Friday, July 31, 2015

Classics Revisited: The Curse of the Werewolf

(1961) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by John Elder (aka: Anthony Hinds); Based on the novel The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore; Starring: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller and Anthony Dawson; Available on DVD

Rating ****½

“A werewolf is a body with a soul and a spirit that are constantly at war.”
– The Priest (John Gabriel)

Of all the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is perhaps the most tragic because of its inherent fatalistic nature. The best films in this subgenre have typically emphasized the destructive path someone stricken with this curse is destined to follow. The werewolf is doomed to repeat a cycle of transformation and an unquenchable compulsion to kill. The change from human to lycanthrope strips away the veneer of civilization, revealing the savage beast underneath. Hammer films’ inimitable take infused life into the venerable werewolf myth. The Curse of the Werewolf was directed by the versatile Terence Fisher, while screenplay chores (working from Guy Endore’s novel) were handled by producer Anthony Hinds, working under the pseudonym John Elder. As with many previous Hammer efforts, the film endured a push-pull battle between various censorship boards, and the finished product suffered numerous cuts.

Set in 18th-century Spain,* The Curse of the Werewolf begins with a rather lengthy prologue, providing a sketchy explanation of how the title creature came into being. In an early scene, the cruel Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) humiliates a beggar (Richard Wordsworth), and imprisons him for life. For reasons never explained, the beggar gradually takes on wolf-like properties. He rapes a mute servant girl (Yvonne Romain), but she manages to escape. The pregnant young woman eventually finds refuge with a kindly couple, Alfredo and Teresa (Clifford Evans and Hira Talfrey), but dies after childbirth.

* The story’s location was changed from France to Spain in order to re-purpose a Spanish village set, originally intended for the un-filmed Hammer production The Inquisitor (The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn & Alan Barnes).

Unlike many werewolf films where the main character’s origins can be traced to some sort of attack, Hammer’s version features a child cursed at birth. His only sin is to be born on December 25th, which Teresa observes as “an insult to heaven.” As Leon (Justin Walters, who resembles a younger version of the lead actor) matures, he begins to have recurring dreams about transforming into a werewolf and killing animals, but can’t seem to remember his restless nocturnal activity, prompted by the full moon. Alfredo and Teresa try to shelter him from the ensuing commotion about a rogue wolf roaming the village, and consult a priest for help. Only the love of a woman, they learn, can quell Leon’s impulses. Years pass, seemingly without incident, until Leon is a young man (Oliver Reed), and leaves home to find his way in the world.

Reed demonstrates tremendous range as the adult Leon, grappling with his inner torment. His dilemma serves as a metaphor for the post-adolescent struggle to control one’s baser impulses and integrate into society. At every turn the odds of having a normal life seem stacked against him. He falls in love with Cristina (Catherine Feller), who in turn loves him back. Their love is doomed from the start, however, because she’s his employer’s daughter, and engaged to marry a snooty aristocrat. To make matters worse, his old behavior resurfaces after a night on the town with his friend, resulting in an unbridled killing spree. As Leon, Reed compares favorably to Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man and David Naughton’s melancholy, tragicomic performance as David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London. We feel for his terrible predicament, which can only end in pain and sorrow. He’s powerless to fend off his urges, and avoid the inevitable consequences that await him. He rejects the priest’s admonition to be locked away in a monastery, where he can no longer harm anyone. While we can hardly blame Leon for refusing to avoid the rest of society or abstain from worldly pleasures, we know his fate is sealed. The fact that his fate has been preordained does little to stop our wishing that it wasn’t so. Roy Ashton’s excellent werewolf makeup enhances Reed’s performance as a creature caught in limbo, achieving an ideal balance between understated and overdone.

The Curse of the Werewolf’s title creature gets comparatively little screen time, but his appearance is no less memorable. Although we don’t get a good look at the creature until the climax, his influence is felt throughout. The entire film is dominated by an all-encompassing atmosphere of sadness, and a pervasive fatalistic streak that establishes Leon’s destiny. Due to its downbeat tone, and possibly because it didn’t spawn a host of sequels, The Curse of the Werewolf often gets overlooked in comparison to other Hammer monster movies, but it boasts one of  the best cinematic depictions of a werewolf, and deserves to be held in similar regard.


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