Saturday, May 23, 2020

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) Blu-ray Review



The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) d. Terence Fisher (UK) (93 min)

Set in 18th Century Spain, this (very) loose reworking of Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris sees a ragged beggar (Richard Wordsworth) entering the disenchanted village of Santa Vera where a corrupt nobleman, the aptly named Marques Sinestro (Anthony Dawson), holds sway. In “service” for his supper, the Marques has the hapless homeless bark and crawl about like a dog before being imprisoned and forgotten by everyone except the jailer and his mute daughter (Yvonne Romain). 10 years of isolation drive the poor soul out of his mind such that, when the jailer’s daughter is thrown into his cell for refusing the lecherous Marques’ advances, he rapes her and promptly dies. Upon her release, the young victim murders the evil lord before escaping into the countryside, where she is discovered, pregnant and on the brink of death, by a kindly aristocrat, Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans). Her offspring, dubbed Leon (Oliver Reed), is raised by Don Alfredo to manhood where it is revealed that his unfortunate family tree and birth date (Christmas) have cursed him with bestial leanings whenever the moon is full and lust is on the rise….


The first of many scripts bearing producer Anthony Hinds’ pen name of “John Elder” (created to avoid conflict with the British labor unions and because Hinds “didn’t want my name popping up all over the credits”) is a marvelous piece of work, presenting the age-old “sins of the fathers visited upon the sons” with a lycanthropic twist. Fisher (Horror of Dracula), who had given Reed two of his early bit parts with Hammer (The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and The Sword of Sherwood Forest, both 1960), bumped the charismatic young actor up to leading man status, although it is rumored that it was makeup man Roy Ashton who suggested Reed for the role, already imagining how that broad face and brow would serve his vision.


And what a vision it is! Though some fans and scholars have cried foul that we don’t get to see the werewolf until 75 minutes in, once the grand reveal is made, it’s on full display for the remainder of the film, with Reed (and stuntman Jack Cooper) running amok, leaping across rooftops, and hurling flaming hay bales onto panicked villagers below. Ashton, who would provide the creature comforts for numerous Hammer and Amicus outings (The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile, The Devil Rides Out, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Tales from the Crypt), was blessed to have enough prep time to experiment, ultimately devising a makeup that perfectly depicted the inner war between man and beast.


As far as the story itself goes, Hinds borrowed only a few key plot points from Endore’s novel and made up the rest, which is why there are several puzzling elements at play, not least of which being Leon’s “curse” and how it manifests itself. Hinds has taken all the werewolf tropes from Universal’s 1940s monster rallies (full moons, silver bullets) and mashed them into the same cauldron with “love conquers all” and Jekyll/Hyde’s “lust awakens the beast within.” We’re never really given a satisfying explanation as to why or how Leon should transform into a wolf simply because his mother was raped by an ordinary (and relatively innocent) madman, but since the sage and sober Don Alfredo buys into it, we’re willing to go along for the ride.


Reed is quite good in his breakout role, throwing himself into the part (and down flights of stairs) with everything at his disposal. His soulful blue eyes (the brown contact lenses, seen under the opening titles, proved too painful) communicate his deep love for his employer’s daughter Cristina (Catherine Feller), as well as his confusion and pain upon discoving his tragic background and fate, while his muscular and masculine demeanor made him an instant favorite with female viewers.


Evans, who would later appear as Professor Zimmer in Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire (1963), is sublime as the caring, considerate, and ultimately cursed surrogate father, forced to imprison his adopted child and later to hunt to death the beast he has become. Romain is lovely and saintly, even when driving daggers into heartless noblemen, and Feller makes for an interesting slice of Hammer Glamour, her unconventional beauty playing in time with her passionate line deliveries. Dawson and Wordsworth tender highly memorable supporting parts, both turning more grotesque (with help from Ashton) as the film progresses.


Bernard Robinson’s always-sterling production design is given a boost from the fact that the sets for Hammer’s scuttled production of The Inquisitor had already been built (although it did necessitate changing the story’s location from Paris to Spain), with a lovely musical score by Benjamin Frankel (one of his last) and Arthur Grant’s (Quatermass and the Pit) excellent Eastmancolor cinematography.


