Welcome to week two of Schlock & Awe‘s Nerdoween Hammer Horror Schlocktober! Last time, we talked about the middle entry in the studio’s long-running Frankenstein series (Frankenstein Created Woman); sequels and off-shoots were a mainstay of Hammer’s Gothic horror output, churning out seven Frankenstein movies, four Mummy movies, nine Dracula movies, and a dozen or more other vampire-themed flicks. But in all of their near-15-year dominance of the horror film, Hammer only ever did one movie featuring one of the biggest monsters in the canon, and they weren’t even supposed to—that’s 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf.
Back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—when Hammer were producing films at a fever clip—they were always at odds with the BBFC, or the British Board of Film Censors. Unlike in the U.S. with the MPAA, which “suggests” that movies be cut to get particular ratings, film scripts had to be submitted to the BBFC before the movies were even made and they were told directly what had to be cut. Following their initial success, Hammer was going to mount two productions, Curse of the Werewolf and a Spanish Inquisition flick; both were submitted to the BBFC and both were essentially banned outright at the script stage. However, Spanish village sets had already been built, so the werewolf movie which was meant to be set in France was remounted and moved to Spain, while the Inquisition movie was dropped entirely. This would not be The Curse of the Werewolf‘s last run-in with the censorship board.
The Curse of the Werewolf has a very odd pace compared to the kinds of movies Hammer had been making, which largely got right to the point. This movie’s length of 91 minutes seems brief, but it’s a full ten minutes longer than Hammer’s other Gothic films to that point. There are three sections to the story; the first concerns a beggar man who traipses into a village to find it deserted and the church bells ringing. It isn’t Sunday; where could everyone be? He’s told that everyone is up at the palace to celebrate the wedding of the cruel Marques to his attractive young bride. The beggar goes up to the palace to beg and the Marques drags him in, forces him to drink wine, tosses scraps of food to him, makes him dance, and then pays him to “buy” him as a pet for his new wife. She’s a kindhearted sort and doesn’t want him hurt, so the Marques just tosses him into the dungeon and promptly forgets about him.
He’s left there for 20 years, enough time to watch the jailer’s mute daughter become a beautiful young woman as he becomes slowly more feral. One day, the now widowed and pock-covered Marques sees the daughter and gets enraged when she won’t speak to him (she’s mute, you fucker) and has her tossed in the dungeon for the night… which is where the feral beggar is, and he has his way with her and then dies shortly after. After being brought back to the Marques’ room, the mute girl kills the horrible old man and flees into the night, only to be found half-drowned by Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans) who brings the girl to his villa to be attended to by his housemaid, Teresa (Hira Talfrey). Uh oh! The mute girl is pregnant and everyone is terribly concerned to learn that she’s due at Christmas; a child made in such a horrible fashion being born on the Lord’s birthday is a terrible omen.
Then we begin the second part of the film, in which the young child Leon—his mother having died in childbirth, he’s being raised by the Don and Teresa—begins to show signs of his curse: werewolfism. The local priest is consulted and believes the beast can be contained within Leon, but the child has been killing livestock and the village shepherd is on the hunt. After a dog is killed for the crimes and Leon is treated and believed to be at bay, we cut to the last and longest act of the film: Leon, as a young man (played by Oliver Reed), goes to work at a vineyard and falls in love with the vintner’s daughter. As these feelings appear in him, the wolf inside cannot be quelled any longer, and Leon finally learns of his curse. It doesn’t end well, I’ll say that.
It’s a full 45 minutes before we see Reed in the movie, meaning we basically have half the film of prologue before the actual story starts. Certainly, it’s interesting to see the beginning of the life of a werewolf—being borne of so much sadness and evil—but the first act seems to go on very, very long. As a result, there’s only about 10 minutes at the end of the movie when Leon is in full werewolf mode, and while it’s definitely impressive, it’d be cool to get some more of that peppered around a bit more.
However, that being said, I think The Curse of the Werewolf does succeed in a number of ways; first and foremost the sets and costumes are truly lovely and they allow Hammer to explore a different aesthetic than the usual English manors or Bavarian castles. The story doesn’t need to be set in Spain—obviously, it was meant to be in France—but it’s great for variety’s sake that it is. Second, Terence Fisher’s direction (especially at the end with the werewolf stalking the roofs of the village at night) is tremendous and is some of his best work. And finally, the much-delayed performance by Reed showed us what a talent the young actor would become, and he adds a great deal of pain and gravitas to the tortured young Spaniard.
I mentioned earlier the problems the film had with the BBFC. After the movie was made, several minutes were forced to be excised to even receive the intended X rating (which was the adults-only rating of the time). Were these bloody sequences not trimmed, the film would have been banned outright. As a result, for 30 years the movie was seen in a truncated, neutered version and most people found it severely lacking. However, it being a Universal International co-production, the American company had the film released in America uncut (cuz we don’t give a crap!) and in 1992, the uncut version was finally shown in Britain. And those bloody murder sequences really make up for some of the lengthier exposition scenes.
While it might lack a Cushing or a Lee, The Curse of the Werewolf is a standout in the early Hammer canon and is one of the handful of good werewolf movies that exists. Give it a look; you’ll be in for a howl.
Images: Hammer Films/Universal International