leeches on her face. Robert is reunited with Maude and is introduced to Sardonicus, who hides his face behind an expressionless mask. Despite Maude’s warnings of awful things taking place in the castle and muffled screams in the night, Robert stays to protect his lost love. The next morning, Sardonicus meets with Robert and reveals that he wears a mask to conceal a grotesque grimace that has been frozen to his face. Sardonicus explains that he has tried everything to attempt to fix his disfigurement but nothing seems to work. Robert agrees to try to help Sardonicus but after his efforts fail, Sardonicus demands that Robert resort to life threatening experimental procedures to try to fix his face and if Robert resists or fails again, he will torture Maude.
While there is plenty of lurid subject matter throughout Mr. Sardonicus, the film would be nothing without its sinister gothic atmosphere, something that makes the film a perfect fit for a chilly October evening. There are castles hidden by twisted trees, graveyards nestled inside dead gardens, heavy shadows cast over the characters, and thick sheets of fog that hang heavy in the air and coil around like ghostly specters. Castle’s finishing touch is the rotten corpse that leers out from its open grave, a visual jolt that hits the viewer like a strong cup of coffee. There is no doubt that the people over at Hammer Studios were most likely smiling over what Castle achieved here. This atmosphere gives Mr. Sardonicus plenty of personality and on its own, it is enough to give the viewer goosebumps, but the make-up effects really make this picture a macabre affair. The loyal servant Krull is missing an eye and Mr. Sardonicus’ mask is eerily blank for the rolling menace that booms from behind the pencil-thin lips. Then there are the effects on Mr. Sardonicus himself, which are hideous enough to cause one character to commit suicide after laying unsuspecting eyes on his hellish grin. The sight really is startling and grotesque, elaborate to the point that it was very difficult for Rolfe to keep the make-up on for a long period of time.
In addition to the strong atmosphere and chilling set design, Mr. Sardonicus also features some seriously noteworthy and graceful performances from its leads. Lewis is absolutely superb as the strong and whip-smart hero Robert, a man who isn’t shaken in the least by the horror unfolding around him. He’s levelheaded when forced to confront a nasty situation and calculated in the way he battles back against the menacing Sardonicus. Rolfe, meanwhile, plays Sardonicus as a surprisingly sympathetic monster with a tragic past. He certainly can back us up against the wall when he peels off that terrible mask to reveal an even more terrifying grimace, but there is an aura of sadness surrounding him, something that you would have seen in one of Universal’s early monster offerings. Much like Claude Rains’ performance in the 1933 film The Invisible Man, Rolfe is asked to bring heaping amounts of intimidation and emotion to a role that conceals his face and I must admit that he rises to the challenge. Dalton does get reduced to the whimpering damsel in distress during certain moments but the way she composes herself when her commanding husband slinks into the room is certainly something to admire. Homolka nearly steals the show as the disfigured servant Krull, a gravelly minion who assures Robert that he will do anything that Sardonicus orders him to do and he means ANYTHING. Just wait until you get a load of him sticking leeches to one poor girl’s face.
Considering that Mr. Sardonicus is a Castle product, the film naturally has a nifty little gimmick attached to it. This time around, Castle passed out glow-in-the-dark cards that had a thumbs up and thumbs down printed on it to the audience. Near the end of the film, Castle appears on the screen and speaks directly to the audience about picking the fate of the monster. He cheerfully encourages them to not be sheepish and to have absolutely no mercy for the nasty Sardonicus as he supposedly counts votes. It has been said that Castle shot two endings for Mr. Sardonicus, the one that we get to see and one that spares the grinning ghoul, but the softer ending has never been shown. What is interesting about Mr. Sardonicus is that its gimmick gets to live on and it wasn’t limited to a theater gag like The Tingler’s seat buzzers or House on Haunted Hill’s soaring skeleton. We actually get to a chance to experience the gimmick rather than having to simply hear about it from our parents or grandparents. Overall, ripe with a gothic atmosphere and brimming with Castle’s fiendish frights, Mr. Sardonicus is a patient and morbid horror story that deserves way more attention than it receives. Fans of Hammer Studios will be especially pleased with what Castle gives them, but all horror fans are guaranteed to walk away with a Sardonicus style grimace plastered on their mugs.
Mr. Sardonicus is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Below are a few little bonus items that I thought were cool to include in this review.
And here is the trailer for Mr. Sardonicus:
This review has been a part of…
by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese director Ishiro Honda unleashed the grim and brooding radiation nightmare Godzilla on the world. Godzilla would go on to introduce audiences everywhere to Toho Studios, a Japanese production company that would become well known among horror and science fiction enthusiasts for their “Kaiju” (strange beast) films. While Godzilla is certainly the top monster in the long line of monster movies produced by Toho Studios, the second in command would most certainly be the 1961 effort Mothra, a splashier and sillier effort from Mr. Honda. Lacking the hypnotic appeal and haunting linger of Godzilla, Mothra is clearly the more upbeat monster movie. It has all the trademark elements of these Japanese “Kaiju” films that genre fans have come to know and love, but at times it seems to be a bit too silly, fantastic, and, dare I say, cuddly for its own good. While Mothra may not possess the thought and depth of Godzilla, the film still dares to show a few post-WWII scars under all the colorful action and adventure. There is still a shiver anytime the bomb or atomic radiation is mentioned, but it almost seems like the film is chuckling at itself, which is a pity because this monster movie could have mustered a roar just as mighty as Godzilla’s.
