[Tearing Through Werewolf Cinema] 'The Curse of the Werewolf' Brought a More Visceral Werewolf to Screen
Welcome to a weekly series in which Doris V. Sutherland takes readers on a trip through the history of werewolf cinema...
...The prologue to The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) takes us to seventeenth-century Spain, where a travelling beggar visits a marquis in the hopes of being given food. The cruel nobleman responds by locking the visitor in the dungeon, where he is driven insane by isolation. Years later, a servant girl ends up locked in the same cell, and is raped by the madman. She is able to escape, only to die during childbirth; her baby, Leon, is adopted by the benevolent Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans). But the child was born on Christmas Day – and superstition insists that such blasphemous timing will lead only to evil. Sure enough, Leon’s christening is accompanied by ill omens.
During his childhood, Leon shows signs of lycanthropy: hairy palms, nightmares of flesh-eating, and proximity to dead livestock. But the boy’s descent into werewolfery slows, and his guardian sets the matter aside. Only when Leon is a young man (played by Olive Reed) does his affliction return, and Alfredo Corledo is faced with the pressing concern of exactly what to do about his cursed ward…
Created by the familiar Hammer team of director Terence Fisher and writer-producer Anthony Hinds, The Curse of The Werewolf has a number of firsts to its name. It was the first full-colour werewolf film, the first werewolf film made in the UK, and the first film to truly get its hands dirty with the visceral, graphic gore that is implied by the concept of a person becoming a flesh-eating wolf. It represents an effort to push werewolves into the modern era of horror filmmaking just as much as the hip-and-trendy I Was a Teenage Werewolf from a few years earlier – albeit in a very different way. Showing no interest in urban teen culture or nuclear-powered lycanthropy, Hammer tackled the werewolf as a supernatural being of folklore.
The film’s prologue is not only told like the beginning of a fairy tale, it runs on fairy tale logic. The imprisoned beggar is treated like an animal, and consequently takes on animalistic traits, his arm-hair growing into furry bushes. From here the film enters a haze of superstition, when strange, unknowable forces come into play simply because a baby was born on a particular day of the year. Universal’s films defined the werewolf, but at the same time tamed it, giving lycanthropes a solid set of rules to follow; the subgenre was moved still further into literal-mindedness by various mad-scientist werewolf films. The Curse of the Werewolf, however, recognises that lycanthropes are fundamentally weird, their natural habitat being the hazy atmosphere of age-old superstition.
While it begins as a fairy tale, the film soon turns into something resembling an eighteenth-century Gothic novel, with a sprawling narrative and convoluted family background: even the prologue, set before the werewolf is born, takes place over a generation. Given its wide scope and broad cast, The Curse of the Werewolf comes across as a Hammer horror that aspires to be a Powell and Pressburger epic.
Unusually for a werewolf movie, The Curse of the Werewolf is adapted from a novel; for context, the only previous lycanthrope film of the sound era to have had a literary source was The Undying Beast (leaving aside the weird mash-up that was Daughter of Dr. Jekyll). As an adaptation, alas, the film is deeply flawed. Its source material, Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris, is a Victor Hugo-influenced story set against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War that mixes its visceral shocks with a meditation on human brutality: the main character, the basis for the film’s Alfredo Corledo, eventually concludes that a mere werewolf is a minor concern compared to the atrocities regularly inflicted by humanity.
Much of this material is lost in the film adaptation. Hammer relocated the story from nineteenth-century Paris to eighteenth-century Spain – simply to allow the re-use of sets made for an aborted film about the Spanish Inquisition – and in the process eliminated entirely the historical backdrop to Endore’s novel. The film also does away with the book’s morally ambiguous conclusion, instead substituting a much more conventional slay-the-monster finale. Still, some of Endore’s thematic complexity makes it through – certainly enough to contrast with the clear-cut good and evil conflicts more typical of Hammer.
Unusually for a Hammer horror film of this period, The Curse of the Werewolf features neither Christopher Lee nor Peter Cushing. Instead, the role of the lycanthrope goes to Oliver Reed, at the time a young actor whose career had been confined largely to bit-parts. He does a good job as the restrained, repressed young man who bit by bit succumbs to his bestial side – a sort of stiff-upper-lip, period-drama version of the angst-filled hero in I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
Hammer never returned to the theme of lycanthropy after The Curse of the Werewolf. The studio that filled cinemas with vampires, mummies and Frankenstein monsters – that managed to squeeze three whole films out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – contented itself with just the one werewolf movie. But really, it had no need to make more: The Curse of the Werewolf is the first real epic of the subgenre, a film determined to give its audience a vast, bloody banquet.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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