The British Board of Film Censors, already primed from the previous year’s debacle surrounding Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, were understandably skittish about a film openly concerned with rape, murder, pagan curses, and subtle religious commentary and insisted on numerous script alterations pre-production, as well as significant trims to the final product. (U.S. general audiences, by contrast, were shown the complete feature with no trims.) In the mid-eighties, the edits were finally reinstated and British audiences were finally able to see the film in its entirety. Now considered a horror classic and a high-water mark for Hammer, The Curse of the Werewolf remains a thrillfull, skillful combination of melodrama and monster mayhem.

Trivia: Look sharp to see Desmond Llewellyn (aka “Q” from the James Bond movies) as one of the Marques’ footmen!


SPECIAL FEATURES:

NEW 4K scan from the Interpositive

NEW audio commentary with actress Yvonne Romain, special makeup effects artist Mike Hill, and composer Leslie Bricusse

NEW audio commentary with author/film historian Steve Haberman, and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr

NEW “The Men Who Made Hammer: Roy Ashton” with Richard Klemenson (19 min)

NEW “Serial Killer – Benjamin Frankel, Serialism, and The Curse of the Werewolf” (22 min)

"The Making of The Curse of the Werewolf," including interviews with actors Catherine Feller and Yvonne Romain, Mike Hill, art director Don Mingaye, art department member Margaret Robinson, and filmmaker Jimmy Sangster (45 min)

"Lycanthropy: The Beast in All of Us" (3 min)

"Censoring the Werewolf" (14 min)

Theatrical Trailer

Trailers From Hell with commentary by filmmaker John Landis (3 min)

Radio Spot

Still Gallery


The Curse of the Werewolf is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:

https://www.shoutfactory.com/product/the-curse-of-the-werewolf-collector-s-edition?product_id=7334


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4 comments:

  1. Ah... My very first acquaintance with a werewolf during my little kiddie days. Saw it so young even, it made Oliver Reed (in full make-up) my first awareness of what a werewolf could look like. Well, one of two, actually: him and Robert Foxworth in Death Moon (1978). Caught a peek of these two on late night cable television back then (when I wasn't supposed to be watching). Wasn't aware at the time who Lon Chaney Jr. was either, of course.

    These two films remained a vague memory (pretty much only remembered the werewolf scenes near the end) until more recent post-2000 years had me rediscovering them. Curse o/t Werewolf has that instant lovely Classic Hammer feeling, while also being a bit more offbeat (better than I expected, actually). Death Moon is a doozy that - when seen through more mature eyes nowadays - makes you realize could only scare the littlest of children when catching a glimpse of the Hawaiian-shirted featured beastie.

    The werewolf films that really shaped me as a kid, though, were the obvious ones: An American Werewolf In London and The Howling. Had a liking for Lycanthropes ever since, all the way through Bad Moon (1996) via the Ginger Snaps trilogy up to Howl (2015).

    And... let's not forget about *threatening voice* Project: Metalbeast. Hah!

    Still have to see Late Phases (2014), by the way. Do you have any other good werewolf recs (old and new alike)...?

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    1. I remember seeing images of CURSE from my earliest days of reading horror reference books, but I don't think I actually saw the movie until I was in my 30s. And I was surprised at how little werewolf there was (until the final reel, of course), but I always appreciated how physical and energetic Reed was as the beast.

      I thought that I had seen Death Moon, but I was confusing it with Moon of the Wolf (1972), so I apparently have some work to do!

      Werewolves are also one of my particular favorite breed of monsters - they are like the Jekyll/Hyde myth on steroids. I would have to take some time to conjure a list of my personal favorites, although I know I would add Dog Soldiers (2002) to the ones you've already listed above.

      METALBEAST!!!!!!

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  2. Dog Soldiers would have been an obvious easy (good) one to add also, yes. Decided not to, as we had a chat about it already recently.

    You actually have a fun fitting '70s werewolves made-for-TV double bill on your hands there, with Moon of the Wolf (1972) and Death Moon (1978). Both are quite obscure outings, have questionable merits and feature a 'whodunnit' angle when it comes to guessing the identity of the hairy beastie. Moon of the wolf surely knocks Death Moon out of the park (or off its Hawaiian island, more accurately) for at least being less silly. Nonetheless, if you have a fondness for all types of werewolf efforts old and new, then ultimately these two are worth digging up too.

    Aside from the two early '80s obvious ones I mentioned, there's a third that drew me into the werewolf mythos as a kid: Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves.

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  3. I really need to see Company of Wolves again! I remember seeing (and liking) it on VHS back in the day, and then again about 10 years ago. It's a good one, and definitely more cerebral than most.

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