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.