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October 1, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #39 - The Curse of the Werewolf

Hammer Films Month is officially underway at FMWL!  Most would start their look at Hammer with Dracula, or maybe Frankenstein. I have chosen a road less taken by most, but The Mike knows it well.  It's the road that proves that werewolves are happiness.

Like Universal Studios, Hammer added the werewolf to their repertoire only after they'd established Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy in their catalog.  In fact, by the time Terence Fisher made The Curse of the Werewolf in 1961, he had already directed two Dracula films, two Frankenstein films, The Mummy, and an adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde (1960's House of Fright) - all within the previous four years.  If Hammer was nothing else, they were prolific.
Despite the large amount of work (those six films are among 11 films and at least 25 episodes for TV that he directed between 1957-1961), The Curse of the Werewolf still brought a fresh approach to the werewolf concept.  Based on Guy Endore's novel 'The Werewolf of Paris', Curse is unique because it spends more than half of the film setting up the lead character's affliction before even introducing the titular werewolf.  Instead of meeting the cursed Leon (played by a young Oliver Reed in his first starring role) as the film begins, we follow the journey of those who put the curse upon him.  The travels start with a beggar who's humiliated and jailed by the vicious Marques Siniestro (no relation to G.I. Joe).  The beggar sits in the Marques' jail cell for decades, only having contact with a young servant (played by the busty Yvonne Romain).  Eventually, she too is jailed by the Marques, and is raped by the beggar.  After killing her captor and escaping, the young woman is found near dead, and bearing child. 
That child is the young Leon, who is cursed as "an insult to heaven" by being born a bastard on Christmas.  I have to say, this is a new bit of folklore to me - but the film runs with it.  What follows is the childhood of a young werewolf, as the boy's adopted father (Clifford Evans) deals with the killing of goats around the village and removes bullets from his young child.  Through a lot of love and some steel bars on the windows, the youngster grows up to be a strapping young lad by the film's halfway point, when the classic werewolf tale kicks in.

Long before films like The Howling and Ginger Snaps added a sexual aspect to lycanthropy, Hammer's werewolf tale seems to be dripping of symbolism in that regard.  The young Mr. Reed has madly fallen for a young woman, yet when the moon is full loses control in more ways than one.  Perhaps my favorite sequence occurs when Leon, weary due to the newly full moon, accepts comfort from a young woman he meets at the party.  He doesn't have any conscious desires toward her, but the full moon quickly turns his helplessness into a carnal lust...and then something else.  That's not a stretch for the film, because you could argue, in this case, that lycanthropy is an STD.  It's a fine example of how Hammer - in a relatively tame manner - pushed the boundaries of sexuality in horror when they took over the classic monster blueprints.
Reed gives a fine physical performance as both Leon and the Wolf, and the rest of the cast - particularly Evans as the saddened father - do a great job within the story.  The Spanish setting distinguishes the film well from its vampire counterparts, and the film bares only a passing resemblance to Fisher's other Hammer horrors.  The finale, full of classic werewolf film moments, feels a little rushed, but has a lot of great moments.

The Curse of the Werewolf is often forgotten among more iconic Hammer films, but I think that Hammer's only werewolf opus is a fine example of the studio's efforts.  It didn't sell well upon initial release - dooming it to be Hammer's only werewolf film - but recent restoration via Universal's Hammer Horror Series DVD set has brought it back to light.  Fans of werewolf lore, fans of Oliver Reed, and (of course) fans of Hammer will all probably find something to enjoy in The Curse of the Werewolf.

1 comment:

Trick or Treat Pete said...

I adore this film! I haven't seen it in years, but I'm a big fan of Oliver Reed. From Burnt Offerings to Oliver! to Gladiator, he's fantastic!
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