Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Hammer Time/Werewolf Flicks: The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

This, in all likelihood, was the first Hammer movie I ever learned of, as it was talked about in the Crestwood House monster book about the Wolf Man, calling it probably the most frightening werewolf movie of all (it's definitely one of the most unsettling, in my opinion). That was a rarity on the part of those books, as they mainly focused on films of the 1930's and 40's when talking about subjects like Dracula and Frankenstein, particularly those of Universal, and as a result, I didn't learn of the name "Hammer" until I was a little bit older and read some other books on the subject from a nearby public library. Maybe it was because the Hammer films were deemed too graphic to expose young kids to or they had some deal with Universal and were able to talk about this film since they distributed it in America but, regardless, this ended up being my first exposure to the awesome "Silver Age" influx of Gothic horror, and when I looked at the image of the werewolf carrying a woman in his arms (which never happens in the movie), I found myself agreeing with the book's opinion of it. In fact, I didn't know at the time but I had caught the tail end of the movie one night on Sci-Fi Channel when I was a very young kid. My parents and I had come back from eating out and we turned on the TV to catch see this movie of a werewolf running across some rooftops while being chased by a mob of people and ultimately being shot at the end. This was the last of several times when I saw the very end of an old horror movie, including The Wolf Man, in such a way but, while my parents kept saying that it was the Wolf Man, I knew even then that wasn't quite the case. Not only did this werewolf look completely different from Lon Chaney Jr., whom I was most used to, but the fact that the movie was in color rather than black-and-white and I saw blood gush out when the werewolf was shot clued me in to the fact that this was very different from what I was used to. I wouldn't see the movie proper until many years later, when I was in my early teens and had learned of both Hammer horror and that the Curse of the Werewolf movie I'd read about was one of them. I saw it twice on AMC, once during one of their annual Monsterfests (which I remember being hosted by Clive Barker and also that I stayed up past when I should've gone to bed to see the end of it), and also on AMC EFX, a block hosted by Stan Winston that they did every Friday night where they would show an episode of their behind-the-scenes show, Cinema Secrets, followed by an old monster or sci-fi film. Both times, I remember thinking the movie was really good, and when I finally got ahold of it in 2006 when I bought a DVD set of Hammer films distributed in the U.S. by Universal (which I think is still the only way you can get this movie here), I felt the same way. Bottom line, I absolutely love this movie. To me, it's both one of the best Hammer movies and is among the greatest werewolf movies with The Wolf Man, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London. It's one of those movies that just works from beginning to end, telling its story with a lot of skill and managing to get across a very unsettling, dark underbelly that you don't often see in movies around this time.

In 18th century Spain, a beggar comes to a small village in search of charity, only to find the townspeople embittered about being forced to celebrate the wedding of their marquis, who is forcing them to pay for everything. Being very simple-minded, the beggar goes to the marquis' castle in search of all the charity he's told is up there, where he's mocked by the cruel nobleman and his friend, treated like a mongrel dog rather than a man. The marquis ultimately "buys" him for his wife as a pet and he's thrown into the dungeon, where he remains for many years, during which he befriends the jailer and his lovely, mute daughter, who feed him every day. The girl grows into a beautiful young woman and continues working in the castle as a servant, when one day, the old and reclusive marquis makes a pass at her. When she rejects him, she's thrown into the dungeon as punishment and is promptly raped by the now deranged beggar, who dies afterward. Upon being released, the woman stabs the marquis to death and escapes into the woods, where she is found several months later by Don Alfredo Corledo, a kindly scholar who takes her in. His housekeeper, Teresa, discovers that the girl is pregnant, but when it seems like the birth will take place on Christmas Day, she becomes afraid of the consequences given the unholy circumstances of the conception. Sure enough, the baby, a boy, is born at midnight on Christmas, and the young woman dies immediately afterward. Alfredo and Teresa raise the child, whom they name Leon, as their own, but they soon learn that he is indeed cursed by the events that led to his birth. Some of the village's goats are found slaughtered and the morning after Pepe Valiente, whose job it is to guard them, shoots the creature he feels is behind it, Alfredo removes a bullet from Leon's body. After Leon tells him that he has nightmares every night about being a wolf, the town's priest explains to Alfredo that the evil circumstances of his conception and birth allowed the insidious spirit of a wolf to take hold within him and that only love and warmth can keep the beast at bay. He and Teresa do their best to provide Leon with what he needs to be saved and, thirteen years later when he's grown into a young man, it seems to have worked, as he leaves home to work at a vineyard miles away. While there, he and Christina Gomez, the daughter of the vineyard's manager, Don Fernando Gomez, begin a secret love affair, in spite of the fact that she's engaged to marry the son of the owner. But, when his friend and coworker, Jose, drags him to a brothel to celebrate with their paychecks, the unclean place awakens the monster within Leon that's been dormant for years and he kills three people. He learns that Christina's love for him is enough to keep the wolf at bay but that may not be enough when he's imprisoned for murder and the mayor insists he stand trial, keeping him locked up past sundown.

