When I learned that one of my favorite blogs, Classic Film and TV Cafe was hosting a blogathon on Hammer Studio’s films, specifically their horror films, I quickly volunteered to write a piece. I chose 1961′s The Curse of the Werewolf because it was the first Hammer horror film I ever saw, and I saw it purely by accident. I was 7 or 8 years old and rambling around the house on a weekday afternoon. I noticed that the tv was on and a movie was playing and yes, you guessed it, The Curse of the Werewolf was that movie. I only saw the first part of the movie, but those images have stayed with me.
Hammer Studios, in England, had been in the movie making business as far back as 1934, but in 1957, when they received permission from Universal Studios to remake Frankenstein, as The Curse of Frankenstein, in full color, it proved to be a box office smash hit and the studio found their niche in horror films. In 1961, they decided to make a new werewolf movie but their movie’s plot followed the 1933 novel, The Werewolf of Paris, written by Guy Endore, not Universal’s 1941 film, The Wolf Man, which starred Lon Chaney Jr.
Curse of the Werewolf was directed by Terence Fisher, produced by Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds, who also wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym John Elder. The cast included: Clifford Evans, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller, Anthony Dawson, Richard Wordsworth,Hira Talfrey, John Gabriel, Michael Ripper, David Conville, and Justin Walters.
Set in Spain in the 1700s, the story opens with a beggar(Richard Wordsworth) entering a town where no one is about. He is curious about this absence of townsfolk walking around so he enters a cantina and inside he sees most of the men from the town. The beggar asks why is no one about? Is it a holiday? One man answers his questions. It is the local Marquis’s wedding day and in fear of him, the town has decided to stay indoors. The Marquis(Anthony Dawson) is a man known for his bad temper and unfair punishments. The beggar vows to go to the Marquis’s palatial home to beg for money. The men in the cantina laugh at the beggar’s plan and try to warn him to stay away from the Marquis.
The beggar is allowed to enter the Marquis’s home and is shown to the banquet hall where the wedding reception is underway. The beggar is desperate for food so he agrees to perform silly dances in order to receive food from the Marquis. When the Marquis escorts his new bride from the reception to the stairway of the home, the beggar, over the din of the guests cheers and applause, says loudly, “Have a good night!” and winks at the Marquis. This angers the Marquis and he orders the beggar to be thrown into the dungeon! Years go by and the beggar is forgotten in the dungeon. His only contact with humans is the jailer and his daughter, who is a mute. The beggar slowly goes mad. Eventually, the jailer dies and it is his mute daughter, who is now a beauty(Yvonne Romain) who makes sure that the beggar is fed each day. The mute maid also has household duties and one day, as she is cleaning up the ashes from the fireplace in the Marquis’s bedroom, he decides to make a grab for her and force his attentions on her. (We are told that the Marquis’s wife died some years ago.) The mute maid fights back and bites the Marquis’s hand. She is able to run away but the Marquis has his guards find her and throw her in the dungeon. The crazed beggar sees the beautiful maid in his cell and he attacks her, raping her. She manages to convince the guards to let her out the next morning and they do so. The beggar is shown in the cell, with unusual amounts of hair growth on his arms, and he is dead! Before the maid flees from the Marquis, she is taken to his room and as he prepares to grab her once again, she stabs him and runs for her life.
The mute maid wanders the countryside living in the woods for months. One morning, as she is clinging to a log in a stream, Don Alfredo Corledo(Clifford Evans) out for a hike sees the maid. He quickly pulls her from the stream, takes her to his home, and cares for her with the help of his trusted housekeeper Teresa(Hira Talfrey). Teresa informs Don Alfredo that the young lady he found is with child and that she hopes it will not be born on Christmas Day. Don Alfredo listens as Teresa explains an old superstition, that a baby conceived in a bad way, and born on Christmas Day, will have an evil in its soul. As the story continues, the maid does indeed give birth to a baby boy on Christmas Day and then she quickly dies! Don Alfredo raises the baby as his own son, naming him Leon, and Teresa is looked upon by the child as an Aunt, not just as a housekeeper. At baby Leon’s baptism, the priest(John Gabriel), Don Alfredo, and Teresa can’t ignore the sudden flashes of lightening and the baptismal waters in the font being stirred up and bubbling!
8 years go by and Leon(Justin Walters) is having a nightmare. Don Alfredo goes to the boy to comfort him and help him go back to sleep. Leon tells his father about his nightmare, that he was remembering a recent hunting trip with local hunter and cantina owner Pepe. Leon goes on to share that Pepe shot a squirrel even though Leon had begged him not to shoot it. Leon decided to examine the dead squirrel and tasted some of its blood and it tasted so sweet to him that he wanted to kill something to get more of that blood. Don Alfredo is horrified by Leon’s account of the hunting trip. A couple nights later, with a full moon out, there is noise coming from Leon’s bedroom and when Don Alfredo and Teresa go there, they see Leon clinging to the window bars, acting crazy, trying to get outside, and the boy’s canine teeth have turned into fangs! Bewildered, knowing that the area shepherds have been having unexplained attacks at night on their sheep and goats, and with Teresa reminding him of the curse about a child born on Christmas Day, possibly a child conceived via a bad deed, Don Alfredo goes to see the priest. The priest is concerned about Leon and tells Don Alfredo that unconditional love and the continued good care that he and Teresa give to Leon should drive the evil out of his soul.
