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The Curse of the Werewolf

by Glenn Erickson May 19, 2020

Rip-roaring Oliver Reed’s silver-coated were-beast is one of Hammer Films’ very best screen monsters, which is more than enough reason to sample this colorful 1961 shocker. It was apparently ripped to shreds by the U.K. censors, a horror-crime spared us lucky Americans. The movie has been released more than once on Blu-ray but Shout’s new 4K scan restores it to prime condition. Numerous extras trace its stormy path through the slights and deletions of The Curse of the BBFC.


The Curse of the Werewolf
Blu-ray
Shout! Scream Factory
1961 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 93 min. / Street Date April 21, 2020 / Collector’s Edition / Available from Scream Factory
Starring: Clifford Evans, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller, Anthony Dawson.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editor: Alfred Cox
Original Music: Benjamin Frankel
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds) from The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds
Directed by
Terence Fisher

 

When stab comes to gouge, the Hammer Films we love most are the ones with the best monsters. Oliver Reed’s turn as the soul-tortured hombre lobo is the most successful Hammer creature this side of Christopher Lee’s triumvirate of terror icons. This hairy, ferocious, blood-dripping beast makes its supreme impression with less than a half-hour of screen time. Rated highly by Hammer fans, the sad tale of León Carido unspools in the style format of Edna Ferber: its episodes span thirty years and three generations!

Favorite Oliver Reed (These Are the Damned, The Girl-Getters) more or less began his feature career at Hammer Films, and even though he soon graduated to bigger stardom, frequently expressed gratitude for his time spent as a pirate, Teddy Boy thug, and his role in this movie — perhaps the best screen werewolf of them all.

 

Although produced as part of a co-production deal with Universal-International, The Curse of the Werewolf doesn’t follow the pattern of Universal’s best(ial)-known shape-shifter, Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man. It also doesn’t adopt all of Curt Siodmak’s added lycanthropic inventions — pentagrams, etc.. The inspiration is the 1933 book The Werewolf of Paris. Novelist Guy Endore reportedly broke into the world of screenwriting with that daring allegorical novel, in which a cursed young man is haunted by lycanthropic nightmares, and commits vampire-like crimes during the French Commune of the 1870s. Scripter ‘John Elder’ retains the idea of a cursed child being conceived through rape, but omits Endore’s detail that the rapist is a priest.

Instead, the episodic storyline nominates a corrupt, cruel Spanish nobleman as its first villain, much like the sordid backstory in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. León’s biological father is a forgotten prisoner who has unaccountably become ‘bestial.’ This seems to hook up with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s The Revenge of Frankenstein, where brutality and class oppression can somehow ‘devolve’ a man to a cannibalistic state.

The worldview in The Curse of the Werewolf is even more negative. An unpleasant expression of satanic power versus Christian love, the screenplay revels in perversions of Catholic symbols, as if it were a Gothic take on The Exorcist. Spirits pick up somewhat with the entrance of Oliver Reed, a dynamic actor finally given a role he can, uh, sink his teeth into. Reed’s third-act monster scenes are brief but ferocious, and left their mark on many a young horror film fan.

 

Hammer reportedly relocated the storyline to 18th-century Spain, so as to make use of expensive sets constructed at their Bray Studios headquarters for an abandoned film project. On a whim, the horrid Marqués Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) imprisons a wretched beggar (Richard Wordsworth of The Quatermass Xperiment), and then forgets about him. Ten years later, the man is reduced to a slobbering brute. When a mute servant girl (Yvonne Romain) refuses his advances, the Marqués has her thrown in with the beggar. He dies while assaulting her, and she escapes and attempts suicide. Kindly Don Alfredo Carido (Clifford Evans) rescues the servant girl and gives her shelter, but she dies giving birth to her child. An illegitimate child born on Christmas Day is apparently cursed with the horror of lycanthropy — at his baptism, the holy water boils. Little León’s childhood is filled with nightmares, and local sheep are torn to bits. Don Carido adopts the orphan, and he and the local priest (John Gabriel) cover for him as best they can.

When grown, León leaves home to work in a winery. He falls in love with Cristina Fernando (Catherine Feller), who is already promised to another. The emotional torment triggers the young Carido’s evil, lupine personality. He succumbs to the full moon and commits several murders, only to find that Cristina’s influence, as promised by the Priest, does indeed counteract the pull of the demon within him. The authorities arrest León for the murder of a co-worker, a decision the jailer soon regrets. The tormented young man transforms into a superhuman wolf monster before his very eyes.

 

The episodic plot of The Curse of the Werewolf has epic dimensions that this budget production cannot fill out. Hammer scales everything down to Bray dimensions. The extended back story with its salacious thrills pushes most of the werewolf content into the movie’s second half, and a real snarl & slash Reed-Wolf does not appear until almost the last reel. As happens in too many Hammer thrillers, the werewolf thrills barely get revved up before it’s time to ring down the curtain.