Terence Fisher, to me, was to Hammer what Ishiro Honda was to Toho: they were both skilled and talented filmmakers, expert craftsmen, who were capable of making any type of movie possible but, when they made their mark in a particular genre, they became stuck there for the rest of their respective careers. While Fisher was able to take a bit of step outside of out-and-out serious horror with films such as his two Sherlock Holmes movies, the science fiction films, The Earth Dies Screaming and Night of the Big Heat, and the horror comedy, The Horror of It All (which starred Pat Boone!), after he put Hammer firmly on the map with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, grisly Gothic period pieces were virtually all he made afterward. I don't know whether or not he was like Honda who, from what I've heard, despite enjoying doing science fiction and monster flicks, would've preferred to do small-scale dramas, or if he was content to simply do whatever Hammer and other studios asked of him but, one thing's for certain: whenever Fisher was at the helm, the movies were always as stylish and classy as they were bold in their depictions of violence and sexuality and The Curse of the Werewolf is certainly no exception. At the same time, though, it marks the end of his first successful horror run, as his next film for Hammer, their remake of The Phantom of the Opera, didn't do well at the box-office and after that, they put him aside to let other, younger directors have a go at it. He would return to form in the mid-to-late 60's with films like Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Frankenstein Created Woman but, by that point, his career was starting to wind down (as was Honda's around that same time), so this film was something of the end of an era for Fisher.

As it spans over so many years, the movie has quite a large cast but, ultimately, the main character is poor Leon Corledo who, in many ways, is a much more tragic character than the more famous Larry Talbot in that he was doomed from his very conception, never mind birth. As a result of its unholy circumstances and his being born on Christmas Day making matters even worse, as it's seen as an insult to God, he's cursed with having the evil spirit of a wolf inside him. Although as a child, Leon (Justin Walters) is a very sweet, timid boy who's very sympathetic towards all animals and can't stand the sight of blood, an incident where he literally tasted blood upon kissing a shot squirrel (he was trying to make it better) unleashed the monster within him and at night, he begins sneaking out of the house and killing goats near the village. In typical werewolf fashion, Leon has no memory of these incidents, which he seems to remember as nightmares, but he's quite frightened and traumatized by them and begs his "Uncle Alfredo" to help him. By loving him as their own son, as per the village priest's suggestions, Alfredo and his housekeeper, Teresa, are able to beat back the beast within Leon and by the time he grows into a handsome, friendly young man, he seems completely cured.

Oliver Reed appears in his first starring role as the adult Leon and, while Walters' acting was rather stiff, his performance is excellent. He comes across as very happy-go-lucky when he leaves home to go work at the nearby Gomez vineyard and proves to be a hard worker when he starts that very day. He also takes an immediate interest in the lovely Christina Fernando and they begin secretly seeing each other, despite her engagement to Rico Gomez. Leon wants her to run away with and marry him very badly but the situation seems positively hopeless, which is too bad because soon, he needs all of the love he can get. When he reluctantly goes to a brothel with his coworker, Jose, the unholy nature of the place awakens the beast within and he transforms, killing three people before the night's over. The next day, he's told the horrible truth, and it's here where Reed's acting is really awesome, as he truly comes across as horrified and distraught over the revelation, running off and, at one point, falling in the dirt and hopelessly pounding it with his fists. That night, when the full moon rises again, he seems so desperate not to change again, begging God for help, and when Christina arrives, he tries to make her leave for fear of hurting her but her presence and love for him keeps him from changing. Realizing that she's his only hope, he convinces her to run away with him so they can be married, but he's then jailed on suspicion of murder. Knowing what'll happen if he remains in jail after nightfall, he has the gaoler send for Don Alfredo and the priest and ask them to tell the mayor that he's confessed and wishes to be executed before the change happens again. In spite of their best efforts, and unintentionally because of Christina, Leon ultimately transforms in the jail cell, kills two more people, and rampages through the village before finally being killed with a silver bullet by Alfredo.