Raising Leon as the priest suggested proves successful and soon, Leon has reached adulthood. Leon(Oliver Reed) has decided to make his own way in the world and is about to embark to a neighboring village where he has been hired on by a local vintner, to work in the wine bottling business at the vineyards. After fond farewells to Don Alfredo and Teresa, Leon is soon on his journey. He arrives at the job site, is shown where he’ll live, and meets his bunk mate, Rico(David Conville.) Leon also sees from afar the daughter of the vintner, Cristina(Catherine Feller) and it is love at first sight. She is unfortunately engaged to someone else but that doesn’t stop Leon from meeting her and soon she has fallen in love with him. Seeking her hand in marriage, she tells Leon that her father will be against them as he wants her to marry her fiance, a wealthy man from the village. She agrees to run away with Leon and they can then be wed. In the meantime, Rico, a fun-loving guy, suggests they visit a place he knows of in town where there will be music, dancing, drinking, and girls! It is at this place, that Leon has the attack that turns him into a werewolf and he kills one of the establishment’s girls and Rico!
The next morning, Leon is found by Don Alfredo, in his old bedroom. There is dried blood on Leon’s hands, and he has no memory of what he did the night before. He soon dresses and goes back to the vineyard where the local police are asking questions about the murdered Rico. Leon admits to the police that he and Rico had been at the business in town where a girl was also murdered and that he cannot remember what he did last night, other than being at the business and having a drink or two. After the police leave, Leon goes back to his father to have a meeting with the priest. Leon begs to be put into jail and begs them to burn him alive so that the evil inside him can be destroyed once and for all. Don Alfredo doesn’t want to do this and the priest suggests that Leon be taken away to a monastery for the rest of his life. Leon is put into a cell and Cristina is sent for, as perhaps her love for Leon and his love for her can destroy the evil inside of his soul. The Mayor is brought in about this werewolf matter and he wants Leon to remain in jail, to stand trial for the two recent murders. The Mayor scoffs at the werewolf notion and sends Cristina, Don Alfredo, and the priest out of the jail. A full moon is rising, noticed by the unfortunate drunk (Michael Ripper)sharing Leon’s cell and, well, the werewolf curse rises in Leon again. He escapes from the jail to run amok in the village, climb to the roof of the church, and with the villagers throwing flaming hay bales at him, he has to know that they want his death. Don Alfredo had been told earlier by Teresa to get the silver bullet Pepe, the hunter, had made from his wife’s silver crucifix, as a shot with such a bullet can kill a werewolf. With his gun at his side, Don Alfredo has to do what no parent would ever want to do, and the curse is ended with Leon’s death.
As I watched this version of the werewolf saga, I was struck with how well the cast did, and especially Oliver Reed. It was his first role in a movie where he received credit in the cast list. His performance carries the movie from the moment he enters in it to the very end. I actually felt very sorry for his character, who is so despondent over his errant, violent nature which he can’t control, and he is willing to be put to death to stop it and its evil consequences.
There were only 2 flaws that I picked out of the plot: One, Don Alfredo is the film’s narrator for the beginning third of the movie. Seeing as he doesn’t enter the film until he rescues the mute maid in the stream, and since she is mute, how would he know of the Marquis, the beggar, and all that the maid has suffered, since she can’t talk?? Two, Leon and Cristina fall in love extremely fast. One shot, Leon is seeing her for the first time and in the next scene they are pledging their love to each other-whoa! That Leon is a quick worker on romance! Other than those two bits, the movie flowed well. Besides Reed’s excellent portrayal of Leon, the rest of the cast does well too. Anthony Dawson must have had a field day getting to play such an icky persona as the Marquis, Yvonne Romain conveys a lot through her eyes as her character cannot speak, Clifford Evans is kind and caring as Don Alfredo, and that can also be said for Hira Talfrey as housekeeper Teresa. Justin Walters, who plays Leon as a child, looks uncannily like Oliver Reed so my hats are off to the casting personnel for this movie for finding Walters for that role. My only other quibble with the movie is that Yvonne Romain is so beautiful, that perhaps she would have been better cast as Cristina and Catherine Feller should have played the mute maid?
The Curse of the Werewolf has been put on Youtube in its entirety, in 10 parts. It is also available through Amazon,com and TCM Shop. For a fresh look at the werewolf story, catch Curse of the Werewolf by Hammer Studios!