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Wild Werewolves: The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

The Curse of the Werewolf #1

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.

The Curse of the Werewolf #2

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.

Grade: C+

The Curse of the Werewolf is available on DVD.

Paranoiac (1963)

by Steve Habrat

In the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s slasher-thriller classic Psycho, British horror production company Hammer quickly tried to copy the slasher-thriller’s formula and success with a number of films that dealt with maniacs wielding a knife. While none of them were able to match the intelligence of Psycho, one did come close to matching it entertainment wise. Director Freddie Francis’ 1963 gothic thriller Paranoiac may not have bird-like nutjob Norman Bates but it does have enough chuckle-worthy melodrama, wild-eyed overacting, and creepy killers for every slasher fan out there. Francis, who never applies the attention to smaller details like Mr. Hitchcock so memorable did, still makes a luxuriant picture that holds itself together with plenty of nail-biting anticipation (When will that crazy Simon really snap?) and cobwebbed gothic atmospherics that was a must for nearly every single Hammer horror offering. Paranoiac never achieves the level of intensity of Psycho and you really can’t blame it because the film is riding a bloody wave that was becoming overly familiar.

Paranoiac begins during a shadowy anniversary service for three fallen members of the wealthy Ashby family. In attendance are drunken playboy Simon (Played by Oliver Reed) and emotionally fragile Eleanor (Played by Janette Scott) Ashby, the two children of the deceased heads of the Ashby family. Simon and Eleanor are also there to mourn over their brother, Tony, who apparently committed suicide after the death of their parents. It is said that Tony left a suicide note at the top of a seaside cliff and then plunged himself into a watery grave eight years earlier but a body has never been discovered. Meanwhile, a clause in their parent’s will prevented the large inheritance to fall into the hands of Simon and Eleanor earlier but the time has come for them to get the money. Recently, Eleanor has been suffering from chilling sightings of a man that she believes to be Tony although no one will believer her except her loving nurse Francoise (Played by Liliane Brousse). Simon launches a campaign to convince Aunt Harriet (Played by Sheila Burrell), who has taken care of Simon and Eleanor since the death of their parents, to lock Eleanor away in a mental institution and give him all of the money. Simon is on the verge of accomplishing this when a mysterious man (Played by Alexander Davion), who claims to be Tony, arrives at the Ashby doorstep. Eleanor is delighted by the return and doesn’t sense anything to be out of the ordinary but Aunt Harriet and Simon suspect that there is more to this return than they are being led to believe.

Paranoiac is skillfully photographed, the crisp black and white brought to gothic life through the moaning organ echoing through the scenic cliffs and dilapidated chapels. There is no question that Paranoiac is heavy on mood even though the story often times feels like it would have been more at home in an episode of Dark Shadows. Things really get nice and scary at the end, when our revealed maniac sits at an organ with mummified remains watching the ghastly performance. While all of this is just fine and dandy, nothing compares to the appearance of the knife-wielding killer with a mask that will make you loose more than a few nights of sleep. Going in to Paranoiac, I knew the film had a masked killer on the loose but wait till you get an eye full of this menace. Looking like a demonic angel in a cherub mask, the killer drifts about the old chapel armed with a bale hook and makes the disguise that Norman Bates hides behind look tame by comparison. This bloodthirsty maniac is certainly the macabre visual highlight of this thriller.

In addition to the soapy dramatics of the storyline, Paranoiac has plenty of soap opera style acting to fuel a dozen afternoon dramas. Oliver Reed gives a performance for the ages as Simon, a belligerent drunk who smells something fishy about the sudden reappearance of Tony. He screams bloody murder over the fact that he has run out of brandy and he picks drunken fights in a bar that leads to him waving darts around like a lunatic. Equally batty is Scott as the emotionally unstable Eleanor, who attempts suicide to free herself from her daily torment. She isn’t as hysterical as Reed but there is plenty of crazy in her character. Her dramatics come to a screeching halt with the reappearance of Tony, the only character who seems to have both feet on the ground. Then there is the chilling Burrell as Aunt Harriet, a frigid force in the Ashby household who keeps Simon and Eleanor in line. Harriet is only successful half the time but like any domineering force, you will straighten up when she enters the room and has had her say. The frame is given more eye candy in Brousse, a French fox who is carrying on an affair with the unhinged Simon. Rounding out the main players is Maurice Denham as Ashby family attorney John Kossett, a man who has slowly been growing more and more exasperated with the actions of Simon.

With surprisingly solid acting, wonderfully rich sets, and wisely placed twists that spring themselves on the viewer at just the right moment, Paranoiac generates enough tension and dread to become a must for fans of the slasher subgenre while Hammer horror fanatics will gush over it for hours after they have watched it. Francis masterfully delivers a number of moments to send your heart into your throat. An attempted double murder during a cliff-side picnic will grab a few gasps and the ghostly sightings that Eleanor suffers from will keep you on the edge of your couch. The film runs a brief eighty minutes so you don’t have to worry about the film overstaying its welcome or the pacing getting thrown off with a bunch of unnecessary filler. It may not come close to sly genius of what Hitchcock came up with in 1960 but as a British alternative, it gets the job done. I can promise that it would have Norman Bates kicking himself that he didn’t decide to make a quick trip overseas to raid this killer closet and don this killer’s attire while terrorizing Marion Crane. Maybe next time, Norman.