An equally good performance is by Clifford Evans as Don Alfredo Corledo, who's shown to be a very kind man from his first appearance when he saves the servant girl upon finding her floating in a lake in the woods, taking her home to live with him and Teresa. At first, he dismisses Teresa's fears of the implications of the child's birth on Christmas Day as superstitious nonsense and even kids her about it, but he slowly starts to become convinced when he hears a howl outside when Leon is born, eerie and sinister things occur during his baptism, and when he has to remove a bullet from the kid's body one morning. When he learns of Leon's fears and nightmares, as well as finds an unnatural amount of hair around his wrist and palm, he tells the priest of it and learns that he's a werewolf. The priest tells him that only warmth and love can keep away the beast inside him and Alfredo decides to do what he can to provide Leon with the love of a father, as well as prevents him from escaping his room at night by putting bars on the windows. Over time, this appears to cure Leon completely, but when he finds him in his old room, shivering in fear and with the bars bent, he realizes he's transforming again. When Leon is imprisoned on suspicion of murder and he has Alfredo and the priest sent for, the two of them do what they can to save his life, Alfredo trying to warn the mayor of what'll happen if he forces him to stay in the jail past nightfall. But, when they mayor ultimately refuses and has him remain there to stand trial, Alfredo, upon Leon's wishes, reluctantly goes to Pepe Valiente for his silver bullet. By the time he gets it, though, Leon has transformed and broken out of jail, and when he's cornered in the church's bell-tower, Alfredo is forced to shoot him and the movie ends with him sadly covering Leon's body with his cloak. Alfredo also narrates the first half of the film but, while Evans has a good voice for it, you have to wonder how, in the beginning, he's able to knowledgably talk about stuff he couldn't possibly know and, what's more,, even if he later wrote about all of it, why he specifically starts his narration with, "Some 200 years ago..."

Like Don Alfredo, his housekeeper, Teresa (Hira Talfrey), wants nothing more than to give Leon the love and affection that he needs to defeat his horrible curse. She was very sympathetic towards his poor mother when Alfredo brought her home, nursing her back to health and showing her sad affection when she learned she couldn't speak, and she was the one wise enough to know that a child born out of wedlock on Christmas Day wasn't good (she mentions that in the village she came from, the women believed in it enough to stay away from the men in the spring). She hoped that he'd be born either too early or too late but when it became clear that he would be born at midnight that very day, she crossed herself, fearing the consequences. Teresa quickly learned that she had reason to be afraid, as the mother died right after giving birth to Leon, his baptism had an ominous pall hanging over it, and she and Alfredo realize when he's a little kid that he's going out at night and killing the village's goats by ripping their throats out, confirmed when Alfredo removes one of Pepe Valiente's bullets from his body. Horrified and distraught over this, as it's probably more horrific than she could've imagined, Teresa, like Alfredo, is determined to help Leon overcome his curse by giving him the love necessary to beat back the monster within him. By the time he grows into a young man, it seems to have cured him completely, only for them to soon learn that he's begun transforming again and Teresa can do little more than comfort him when he's told the truth. At the end of the movie, Teresa is tearfully resigned to the fact that Alfredo has no choice but to use Pepe's silver bullet on Leon and the last real shot of the movie has her comforting Christina in the street once it's done.

The unnamed village priest (John Gabriel), whom you first see when he baptizes Leon as an infant, is the one who knows what's wrong with him, no doubt being tipped off by the sinister things that happened at the baptism, as well as by what he knows of the circumstances of his birth. He tells Alfredo that its unholy nature weakened the purity of Leon's soul and allowed the evil spirit of a wolf to enter him at the time of his birth. He also explains that the evils of man (vice, greed, etc.) are what bring out the monster, particularly during the cycle of the full moon when the nature of evil is strongest, but love, warmth, and comfort will beat it back. As Leon has no real mother or father but desperately needs their love, the priest implores Alfredo to love him like his own son (which is possibly why Leon refers to him as "father" when he's an adult and no longer calls him "uncle") and mentions that when he becomes older and possibly meets a girl whom he will love very much, he may be saved. When Leon begins transforming again as an adult, the priest is forced to tell him the truth and while Leon is horrified by this, he's relieved to learn that he told no one else of it. He wants to help Leon in any way he can and offers to take him to a monastery where he can be watched and possibly cured, but his saying that he'll have to be chained up before then makes Leon run off distraughtly. When Leon is jailed and asks both him and Alfredo to ask the mayor to execute him, the priest still wants to take him to the monastery, but then, when Christina shows up at the jail to comfort Leon, he takes her away, ignoring his pleading to let her stay, that she can help him. I don't know why the priest, who was the one who mentioned the healing effect someone like Christina would have Leon in the first place, took her away to tell her that he's a werewolf, which she doesn't believe until she's it with her own eyes anyway. It's unlikely that the jailers would've let her stay anyway but he could've at least tried. Between that and his freaking Leon out by telling him that he'd have to be chained, I look at the priest and think, "You suck at this!"