The elaborate back-story essentially re-starts the movie three times. The imprisoned beggar sympathetically played by Richard Wordsworth remains unknown to the players in the second half of the story. The colorful shepherd (George Woodbridge) and wolf hunter (Warren Mitchell) of the adopted boy’s childhood don’t figure into the later story either; every ten minutes or so Curse must establish a new setting with new characters. The story of the adult León ends up being an extended short subject.

 

The endearing Cristina (played by Catherine Feller of The Gypsy and the Gentleman and Waltz of the Toreadors) briefly lends the film a positive, hopeful note. Cristina gets full audience approval when her true love promises to redeem our hopelessly damned hero. But the opportunity for a lycanthropic Romeo & Juliet is thrown away. Cristina never gets to interact with her beloved monster; the rushed ending doesn’t even give her a close-up.

The monster is a ferocious original, due in no small measure to Oliver Reed’s already considerable brute magnetism. The silver-haired creation resembles a cross between The WereWolf of London and La Bête in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. León’s determination to end his curse (even if it means being burned alive) and his sweaty shakes prior to going ferally ballistic are an improvement on Lon Chaney’s whining self-pity. This is a werewolf that kids can relate to, a blameless bad boy that can’t control his emotions or his violence. Tormented from within and without, León suffers as James Dean’s overly sensitive teenager never did. If the rebel could identify the forces battling within him, he might very well scream, “You’re tearing me apart!”

What is tearing León apart?  The dispiritingly ugly and pitiless pre-ordained curse makes this innocent boy evil for no fault of his own. We’d think that a truly Christian God would bless a poor child born under such sorry circumstances. If God is not to be blamed for the injustice visited on this orphan, all that is left is the bland nastiness of an evil aristocrat. What good is Faith if we can be damned by our geneology alone?  This horror film posits a cruel Church-invented cosmology of despair. The only logical conclusion is that The Curse of the Werewolf is saying that it’s part of God’s plan to punish the ‘evil’ León.

 

Moral misery aside, peerless monster excitement is generated as we anticipate León’s transformations; the climax pays off with a powerhouse prison breakout. Dynamic cutting stresses the lightning reflexes of an unpredictable animal free of its cage. When Reed’s wolfman seems to assault the camera, his lunge lifts us right out of our seats. Even though the ‘good stuff’ is brief, no previous beast-man movie approached this level of impact.

The unusually adult The Curse of the Werewolf is still a Hammer favorite. There was no way my parents would let me near this one at age nine. It’s an early high point for the cult status of Oliver Reed. We American kids heard about his horror thriller Paranoiac, but experienced it solely through random photos in Famous Monsters magazine. When we later caught up with Reed much in Women in Love, he was no stranger to us — his brooding characters were always connected to the silver beast in his Hammer classic.

 

I don’t see the high production values touted by fans and reviewers that name this as a favorite Hammer picture. Bray Studio’s familiar courtyards and manor house rooms don’t look very Castillian even when ornately redressed; this is the first Hammer Film where I realized that the same steps and doorways were only slightly changed from the Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein pictures. Those familiar ‘squiggly columns’ show up in España antigua, as if having migrated from Dracula’s castle. The final same-old same-old location choice is the sand pit quarry that shows up so frequently in Hammer fare. Not that the re-dressings aren’t clever or authentic … it’s just that we never seem to get out of Hammer’s figurative back-yard.

One can’t go wrong by concentrating on Oliver Reed, and on Roy Ashton’s supreme werewolf. The snarling Ollie hobbles along as if his wolf feet were hurting like hell inside his leather boots. Those qualities, and some scenes with Catherine Feller and Yvonne Romain, maintain The Curse of the Werewolf’s status as one of the top early Hammers.


 

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray Collector’s Edition of The Curse of the Werewolf had a high bar to reach, considering the excellent special editions of horror favorites being released by the likes of Arrow and Powerhouse Indicator. I don’t believe that Universal’s first U.S. theatrical release was printed in Technicolor. I didn’t see the show until 1972, in a Hollywood Blvd. grindhouse. I also remember a 1974 or ’75 screening at the County Museum of Art that I talked Hoyt Yeatman into attending. In each case Curse was screened in severely-faded Eastmancolor. It hadn’t taken long for the print to completely fade to MagentaVision.

The new 4K scan will bring Hammer fans to full attention. Universal’s earlier transfer on their 2016 Hammer Horror 8 Film Collection reviewed by Charlie Largent is duller, greener and grain-ier throughout. This new transfer is also a generous 1:85 instead of Universal’s mysterious 2:1 aspect ratio. I don’t know how this scan compares to an earlier German Anolis Blu-ray, which got a positive nod in the now somewhat outdated CineSavant Guide To The New Wave Of Classic Hammer Blu-Rays.

