Curse of the Werewolf, The (1961)

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

EVEN THOSE WHO LOVED HIM WERE NOT SAFE!

Leon is born on Christmas Day to a mute servant girl who was raped by a beggar. His mother dies after the birth and Leon is raised by a doctor, Don Alfredo. Leon seems to have a strange liking for the blood of animals after having drunk from a dead squirrel that Alfredo’s grounds man had shot. His behaviour grows increasingly strange whenever there is a full moon, which leads to Alfredo putting bars on his windows to ‘keep out the nightmares.’ Many years later and now a young man, Leon leaves home to take up employment at vineyard where he falls in love with the owner’s daughter. However his strange behaviour has not deserted him and when the full moon is at its highest, he transforms into a werewolf.

 

After striking gold with The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy, Hammer looked for further famous horror properties that they could be revitalised in glorious Technicolour. Amongst the ‘second tier’ of famous characters that the studio chose to update were the likes of the Phantom of the Opera, Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde and the Wolf Man. Unfortunately these three tend to be forgotten about when people look back at Hammer’s heyday with nostalgia but there’s a good reason – they’re simply nowhere near as good as the ‘big three.’

Universal’s The Wolf Man was an original creation dreamt up for Hollywood, not born out of a classic novel like the other cinematic monstrosities it shared the screen with in the 40s. So instead of Hammer purchasing the rights to Universal’s screenplay, they simply adapted a novel, The Werewolf of Paris, to the big screen and transported the location to Spain. What we get with The Curse of the Werewolf is a curious tale which tries to do too much in too little time. The story is near epic and begs to be given at least two hours to flesh out as the script covers a number of years in its short length. Screenwriter Anthony Hinds crafts a prolonged build-up, beginning with the story of the beggar, the marques and the mute servant. Almost half of the film’s running time is devoted to the werewolf’s origin and this part of the film bravely attempts to rework the now-familiar werewolf mythology. It is something which is both fresh and puzzling at the same time. The notion that being a werewolf is some sort of a curse from God which is curable by love is well thought-out but little utilised and in the end it’s good old fashioned silver bullets which will do the damage to this furry fiend.

Perhaps the film is a little too preoccupied with fleshing out the back story to Leon and by the time things get around to progressing into the inevitable transformation, the script seems to rush through the motions as quickly as possible. The first half of the film works a lot better than the second because by the time the story shifts onto Leon as a young man, few of the characters we’ve spent the last forty minutes with are left in the film due to the nature of the time period covered. So more secondary characters are introduced and we get little time to spend with them before the film is over. It’s almost as if the film is reset at the halfway point which isn’t good for pacing as things take too long to pick up momentum afterwards.

More brooding than outright horrific, I’d be surprised if anyone screamed at this back in 1961 let alone today. The actual wolf man doesn’t show up until the hour mark and his eventual rampage is somewhat of a let-down, culminating in some Frankenstein-like finale where villagers with flaming torches follow him on the ground as he races across rooftops. Roy Ashton’s outstanding make-up needs to take a lot of plaudits though. It’s genuinely unsettling with its greyish tones marking a different appearance to the traditional black we have become accustomed to seeing werewolves in.

By the time Oliver Reed makes his first appearance, the film is fifty minutes in. The Curse of the Werewolf marks his first screen appearance and Reed is no less than fantastic as the tormented Leon. It’s clear to see from this small role that he was oozing charisma and is leading man material. Even though the script gives him little to do, his presence significantly raises the quality of the film whenever he’s on screen. The inner torment his character is facing is evident in Reed’s expressions (made more poignant by his eventual battles with the bottle) but he’s equally adept at snarling and growling and the finale when we finally see him transform into a werewolf is a tour-de-force of rabid aggression and animalistic instincts. You just wish that the script had decided to get the older version of Leon into the film a lot sooner and play off the strengths of Reed as an actor.

Little-known Clifford Evans is underrated in the role of Don Alfredo, Leon’s adoptive father, embodying the character with a real likeability and sense of nobility. Catherine Feller, as Leon’s love interest, gets little time to make her presence felt (as she appears even later in proceedings than Reed) and thus the eventual romance that is supposed to develop between the two seems more like a token offering than any actual true love. Hammer veteran Michael Ripper pops up as a drunken villager, there’s a small bit-part for Desmond Llewelyn (of James Bond ‘Q’ fame) and Anthony Dawson (also of Bond fame, playing the slimy Professor Dent character in Dr No) leaves an odious impression in his small role as Marques Siniestro.

 

The Curse of the Werewolf contains the trademark Hammer horror ingredients but there’s a definite lack of scares, the pacing is well off and the film gives you the impression that it’s been condensed down from a massive mini-series into a TV movie because it covers too much ground in its short time and harms itself in the process by being very stop-start. It’s hardly the worst Hammer film out there but, with the title creature getting its only ‘Hammer-isation’ and a superb turn by Oliver Reed, you should be expecting a lot more than you’re given.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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