Christina Fernando (Catherine Feller), Leon's beloved, is a character who manages to be both likable and frustrating at the same time. For the most part, she's likable, in that she's good enough to go to Leon and apologize to him for splashing him with mud when she and Rico Gomez were heading out in a carriage when he first arrived at the vineyard, and after that, they begin a love affair in secret, with Christina making up excuses to have Gomez bring her home early during their nights out so she can be with him. As much as she loves Leon, she feels that their affair is ultimately a hopeless one, as she's betrothed to the wealthy Gomez and knows her father won't allow her to marry him instead. Still, she continues to see Leon and, unknowingly, saves him from another transformation when she comes to see him Sunday night, staying to look after him when he ends up passing out in a panic to get away from her. When Leon realizes that her presence kept him from changing, he asks her to run away with him so they can be married, which she's at first unwilling to do but he wins her over. However, when she arrives later that afternoon to leave with him, she learns that he's been imprisoned and steals Gomez's carriage to make it there to see him. This is where the frustration comes in, as she bursts in on them trying to convince the mayor that Leon is a werewolf and when she comes across as completely ignorant of this, it's enough to convince the mayor that they're all full of it and keep him in jail to stand trial. This, along with the priest's forcing Christina to leave, dooms Leon to transforming and breaking out of the jail to terrorize the village, and it's even more irritating to see her refusing to believe the priest when he tells her. Of course, by the end of the movie, she learns that it indeed is the truth when she sees the transformed Leon running and jumping across the rooftops while being chased by a mob and can only be comforted by Teresa when Alfredo is forced to kill Leon with a silver bullet in the church's bell-tower (little did she know that earlier, Leon almost attacked her but was scared off by the sound of the approaching mob).

When you see the other men in Christina's life, it's small wonder why she gravitated towards Leon, as these guys are pretty unlikable (Hammer had a knack for creating truly despicable characters; see Frankenstein Created Woman and Taste the Blood of Dracula for further proof). Her betrothed, Rico Gomez (David Conville), the son of the vineyard's owner, is just a pompous, rich boy dickhead, laughing at Leon when the two of them splash him with mud when they're leaving in a carriage when he arrives at the vineyard and complaining about how annoying her "headaches" are when they force him to bring her home early when he was winning at gambling. The snidely way in which he says, "Good night," to her when he drops her off adds to his contemptibility, and not surprisingly, he refuses to help her go to Leon when he's imprisoned upon learning of their affair, forcing her to steal his carriage. Her father, Don Fernando (Ewen Solon), is overbearing and cruel, being very happy about Christina's impending marriage to Gomez and not caring in the least about her feelings. His overbearing nature is obvious when, after Gomez drops her off, he tells her to wave goodbye to him and admonishes her for not being nicer to her future husband, and another time when he tells her to get to bed at once upon her arriving back home at night. Not surprisingly, he's furious when he learns of Christina's seeing Leon, who you can tell he already kind of looked down upon when he first arrived at the vineyard and his opinion of him went down even further after he and Jose Amadayo went to a brothel one night, showing no concern for the latter's disappearance when he's told of. He calls Christina an "ungrateful, little..." and is stopped before he can finish it, although it was clearly going to be something a father should never say to his daughter, and when he tells her that Leon is in jail, he adds, "Good riddance." You never see him again after this scene, so you can wonder how reacted upon hearing of what happened to Leon.

As bad as they are, though, they're nothing compared to the marques (Anthony Dawson). This guy is just an asshole bully, a truly contemptible person whom you learn is bad from the very beginning as he's forcing the villagers to pay for his wedding, the feast, and even his pitiable bride (Josephine Llewelyn). When you first see him at the feast, he acts very cruelly to his chef for preparing a meal of goose when, as it turns out, his bride doesn't like it... something the poor man couldn't possibly know and which he is admonished for. The marques then gets up, tosses the goose to the floor, and orders the chef to pick it up... then proceeds to shove him to the floor and laugh at him when he does so. And when the beggar shows up at his castle, the marques has him brought in simply to tease and humiliate him, "buying" him as a pet for his bride and treating him like a dog, forcing him to dance around like an idiot for a little sliver of meat. The beggar makes the mistake of saying something rather suggestive about both him and his bride, which leads to the marques having him thrown into the dungeon as a prisoner. By the time we see him again, the marques is now a disgusting, decrepit recluse who, according to Don Fernando's narration, sent his wife, who was much more sympathetic to the beggar, to an early grave and drove away any friends he had with how nasty he is. He makes a pass at the servant girl when he comes up her cleaning his room but when she rebuffs him, biting his hand in the process, he has her thrown into the dungeon with the beggar, leading to the rape and Leon's unholy conception. But, when she's sent back to his room to "apologize" for what she did, she pays him back by stabbing him to death and escaping.

The beggar (Richard Wordsworth) is someone who definitely fits the old adage of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's just a simple-minded, decent man looking for charity and makes the mistake of going to the castle in search of it, taking a comment made by someone at the village a little too literally. As I said, when he's brought in, the marques and his guests treat him like an animal rather than a human being and humiliate him by plying him with wine and forcing him to drunkenly dance for a little bit of food. The guy is so simple that he doesn't seem to fully grasp what they're doing to him but he goes along with it and even gets into it, earning his food. But then, when the marques and his bride are retiring to bed, the beggar tells them to, "Have a good night," and smiles at them in a dirty manner, which leads to him being imprisoned in the dungeon as punishment. He's kept there for many years and is eventually forgotten by the marques and just about everyone else, with his only human contact being with the jailer and his lovely, mute daughter, who he seems to have an eye for given the way he smiles and looks at her. By the time we get to the point where she's thrown into the cell with him, the beggar barely looks human anymore, with all of that hair on him, and he initially expects her to have more food for him, but when that turns out to not be the case, another appetite of his rears its ugly head. Now completely deranged as a result of his long imprisonment, he brutally attacks and rapes her, yelling and laughing maniacally as he does so. When the girl awakens some time later (with scratches on her chest), she finds him dead on the floor, with a very disturbing expression on his face. That's right, he literally fucked himself to death!