Mothra begins in the waters off of Infant Island, with a Japanese ship getting caught and running aground in a nasty typhoon. The ship’s crew gets stranded on Infant Island, which is presumably an uninhabited site for Rolisican atomic tests. A few days later, a rescue party finds several members of the ship’s crew alive and well on Infant Island. The crew is immediately taken to the nearest hospital for radiation sickness, but doctors are stunned to learn that the crew did not get sick due to juice that was provided to them by natives living on the island. The bizarre story is broken to the public by rotund reported Zenichiro “Bulldog” Fukuda (played by Frankie Sakai) and photographer Michi Hanamura (played by Kyoko Kagawa), both who obtained the story through posing as doctors. The Rolisican government soon responds by putting together a joint expedition to the island. Among the expedition is greedy entrepreneur Clark Nelson (played by Jerry Itou) and kindly linguist Shin’ichi Chujo (played by Hiroshi Koizumi). While exploring the island, the group stumbles across the shy natives and a pair of young women (played by The Peanuts) who are only twelve inches tall. The two girls plead with the group to halt the atomic testing on their island and to leave the natives in peace. The group agrees and quickly leaves, keeping their findings a secret from the public. However, Nelson secretly travels back to the island and abducts the two girls and forces them to perform a singing act in Tokyo. The horrified natives call upon their god, Mothra, to rise up and bring the girls back to their island.
Honda quickly sets Mothra apart from his deadly serious Godzilla through pop-art action and exotic adventure. There is a trip to a beautiful yet sadly mutated island with natives peaking between giant leaves and over twisting flowers as scientists in ominous HAZMAT suits parade around with machine guns. It almost feels like something out of King Kong, only done up in the most effervescent colors imaginable. There is also plenty of slapstick humor and wisecracks, especially from the instantly likable Zenichiro, who nervously giggles when he is backed up against a wall and manages to get tiny mice caught in his suit. Despite how lavish it all looks and how funny the jokes are, there is never a hint of the impending doom that loomed over the opening half of Godzilla. However, once the action of the second half kicks in to high gear, there are traces of Godzilla everywhere. Tension builds as a massive caterpillar inches its way towards Tokyo in an attempt to find the abducted girls. Japanese fighter jets swoop over and drop canisters of napalm down on the best, but it does no good. When it finally reaches Tokyo, it bashes and smashes through miniature buildings that certainly crumble realistically enough. Things take a cheeky turn when the caterpillar morphs into the iconic Mothra, who can whip up a wind storm just by furiously flapping her wings. You’ll certainly chuckle as toy cars get tossed around like, well, toy cars and fake builds tremble like… fake buildings. The longer it all goes on, the less it impresses.
In addition to the rocky action, the performances are never as gripping as what we saw in Godzilla. Sakai is charismatic and fun as the humorous hero Zenichiro, a nice change of pace over the square-jawed heroes that were battling giant bugs in America. The oafish Sakai doesn’t seem to be taking the picture too seriously, which is a shame, but he will certainly get you to chuckle at least once. Kagawa acts as the pretty-faced sidekick that follows Sakai around from one site of destruction to the next. Koizumi is passable but largely forgettable as the camera shy linguist who is basically the more handsome hero to Sakai’s Zenchiro. Itou is vile enough as the exploitative entrepreneur who leers over the tiny girls like a madman. It is interesting to see just how cowardly he is when Mothra comes calling. Rounding out the main cast in the twin-sister singing act The Peanuts, who are here as the tiny “Shobijin.” The Peanuts are tragic enough, but this is mostly due to their situation rather than their acting. While much of their performance consists of them huddling together and smiling at the camera, you will still find yourself hoping and praying that Mothra will come save them from Nelson’s clutches.
What really separates Mothra from the other monster movies is the fact that Mothra herself is more of an avenging angel rather than a snarling stand in for the atomic bomb. Even if she does look like one of your daughter’s stuffed toys, she is actually sort of neat in that respect. She isn’t a mindless abomination of atomic radiation and destruction, which really gives the film itself a bit more individuality. While it may lack the deeper meanings and the sorrowful meditation of Godzilla, Mothra is still a fairly resilient plea for peace and harmony. It may have been falling of deaf ears and drive-in eyes simply looking for the next destruction sequence, but at least it was giving it a try. Overall, while it has its lasting moments, Mothra begins to fall victim to a shaky third act set in a cardboard stand-in for New York City (here it is New Kirk City). There is too much interest in comic book fantasy and retina-shattering color blasts, which cause the film to feel more like a drawn-out cartoon rather than a serious minded work of art. It’s fun in small doses but maybe it should have taken itself a bit more seriously.
