Movie Reviews 456 – The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

While it is no secret that I’m a huge fan of the horror films produced by Hammer studios from their golden age of Gothic classics, when it comes to naming my favorite films produced by them the selection becomes murkier. While one can easily name any of their Frankenstein or Dracula films starring Peter Cushing or Christoher Lee (or even better, both of them together) as great films, I find myself repeatedly going back to other movies that have neither of their marquee stars. I’ve discussed my fondness for The Reptile, but that was mostly from a sentimental perspective as is the case for other favourites like Quatermass and the Pit or The Mutations.

I realized that one reason so many of those are appealing to me is because they all present stories that are unique and original. The Curse of the Werewolf is something in between in that it is a rethread of a common mythological creature and yet the narrative is far from your typical furry werewolf tale, so you get the best of both worlds.

From the very beginning of the film we get a very different ‘origin’ story from the typical bite of a wolf, the definitive genesis of all other werewolf stories I’ve ever seen or read. The film proffers a rather convoluted but intriguing introduction, set in 18th century Spain, that has a dimwitted beggar interrupt a marquis’ wedding ceremony. The outraged marquis has the beggar thrown into the castle dungeon, to be tended to by the dungeon master and his mute daughter. There the beggar is soon forgotten and over the years degenerates into a ragged, raving lunatic, to be cared for by the daughter, now a voluptuous young woman, until she herself is cast into the cell and raped by him. She manages to escape and gain refuge in the home of an academic and his servant where she gives birth to a boy, Leon, only to die moments later to the sounds of a distant howling wolf.

As a young lad Leon experiences nightmarish episodes especially after odd incidents such as when he tasted the blood of an animal after a hunt. Now a young man, Leon (Oliver Reed) endeavours to seek his fortune and find a job. He soon lands a position in a small winery and immediately falls for the owner’s daughter Cristina (Catherine Feller) despite the fact that she is engaged to an aristocrat. Around this time some of the shepherds in the area have had their flock attacked at night, but the attacks are attributed to a shepherd’s dog. Leon’s seizures which had ceased by then return with a vengeance, and now with deadly consequences. Even while not being able to recall his actions, Leon knows all too well that he is responsible. He basically begs that he be locked up, which the authorities only agree to after finding evidence of his involvement in the most recent attack. Leon discovers that there is one thing that will soothe his inner beast and the answer lies with Cristina. But that remedy is now out of his reach as he awaits the next full moon in his cell.

The non traditional lycanthropy story presented rejects a number of other conventions and horror tropes which make this film particularly satisfying viewing. Werewolf staples that we are familiar with such as the deadly silver bullet are preserved but presented in a novel manner, likewise the ‘forbidden love’ aspect that has a surprise twist here. Reed makes the most of his starring role, his very first, and would go on to have a stellar career including many other classic horror films, These are the Damned, The Shuttered Room, and Burnt Offerings to name a few.

Aside from a few crude special effects, the wolf transformation to the fully altered creature is not only realistic but the end result look is exceptional. Viewers are treated with Hammer’s usual resplendent Gothic imagery as well other scenes set in squalid accommodations. The finale takes a page from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame accentuated by a thrilling, teetering rooftop chase with a howling, torch wielding vengeful mob below.

While the film is available in several editions I would heartily recommend getting the Hammer Horror 8-Film Collection that contains seven other equally entertaining Hammer films. Included are Brides of Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, The Kiss of the Vampire, Paranoiac, Nightmare, Night Creatures and The Evil of Dr. Frankenstein. The one drawback to the set is that it is totally bereft of any special features that I would have loved to view, but the price of this edition really can’t be beat, being available in the $20 range. Make it a weeklong Hammer film binge. I did.

 

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