The lovely but mute servant girl (Yvonne Romain) is another of the many pitiable characters who are put through horrible circumstances in this film. Like her cursed son, she's completely innocent and undeserving of the horrible fate that befalls her, as she helps her father, the jailer, in feeding the beggar during his imprisonment and has a connection to him, continuing to feed him after her father dies. But, unfortunately for her, she catches the eye of the marques while cleaning his room and when she refuses his advances, she's thrown into the dungeon as punishment and is raped by the mad beggar. She pays the marques back after she's released, though, by stabbing him to death before escaping into the woods, where she lives for many months before being discovered and taken in by Don Alfredo Corledo. Things seem to be looking up for her then, as she's shown a lot of love and support by him and Teresa, but when she gives birth to Leon at midnight on Christmas Day, she dies right afterward, which is possibly part of the curse that stems from this insult towards God.

There are a number of other memorable supporting characters in the village, most of whom live in the village where Leon is raised. Pepe Valiente (Warren Mitchell) is the man whose job is to stand guard over the village's livestock and his pride, as well as his job, is challenged when goats start turning up dead. He's another person you feel sorry for when he's being put upon by the mayor for not doing his job and when he's mocked for not being able to kill the wolf despite getting a clear shot at it. When he overhears a drunk going on about the full moon and what that entails, Pepe, obviously knowing of the legends of werewolves, melts his wife's crucifix down into a silver bullet to use on the creature that's attacking the goats. He ends up killing a local goat herder's dog instead, feeling that he was the culprit, but he keeps the silver bullet, which is brought back into play during the climax. Pepe's wife, Rosa (Anne Blake), doesn't have much screentime but one thing that she makes clear during what time she does is that she takes her husband's pride very seriously, as she feels bad when she learns from Teresa that he "missed" the wolf with his bullet and threatens to throw out all of the patrons at the bar she runs when they continue making insulting remarks about him. As for the mayor, Don Enrique (Peter Sallis), while he's not loathsome as some of the other characters we've seen, he's also not the most likable, given how he puts down Pepe for supposedly slacking off in his duties and keeps Leon in jail, despite his and Don Alfredo and the priest's pleas. The latter is understandable, since he's not prone to believe their claims that Leon is a werewolf and given how Christina unintentionally complicates matters for them but, as Fernando warned him, everything that happens during the movie's climax is completely his fault. And Leon's friend and coworker at the vineyard, Jose Amadayo (Martin Matthews), is a likable enough, happy-go-lucky guy, who almost always has a smile on his face and ready with a joke. Significantly, he tells Leon of Christina and her engagement to Rico Gomez, suggesting that she's not at all happy with it, but he also ends up unleashing the beast within Leon when he drags him to a brothel. He may have wanted Leon to have a good time but the werewolf coming back out resulted in the deaths of three people that night, including Jose himself.

When you watch a lot of Hammer films, there are a number of regular actors whom you tend to see in the smaller roles. One of them is George Woodbridge, who appears here as Dominique, the goat herder whose dog is shot by Pepe and suspected of having been the one killing the goats. It's hard to feel bad for him, though, as Dominique is shown to be a huge jerk, accusing Pepe of not doing his job and telling Don Enrique that he was the one found the first dead goat when it was actually Pepe himself, looking at him with an infuriating, smug smile during the scene where he meets with them in the mayor's office. And it seems like Dominique holds Pepe's shooting his dog over his head ever since it happens, showing up at Rosa's bar, getting drunk, and complaining about him doing it. Fortunately, he gets killed by the werewolf right after that. Another Hammer regular here is Michael Ripper, who has a small role as a town drunk who warns those at the bar about the evil of the full moon, although he's mainly ignored, except for by Pepe, and has the bad luck of being imprisoned along with Leon at the end. He's the one who tells Leon that the only way to get the jailer to send for his father is to pay him, but when Don Enrique refuses to listen to their claims about him being a werewolf, the drunk has nowhere to run when Leon transforms that night, corners him, and tears his throat out. One last person worth mentioning wasn't a Hammer regular but is certainly notable in another way: the man who answers the door for the marques and brings in the beggar is an uncredited Desmond Llewelyn, who would go on to play Q in the James Bond movies (he's not only the connection this film has to Bond; Anthony Dawson, who plays the marques, would play a villain in the first Bond film, Dr. No, the following year).