The extras will be a big pull as well, with featurettes and commentaries both new and recycled. The older docu and featurettes (from a 2015 Final Cut disc) begin with a 43-minute making-of video. It centers on super monster maker Mike Hill (The Shape of Water), who tells us repeatedly that Oliver Reed’s werewolf is his all-time favorite monster. Hill’s full-sized Oliver Reed/werewolf sculpture is on display. Director Jim Groom gets good input from Yvonne Romain, who has seemingly taken some kind of non-aging pill. Interview footage with Catherine Feller includes shots of her interacting with a real wolf for our amusement. The presence of the wolf is not explained, but he’s clearly been trained: he howls on cue. The docu has good content overall but also some slow sections, and tends to drift between subjects.

Also from 2015 is a 4-minute sidebar discussion between Mike Hill and Catherine Feller about the real-life psychological phenomenon of Lycanthropy. Neither of them is an expert, and the excited Feller leaps into a discussion of bipolar disorders, or at least that’s what she seems to be describing. (Gary Teetzel went a-hunting, and found a legit academic article from 1988, Lycanthropy: alive and well in the twentieth century.)

Also from the Final Cut disc is Censoring the Werewolf, in which Hammer experts explain once again how Curse got made in the wake of the cancellation of the Spanish Inquisition- themed project The Rape of Sabena. We learn that Anthony Hinds’s solution to the censor’s script objections, was to just make the movie as he wanted to make it, and fight the battle of what had to be cut later on. Jonathan Rigby, Denis Meikle and others explain some of the censorship process, but we don’t get a clear picture of what actually was, or wasn’t, censored from the film in England. Were U.K. prints shorter than the standard 93 minutes?  If Curse was chopped up as severely as described — no rape, no blood, no attacks — that would certainly help explain why it reportedly wasn’t a big hit.

I was told that here in America, only one or two brief gore details were dropped or shortened. The censorship extra makes no mention of a notorious shot of Dawson picking at one of his sores; did Universal remove that from the U.S. version, while the Brits took the whole scene out?  I still have a mental image of seeing Anthony Dawson picking at himself… did I imagine it from a description in a book?

From Gary Teetzel: Yvonne at Creature Features, February 10, 2018

Mike Hill and Yvonne Romain get together once more for an audio commentary, with her husband Leslie Bricusse on hand as well. Much information is repeated from the Making-Of docu, but the track has good reactions and thoughts from the actress about the filming experience. Ms. Romain says that Oliver Reed shared her opinion of their Hammer movie The Brigand of Kandahar, which she thought was just terrible.

The new extras also repeat information but are very satisfying. For his newest The Men Who Made Hammer piece Richard Klemensen focuses on makeup man Roy Ashton, aided by great photo coverage of Ashton’s work. We learn about Klemensen’s long history of visits with Ashton and other Hammer personnel. Serial Killer is music expert David Huckvale’s full discourse on the accomplished composer Benjamin Frankel. Sitting by his piano, Huckvale explains that the term ‘serialism’ refers to Frankel’s style of orchestration. Viewers with a formal musical background may not be as lost as I was, listening to this technical analysis.

Scream’s new audio commentary brings together Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr, who once again present reliable info, context and analysis. They detail the original Guy Endore novel, which contains some pretty shocking content. They note the many impressive promotional stills of Yvonne Romain being threatened by Reed in full werewolf makeup, which is odd considering that he plays her son and they have no scenes together. I doubt that the Hammer pub photographer knew what Haberman tells us, that in the original book, the deranged hero rapes his own mother.

Haberman and Nasr also rate The Curse of the Werewolf as one of Hammer’s best. I still see a big quality change in Hammer films in 1961, concurrent with the new cameraman Arthur Grant. Not only is the lighting less interesting, Terence Fisher’s direction is less inspired too. His camera angles aren’t as expressive as before — even when he’d hold action scenes wide in The Mummy and The Hound of the Baskervilles, the frame remained charged with tension. Although I love the monster, this Hammer horror didn’t feel artistically inspired, and didn’t fully fire the imagination.

I can still get excited to watch it every two years or so, and this is by far the best disc copy I’ve seen.

Written with input from Gary Teetzel.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Curse of the Werewolf
Blu-ray Collector’s Edition rates:
Movie: Very Good / Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New: two audio commentaries: with Yvonne Romain, Mike Hill and Leslie Bricusse; and with authorities Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr; Featurettes: The Men Who Made Hammer – Roy Ashton with Richard Klemensen, Serial Killer – Benjamin Frankel with X. Also long-for making-of docu hosted by Mike Hill, with interviews from Catherine Feller And Yvonne Romain, art director Don Mingaye, Margaret Robinson, Jimmy Sangster, and the voice of Oliver Reed; Lycanthropy: The Beast In All Of Us; Censoring The Werewolf, British trailer, Trailers from Hell installment with John Landis, radio spot, still gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 16, 2020
(6272were)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.