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
Most spaghetti westerns that emerged from Italy between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. Most directors saw the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or caught a glimpse of Sergio Corbucci’s coffin-dragging gunslinger in Django and they quickly began trying to capitalize on the success of those cowboy epics. They poured in all the familiar ingredients and sometimes they even slopped on a bit more of the red sauce (blood) to cater to the exploitation crowds who ate up these foreign dishes. Yet every once and a great while, a formulaic spaghetti western would gallop along that had just the right amount of attitude to make it a minor and entertaining triumph. One of those formulaic but fun triumphs would be Giulio Petroni’s moody 1967 offering Death Rides a Horse, an odd-couple revenge tale that has a particularly dark opening sequence and an apocalyptic climatic shootout that will most certainly lodge itself in the viewer’s memory. It may not have the epic reach of a film by Corbucci or Leone, but Death Rides a Horse can be lively and menacing enough to lure spaghetti western nuts back for a second and even third viewing if they so desire. I’ve personally seen the film three times and I have to say, it has never lost my interest even if I have seen all of this done before.
As a young boy, the baby faced Bill (played by John Phillip Law) watched as his family was brutally murdered in cold blood by a group of masked bandits. Just before the bandits depart, they light the family’s house on fire and leave Bill to be burned alive. At the last second, another stranger who wears a skull necklace pulls the young Bill from the flames. Fifteen years later, Bill has grown up to be a deadly gunslinger searching for the men responsible for the death of his family. Meanwhile, the aging gunslinger Ryan (played by Lee Van Cleef) has just been released from prison and is searching for the gang that framed him. Ryan’s search leads him to nearby town where he meets Burt Cavanaugh (played by Anthony Dawson), one of the men who framed Ryan and who was also present the night that Bill’s family was murdered. Ryan demands $15,000 dollars from Cavanaugh, but he is reluctant to pay such a large sum of money. Just before Ryan has a chance to kill Cavanaugh, Bill shows up and guns the thug down. Realizing that they are after the same gang, Bill and Ryan begin racing each other to track down the rest of the gang. As they try to stay one step ahead of each other, they begin to realize that they may actually need each other if they want to stay alive.
While much of Death Rides a Horse is riddled with clichés, there are two parts of the film that are really allow it to stand out from the countless other spaghetti westerns released during this time. First is the opening sequence, which has to be one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in any spaghetti western out there. You will be holding your breath as a group of masked bandits ride up to a small house in the middle of a thunderstorm, burst in on the happy family, gun down the man of the house as he reaches for a rifle, and then savagely rape the women on the dinning room table, all while a terrified and innocent young boy looks on. Then, to put the finishing touch on their heinous work, the bandits light the house on fire and ride away into the night. It is a scene that you would expect to open a really great horror movie rather than a rollicking cowboy picture. Then there is the climatic gunfight set right in the middle of a dust storm. It is ripe with apocalyptic doom as thick sheets of sand billow around and silhouette the gunfighters while they try to put each other six feet under. For as unsettling as the gunfight is, Petroni breaks it up by lacing it with a number of chuckles that have really held up over the years. While both of these set pieces send a chill, they are made even better through Ennio Morricone’s yowling score, which sounds like a terrifying Indian war chant erupting from the surrounding mountains. Good luck getting it out of your head.
In addition to these two sequences and Morricone’s hair-raising score, Death Rides a Horse is also worth the time for the performance from the always-welcome Lee Van Cleef. While he played second fiddle to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he is sneering and scowling front and center here. From the moment we see his aging and graying gunslinger, he shoots his viper-like gaze right through us and he continues to keep us on the edge of our seat with gravelly warnings like “revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold.” For all his toughness, Van Cleef does show a softer side in Death Rides a Horse and it comes through when he is forced to play mentor to the young gunslinger Bill. As far as John Phillip Law’s performance goes, he does okay as Bill but he doesn’t hold us like Van Cleef does. Law is a fine enough actor, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he seems like he is trying too hard to deepen his voice or look like a fierce bad boy (sounds sort of like Lou Castel in A Bullet for the General). You could see other spaghetti western tough guys laughing him out of the saloon if Law dared show up to their poker table. The bond that Van Cleef and Law’s characters form is certainly solid and multi-layered, at times being emotional and at times played for laughs. Law doesn’t miss a chance to bat an eye at Van Cleef’s aging wisdom and Van Cleef doesn’t shy away from chuckling at Law’s naivety.
There isn’t much depth to Death Rides a Horse but there is plenty to keep the viewer entertained and coming back for seconds, especially if they are fans of the Italian westerns. Quentin Tarantino fans will find plenty to like, as the spaghetti western-loving director littered Kill Bill: Volume 1 with numerous references to this particular film. The most obvious will be the use of Morricone’s stomping war-cry score, which is used during the showdown between the Crazy 88 and the Bride in the House of Blue Leaves. They’ll also notice that the flashbacks that Bill suffers from when he spots one of the bandits responsible for the death of his family look suspiciously similar to the flashbacks that Bride suffers from when she stares down one of her old colleagues. Oh, and how about the name “Bill?” I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own. Overall, almost every single supporting actor blends in with the scenery and the villains are so cookie cutter, they could have been borrowed from any other spaghetti western, but there is enough action, suspense, and charms here for me to give Death Rides a Horse a solid recommendation if you are in the market for some retro action. Just remember that this isn’t Leone or Corbucci territory you’re riding through.
Death Rides a Horse is available on DVD, but it is very difficult to find a good transfer of the film. It is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.