Whenever I watch Hammer's Gothic horror films, I'm always amazed at how good they managed to make them look, given the small budgets that they had to work with, and The Curse of the Werewolf is a prime example of that. Like all of them, especially those directed by Terence Fisher, it looks great. It's very well photographed by Arthur Grant, with the interior and exterior sets looking equally good, and the rich color palette looks absolutely gorgeous and really pops. The costumes are also all excellent and really feel like they come from the period of the 1700's. Most impressive of all, though, are the sets, which make full use of the studio backlot. In fact, according to some sources, these sets were originally constructed for a movie about the Spanish Inquisition that was ultimately scrapped and Hammer, not wanting to waste money, decided to instead use them for this film, forcing screenwriter Anthony Hinds to movie the story from France, where the novel it's based on, The Werewolf of Paris, was set, to Spain. Regardless, the art direction by Bernard Robinson, who worked on many of the Hammer movies and reused some of the sets he designed for Horror of Dracula, is superb. All of them, from the interiors of the bars, the lavish and wealthy homes of the marques and Don Alfredo, and the wine cellar where Leon works, to the dank, dirty-looking dungeons and prison cells, the big interior of the church, and especially the expansive, exterior village sets and the rooftops and bell-tower the werewolf scrambles across during the climax, give the movie a touch of scope and class that it wouldn't have otherwise had giving how small the budget was. And the film isn't lacking in mood and atmosphere either, as the nighttime scenes when the full moon is high in the sky, such as when Pepe is standing guard over the goats out in the field and when Leon begins to feel the effects of his curse, give a sense of dread and foreboding, especially when you see the moon emerge from behind the clouds. What's more, I have a feeling that some of these scenes were shot day-for-night and if that's true, then it's some of the best that I've ever seen.

This is the only werewolf movie Hammer ever did, and I can see why they never attempted another, because they left an indelible impression with it. For me, its depiction of the werewolf and how the curse comes about is the most disturbing ever put on film. The usual circumstances of being bitten by another werewolf and having the curse passed on to you are already pretty frightening, as they're a prime example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but this film takes it much farther and paints Leon as a soul who's doomed as soon as he comes into existence. His conception from his mother being brutally raped by the deranged beggar, himself a victim of unbelievable cruelty, is disturbing enough already but on top of that, Leon is unfortunate enough to be born on Christmas Day, which is seen as an insult to God. (Speaking of an insult to God, I've read that in the book it's based on, the rape is committed by a priest!) The curse begins as soon as he's born, with his mother suddenly dying immediately afterward and his baptism having a feeling of evil hanging over it, as it quickly becomes dark outside, with thunder and lightning, and the holy water begins to ripple, reflecting an evil-looking gargoyle in the architecture. That's what gets to me, is how utterly satanic lycanthropy is depicted here. When Leon is a small boy a few years later, he begins killing small animals, such as goats and, as suggested by Teresa, a kitten that he cared for, and feasting on their blood, while he's traumatized every night by "nightmares" of being a wolf. We then get an explanation as to what exactly is wrong with him: the priest tells Don Alfredo that his soul was so weakened by the unholy circumstances of his conception and birth that an elemental spirit of a wolf was able to take hold within him. In fact, the sound of howling could be heard right when he was born; was that sound of a dog outside howling because of the evil it sensed or, more creepily, the sound of the wolf spirit possessing him? (I think it could be the latter, since the exact same howl is heard when Leon is prowling the pastures for goats one night.) Plus, being exposed to the evil nature of man brings the wolf out, particularly during the cycle of the full moon when the powers of evil are at their strongest. Earlier, Leon had told Alfredo of an incident that happened when Pepe Valiente had taken him hunting. Pepe shot and killed a squirrel and Leon, horrified by this, kissed it to try to make it better and ended up tasting the blood, which tasted sweet to him. Pepe had pulled him away before he could taste any more but this incident awakened the wolf's bloodlust within him, leading to him going out to satiate his hunger on nights of the full moon. Only warmth and love can keep the beast at bay and Alfredo and Teresa are able to give Leon enough to seemingly rid him of the curse by the time he reaches adulthood. But, when he goes with Jose to a simultaneous brothel and casino, the unholy nature of the place causes him to relapse and begin changing again.

