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The Curse of the Werewolf

The Curse of the Werewolf(1961)


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The Curse of the Werewolf, a 1961 release directed by Terence Fisher, takes its nineteenth-century setting and basic themes from The Werewolf of Paris, a 1933 novel by Guy Endore that begins with an appropriately spooky old adage declaring that werewolves require no normal food since "night, winter and death" provide all the nourishment they need. The hunger for death is what makes werewolves a threat to ordinary mortals, and it's no wonder that they've been starring in horror films since at least 1913, when Henry MacRae's silent two-reeler The Werewolf, a Canadian production shot at the Universal Pictures studio in Los Angeles, initiated the subgenre.

Although screen werewolves have never been as numerous as vampires or zombies, a few werewolf movies have proven very popular over the years. The best is George Waggner's classic The Wolf Man (1941), with Lon Chaney, Jr. in the first of five appearances as the title character, whose murderous activities under the full moon's influence give him a self-loathing shame that sets him apart from the great majority of movie monsters.

The Curse of the Werewolf resurrects the idea of the reluctant werewolf who feels guilty and remorseful about the need to kill when the moon is full. The tale begins three centuries ago, when a wandering beggar offends a nasty aristocrat and is condemned to a horrible dungeon, where his only friend is a jailer's daughter who lacks the ability to speak. Eventually the beggar rapes and impregnates his mute companion, and she dies after giving birth to a baby boy, who is named Leon and adopted by a generous noble.

A few years later, local peasants discover that their animals are being slain by a predator no one can find. A priest in the devoutly religious village realizes that the culprit is Leon, whose unhappy birth has resulted in a war between his "soul," which is that of a human being, and his "spirit," which is that of a ravening wolf. Leon is blissfully unaware of the conflict raging inside him until he becomes a man and discovers sex, which somehow unlocks the deadly instinct that periodically conquers him. Unable to resist the urge to kill, he finally begs for the silver bullet that can put an end to his cursed existence. (And the silver bullet works, even though a minor character in Stephen King's sprawling 1986 novel It says that a silver bullet would just "tumble" rather than blast out of a gun barrel.)

The Curse of the Werewolf gains most of its dramatic power from Fisher's richly detailed visual style, enhanced by Arthur Grant's widescreen Technicolor cinematography, which conveys a surprisingly large number of grim details with the tact and restraint necessary to get such a bleak narrative past the censors in the early 1960s. The picture's philosophical interest comes from the screenplay by Anthony Hinds, who adapted Endore's novel under his screenwriting pseudonym, John Elder, and produced the picture under his own name.

Overlapping traditional Christianity and peasant superstition in unexpectedly complex ways, sometimes borrowed directly from the novel, the film suggests that Leon's predatory instincts are a kind of original sin stemming from the corrupt circumstances of his birth; although he is born on Christmas Day, his name resembles "lion," hinting that his animal nature is fundamental to his being. At the same time, however, the story holds out the possibility that self-sacrificing love might ultimately bring redemption. The film doesn't say for sure whether Leon's human "soul" triumphs over his bestial "spirit" in the end, and this ambiguity - underscored by the absence of a return to human form at the moment of his death - is one of the picture's many artful touches.

In an unusual move for a monster movie, the title character of The Curse of the Werewolf doesn't make an appearance until about halfway through, when Leon finally becomes an adult. He's played by Oliver Reed, who has magnetism to spare in his human moments and displays plenty of ferocity in the monster scenes, although his werewolf costume (complete with plastic fangs and ears that can only be described as cute) is less than convincing when it bursts into view during the climax. This was the first lead performance of Reed's career, which continued for four more decades and spanned a long list of genres, with occasional returns to horror in pictures like David Greene's The Shuttered Room (1967), Dan Curtis's Burnt Offerings (1976), and David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979). Standouts in the supporting cast include Richard Wordsworth as the unfortunate beggar, Anthony Dawson as the sadistic aristocrat, Yvonne Romain as Leon's ill-starred mother, and Clifford Evans as his adoptive father.

Fisher directed The Curse of the Werewolf for Hammer Films, which had launched its golden age of horror with two of Fisher's finest pictures - The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula - in 1957 and 1958, respectively. Different takes on lycanthropy have surfaced in other well-known movies, from Gene Fowler Jr.'s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and Joe Dante's The Howling (1981) to John Landis's An American Werewolf in London (1981), Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984), and John Fawcett's Ginger Snaps (2000), all of which left clear marks on the subgenre's development. While The Curse of the Werewolf is not the greatest specimen of its breed, and its equation of sexuality with brutishness is an overused horror-movie clich. This notwithstanding, Fisher's carefully crafted fantasy stands with the most thoughtful of its kind.

Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Screenplay: John Elder, based on The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore
Cinematographer: Arthur Grant
Film Editing: Alfred Cox
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Music: Benjamin Frankel
With: Clifford Evans (Alfredo), Oliver Reed (Leon), Yvonne Romain (Servant Girl), Catherine Feller (Cristina), Anthony Dawson (The Marques Siniestro), Anne Blake (Rosa Valiente), Warren Mitchell (Pepe Valiente), Michael Ripper (Old Soak), Peter Sallis (Don Enrique), Ewen Solon (Don Fernando), Hira Talfrey (Teresa), George Woodbridge (Dominique), Richard Wordsworth (The Beggar), Josephine Llewellyn (The Marquesa), Justin Walters (Young Leon), John Gabriel (The Priest), Martin Matthews (Jose), David Conville (Rico Gomez), Denis Shaw (Gaoler), Charles Lamb (Chef), Serafino Di Leo (Senora Zumara), Sheila Brennan (Vera), Joy Webster (Isabel), Renny Lister (Yvonne)

by David Sterritt

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