Grade: B

Paranoiac is available on DVD.

The Brood (1979)

by Steve Habrat

Leave it to Canadian horror director David Cronenberg, the man called the “King of Venereal Horror”, to make a film about freakish asexual dwarfs who attack and kill people. Cronenberg, who is most known for the Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis mutation gross-out The Fly, is basically an auteur of highbrow exploitation and body horror that eventually made transition into simply highbrow territory. The Brood is one of those highbrow body horror exploitation forays. The Brood is critical and certainly unkind to psychology and experimental science in the vilest ways possible. Cronenberg could be considered the ringleader of body horror, as he is a big fan of placing awful deformities on his actors, usually sexually suggestive in some way, shape, or form, an addition that usually sets his work apart from the rest of the horror pack. For those who are familiar with Cronenberg, The Brood is a bloody doom and gloom flick with a dark ending and a dead serious gaze that never breaks into a smile to laugh at itself.

Dr. Hal Raglan (Played by Oliver Reed) is an experimental psychotherapist who has created a technique called “psychoplasmics” which manifests traumatic memories on a patient’s body in the form of physiological changes. The changes depend on how severe the memories are. Raglan’s star patient is Nola Carveth (Played by Samantha Eggar), who is currently going through a messy separation from her husband Frank Carveth (Played by Art Hindle). Frank and Nola are also tangled up in a messy custody battle over their young daughter Candice (Played by Cindy Hinds). As Raglan treats Nola, he begins to discover how severely disturbed she is and as treatment goes on, her inner anger and rage manifests in small, dwarfish creatures that attack and kill those close to her. As Frank launches his own investigation into the mysterious deaths surrounding him, he learns how the creatures are being created and he discovers that Candice’s life is in danger if the experimental treatment is not stopped.

Blending horror and science fiction, Cronenberg makes a slow building and icky creep-out that is not for the squeamish. Cronenberg has an eye for truly repugnant deformities, a talent I would have never thought I would be praising but Cronenberg does it better than anyone else. Even though The Brood is basically an exploitation film, it understands that there should be a brain in this grotesque creation. Though Cronenberg never outright suggests it, I’ve always found the architecture in his films, usually scientific institutions contrasting in a cold, natural settings to be a subtle commentary. The wooded setting usually engulfs these institutions, a subtle suggestion that perhaps a natural treatment is the answer to scientific gambles. I have noticed this in Scanners and Rabid but it seemed incredibly heavy-handed in The Brood. This choice also adds a surreal apocalyptic touch, always suggesting isolation and no true safe place to hide from the evil that has been unleashed. It’s this visual cue that separates The Brood from the rest of the exploitation horror pack. Cronenberg encourages us to work through our inner turmoil on our own without the help of an outside third party.

The Brood is not ashamed to feature expert acting from its leads. Everyone is convincing, a rarity in films of this sort and another reason why The Brood is much better than most films of this kind. The final showdown between Frank and Nola is hypnotic, a battle of words and pleas with just enough gore to satisfy those watching The Brood simply for that reason. You won’t be able to pull yourself away from the exchange and you’ll be frustrated when Cronenberg’s camera cuts to other scenes of action. The film also contains a restrained performance from Oliver Reed who never goes full baddie and adds a few layers of regret both in his scientific work and himself for what he has unleashed in Nola. Reed’s performance parallels the direction from Cronenberg himself who is never in a hurry to show us everything. I admire the way he makes the audience wait for the pay-off and, I admit, I never mind waiting for the freak show to emerge when I’m watching a Cronenberg film. He usually crams his frames full of gratifying acting from his leads and fascinating story lines.

The Brood features a wallop of a final shot that will majorly freak you out and that, my dear readers, is a promise from this horror buff. This is an otherworldly horror flick that won’t scare you right off the bat but rather have you thinking back to it long after you have seen it (I just love films like that if you can’t tell). I rank The Brood as one of Cronenberg’s finest cinematic efforts, sitting comfortably next to Rabid, Scanners, The Fly, and Eastern Promises. The film lacks a huge price tag, which I think adds to Cronenberg’s own temperance and actually aids the film in its rise to a crescendo of terror in the final frames. With a premise and monsters that could have been laughed off the screen in the first attack sequence, The Brood miraculously keeps its cool and shrouds itself in grotesque horror and perplexing mystery, revealing plot points at just the right time and meticulously planning its next move. To those on the prowl for a good horror film you have never seen, you can do much worse than The Brood.

Grade: B+