Werewolves are almost always depicted as characters who deserve to be pitied for the curse that they're the powerless to fight and Leon is one of the saddest by far. The opening credits are played over a tight close-up of his eyes in werewolf form, bloodshot and with tears dripping out of them, already accentuating the tragedy of his story, and when you get into his birth and the horrors of his early childhood, it's impossible not to feel how unfair it is for him to be put through this. What's worse, he has no idea about it until he starts changing again when he's adult and is horrified and distraught to learn what he's done. He becomes utterly hopeless when the full moon rises again that night, and even when he's presented with a chance at salvation through his beloved Christina, his imprisonment and the mayor's disbelief over what they say he is, forcing him to stay imprisoned rather than stand trial rather than execute him or allow the priest to take him away to a monastery, ultimately dooms him when he transforms again and breaks out of the jail. Alfredo is then forced to use the silver bullet that Pepe saved all these years to end his son's suffering by shooting him in the chest in the church's bell-tower. And while most of these movies end with the werewolf turning back into a human after he's killed, in this case, Leon remains in his wolf form after being shot, probably because the spirit has been within him since birth and now, even after death, it has taken hold of him completely. It's tragic all-around.

Roy Ashton was Hammer's chief makeup artist during the 60's, having taken over for Phil Leakey when he left the studio in the late 50's, and he really got a chance to show off his talents here. His first notable creation is the look of the beggar after he's been imprisoned in the marques' dungeon for so many years. Not only does he look filthy and disheveled, with all that long hair and that massive beard, but there's something... inhuman about him. This is particularly true when you look at his hands, which now have big tufts of hair around his wrists and fingernails that are more akin to claws, as if he's literally become animalistic in some way after all of these years of dehumanization and gives Leon's unholy conception an even more disturbing bent. In fact, Richard Wordsworth once said that, in the original script, the beggar was supposed to be a werewolf himself but the censor wouldn't allow the notion of a werewolf raping a woman, so they scrapped it. I actually like that they didn't specify it, as it makes the situation all the more unsettling and mysterious. At this point in the story, the marques isn't looking much better, with his appearance being old, decrepit, and revolting, no longer hiding the evil within him and adding to the unease of his making a pass at the servant girl. As for Leon, the film doesn't show us what his ultimate werewolf form looks like until the climax, but we do get hints of it beforehand when he's a child, such as unnatural hair around his wrists and a shot of him with sharp teeth when he's trying to break through the barred window to get at the goats. It's odd how he doesn't completely transform there, making me wonder if he maybe he was on the brink of it when Don Alfredo and Teresa came in on him and calmed him down. When he's an adult, we get some shots of his hairy hands when he kills his first victims, as well as his shadow and rear shot of him when he's stalking Dominique but a full-on look at him doesn't come until he transforms in the prison cell.

The build-up to him as a full-blown werewolf happens gradually during this sequence, as we first see his hands turning hairy through the use of the classic lap-dissolve technique from The Wolf Man, followed by him ripping at his shirt and then, after looking away for a bit as he changes, turning to look straight at the camera as he glares at the old drunk in there with him, his face having more pronounced, wolf-like features. In fact, I'd say that shot is more startling than the ultimate werewolf and it's especially amazing to think that Ashton created that without the more advanced materials that Rick Baker and Rob Bottin would have at their disposal later on. The final werewolf was what really caught my attention when I saw images of him in that Crestwood House book, as he looked bigger and much more ferocious than the Wolf Man. I still think it's overall a well-done and classic design in its own right, one that Ashton was particularly proud of, but I'm not sure about the white fur or the texture of it, as it makes him look a bit too fluffy (not to mention, it clashes with the black color of his hands). Fortunately, Oliver Reed was able to really sell the ferociousness through the facial makeup, as he looks very intimidating when he stalks up to the camera and then lunges at it to attack the drunk. Supposedly, Ashton was the one who suggested that Reed be cast as Leon, given his talent and the striking bone structure of his face. In his autobiography, Ashton added, "He resembles a wolf anyway when he is very angry." If his snarls were a little more intimidating; instead, they sound too scraggly, more like he's trying to clear a clogged throat more than anything else.

Of course, one thing that you should always expect from the majority of Hammer's horror films is a lot of blood in the kills and this film also delivers in that regard. The servant girl stabs the marques repeatedly with some of sharp object, once in the heart and several more times in the back, including the back of his neck; Leon's grisly nighttime activities are evidenced by the body of a goat with its throat torn out and he leaves a lot of blood behind when Pepe shoots him one night; and you have the sight of Dominique's dog after Pepe has shot him, thinking he was the culprit. The grisliest death is that of the prostitute that Leon kills when he first transforms as an adult. He grabs her by the throat, knocking over a mirror behind her when he pushes her against it, and after a cutaway to another scene, you see the broken mirror covered with blood, with the prostitute's mangled body lying over it, the side of her throat slashed in a very grisly manner. All he does to Jose Amadayo is strangle him and then throw him up against a wall, and Dominique's death happens just out of sight after Leon pounces on him from a rooftop, but the drunk in the prison cell with him isn't so lucky, as we Leon rise up with a mouthful of blood after lunging at him and presumably ripping his throat open. He also attacks the gaoler by knocking him down with the cell door after he rips it loose and when he hears the man moaning in pain afterward, he looks like he's about feed on him too when it cuts away.