Mothra is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you find yourself being the type of person that can’t force yourself to sit down and watch a foreign art house film, you should really make an effort to start with and see Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (The Bodyguard). Yes, there are subtitles in the film, so you will have to do a small bit of reading, but Yojimbo, which was the film that influenced Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, is such an entertaining film that you will find yourself forgetting that there are subtitles on the screen. Devoid of any off-putting pretension, Kurosawa puts more emphasis on limb-severing action and hearty comedy that will appeal to both average movie viewers and the art house crowd. A highly influential film, Yojimbo has been widely considered to be a true classic that finds its own influence in western cinema, creating a slightly surreal Japanese western that is ripe with dazzling black and white cinematography, packed camera shots, and some truly breathtaking showdowns that will leave you gasping.
Yojimbo follows a wandering, masterless samurai (Played by Toshiro Mifune) who happens upon a 19th century town that is caught in the middle of a war between two rival gangs. After dropping in to the local tavern, the elderly owner, Gonji (Played by Eijiro Tono), gives the samurai all the information about the rival crime bosses, Seibei (Played by Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Played by Kyu Sazanka). Gonji warns the samurai that he should leave the town before one of the gangs confront and kill him but seeing an opportunity to make a hefty chunk of change and a way to clean up the town, the samurai decides to stick around and devise a way to trick the gangs in to destroying each other. After infiltrating one of the gangs by displaying how skilled he is with a samurai sword, he sets his plan in motion but certain members of both gangs begin to suspect that he is not simply interested in aligning himself with one specific gang.
For the individuals out there who are fond of cinematography, the resplendent whites and the charcoal blacks from cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito are an absolute must-see and perhaps my favorite aspect of Yojimbo. The film, which was made in 1961, has such a sharp, luminous picture that I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. For any film fan, the picture here will certainly have you dying to go out and pick up the Bu-ray for maximum picture quality. Complimenting this masterful cinematography is hack-and-slash action that sends a severed arm flying here and buckets of flowing blood there. The best “ewww” moment comes when a mangy dog trots through the streets up to the samurai carrying a severed hand in his dingy mouth. It comes as such a shock to the viewer that it becomes a combination of funny and appalling. The fight scenes in Yojimbo suddenly explode across the screen—a technique that catches the viewer off guard at first and then is suddenly over just as quickly as it began. This is a method that Leone would apply in his slow building gunfights that would begin and end in a loud crack in each and every one of his sweaty westerns.
While Yojimbo is impressive with its camerawork and white-knuckle action, Kurosawa doesn’t ever forget to keep you laughing and rallying behind our masterless samurai, who consistently toys with each gang. Yojimbo is a highly comical film, especially when the two gangs decide to go head to head in the deserted streets. Each gang has members who brag about how fearless they are and how feared they should be. When our hero approaches one gang, three young gang members approach him and boast how dangerous they are. Our hero chuckles in their faces and calls them cute, enraging them enough to have them draw their swords and lunge at the cool, calm, and collected hero. In a flurry of gore, the dangerous criminals are reduced to blubbering babies crying for their mothers. Yojimbo plays with this constantly, offering the audience hot-headed tough guys who are quickly revealed to be cowards who run off to their stern and commanding mothers (I think the women in Yojimbo are scarier than the men are!). It is a gag that constantly grabs a few belly laughs, especially the scene where the two gangs charge each other in the streets and then retreat back to their lines only to charge again and then flee. While all the charging and fleeing is going on, Mifune represents the audience, sitting back and howling at all the cowardice that has been revealed.
Mifune is an actor who is in complete control of each and every scene, playing the levelheaded hero who never seems to break a sweat, almost like all of this is second nature to him. Mifune’s samurai, who tells one gang leader that his name is Sanjuro Kuwabatake, is clearly the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s cigar chomping Man with No Name. Hell, at times, Sanjuro is seen chewing on what appears to be a cigar, further highlighting the impact. Another standout is Daisuke Kato as the vile Inokichi, Ushitora’s dim, overweight brother who adds a few more laughs to all the action scurrying about the town and speaking through bucked teeth. Tono’s Gonji is another lovable character as the elderly tavern owner who doesn’t want trouble and reluctantly aids Sanjuro in his quest to clean up the streets. Isuzu Yamada is a nasty piece of work as Orin, Seibei’s wife who hovers over her husband’s brothel and takes control when Seibei is too afraid to. Tatsuya Nakadai shows up as Unosuke, Ushitora’s youngest sibling who carries a pistol and nabs the film’s coolest battle with Sanjuro, who attacks the gunfighter with nothing but a sword and dagger.
While Yojimbo’s plot gets a little too thin at times, there is never a tedious moment to be found in Kurosawa’s western. There is something for everyone in Yojimbo, from the people who are looking for a love-reunited story all the way to those who just want to see a fearless hero cut his way through countless bad guys. Yojimbo has been caught in the shadow of Leone’s equally entertaining spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars but I think both films are equal in their eminence. As far as I’m concerned, both films are classics in their own right and their impact on cinema is quite clear. Overall, Yojimbo is a flawless action film that will keep the audience on its toes from beginning to end and one hell of a significant action hero. A must-see foreign classic with incredibly wide reach and appeal. How can you deny a film that contains the line “I’m not dying yet! There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!”
Yojimbo is available of Blu-ray and DVD.