That's the last person he kills, as he then breaks out of the jailhouse and is chased through the village, primarily across the rooftops, by the torch-wielding townspeople. I have to admit, it's not the most rousing or exciting climax, as it's just them cornering him in one spot, him managing to get away somewhere else by continuing to run along the roofs, and rinse and repeat. There are some notable moments, like when he nearly pounces on Christina but is chased away by the sound of the mob, when he jumps to the ground, only for the townspeople to come at him from both sides and force him to climb back up, and when one villager throws a torch up at him, setting a bale of hay on fire in the process, and Leon picks it up and tosses it down at the people below (I always remembered that from when I saw the movie as a little kid), but for the most part, it's fairly pedestrian. In the end, he climbs up to the church's bell-tower, cornering himself, and Don Alfredo, seeing no other choice, heads up after him to shoot him with the silver bullet. At the same time, one of the villagers, in a ploy to force Leon down, runs inside the church and rings the bells. The loud sounds of them drive him completely crazy and he backs away into a corner. While he does see Alfredo when he reaches the belfry, he still seems more intent in stopping the bells than attacking him, grabbing one of them to try to slow it down and giving Alfredo the opportunity to shoot him in the chest, killing him in a spurt of blood.

What often shocks me about Hammer's films even more than the violence and blood is the overt sexual content they often threw into them; in fact, The Curse of the Werewolf ran into many censorship problems, with five minutes being cut for its British release and even more for the American release. I'm not sure if the version of the film that I and everyone else has seen is the censored version or if it was restored for its home media releases (I doubt the one you can get in the Hammer Horror Series DVD set from Universal is the heavily censored American version) but regardless, it's pretty jaw-dropping what you see in this movie. In addition to the offscreen rape, you see the aftermath, where the servant girl actually has claws marks on her sweaty, and very large, cleavage; the whole notion of that disgusting old marques trying to hit on her, saying, "Why don't you show me just how lively you can be, eh?", and her being forced to go back to him later on to "apologize"; the beggar telling the marques and his bride to, "Have a good night," when they leave the banquet to retire; and that whole sequence at the brothel when Leon transforms for the first time as an adult, with the one prostitute taking him to her room, having him lie down on her bed, and they start making out, only for him to bite her around the neck as the werewolf comes to the surface, leading to his killing her. Naturally, as the 60's wore on into the 70's and conservatism in film fell away, Hammer would become much more bold in their depiction of sexuality, to the point where they would show full-on nudity, but for a film made in the still relatively sensitive early 60's, this is pretty ballsy.

The score by Benjamin Frankel is another highlight, as it manages to capture the horror, tragedy, and disturbing nature of the film's story perfectly. It opens with an unsettling piece that starts out with horns and distinctive "tinkling" sound before launching into a bombastic symphony that accentuates the nightmare of Leon's conception and life, as we see tears drip from his eyes behind the opening credits. That tinkling is repeated here and there throughout the score, in various iterations, and is often linked to Leon's transformations, particularly when ominous, sinister things happen during his attempted baptism. The part of the score that I always remember is the very unsettling, low string piece that you first hear when the servant girl is confronted with the beggar after being thrown into the dungeon with him and again after the rape. It captures both the horror of the immediate situation and also the nightmare that this act will unleash; it's heard throughout the film many times, often whenever Leon's condition is addressed, and by the time you hear it near the end when he's climbing into the bell-tower, it reminds you of what that rape has led to. Speaking of strings, you hear these freaky, high-pitched ones when the sound of howling can be heard before the cries of the newborn Leon, which I think hits upon the notion of the monster that has just been brought into the world, and you hear it again when he's changing in the prison, accompanied by some banging drums. There are other pieces of music, like a pleasant one for when Leon leaves home as an adult, a sweet one for the scenes between him and Christina, and silly music when Jose is stumbling around drunk, but the score is ultimately dominated by the horrific and tragic-sounding pieces, to the point where it's bookended by them. The only piece of the score that I don't particularly care for is during the climactic chase through the village as, like the sequence itself, the music leaves a lot to be desired for and sounds weak.

In my humble opinion, The Curse of the Werewolf is not only a superb werewolf movie but also one of Hammer's best films by far. As I said in the introduction, it's a movie that was done right all-around: it has a great cast who all give superlative performances, especially in the case of Oliver Reed, a well-told story that spans over several decades, a great look that's helped by some well-done art direction, as with many of Hammer's films, a uniquely disturbing and downright sinister take on the idea of the werewolf, great makeup and blood, and a well-done, unsettling music score. Aside from some nitpicks here and there, the climactic chase through the village being fairly lackluster, and the piece of music for it being the score's weakest piece, it's a movie I have no problems with and is one of the Hammer films that I watch quite often. Let me put it to you this way: my friend, Newt, whose blog on here is Double T's Blog of Reviews, likes this movie a lot... and he's not a fan of Hammer at all. I think that speaks for itself.

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