When it’s on: Saturday, 15 October (6.40 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
I’ve mentioned before on these pages that the best Hammer horror films were like dark fairy tales, depicting some long lost world that still had room for superstition and monsters. It’s no wonder these movies played so well in the States, that the likes of Martin Scorsese were inspired by them – as America lurched towards the Cold War stand-off over Cuba, the internal divisions caused by the Civil Rights movement and increasingly Vietnam, they must have represented the last word in escapism. For me, Hammer didn’t go in for allegory, refused to make pictures that we could dissect these days as reflecting contemporary national moods. They just went for entertainment, a bit of censor-baiting luridness but in the end nothing more noble or controversial than telling yarns.
To modern audiences without any experience of this stuff, the editing and pacing must seem quite tedious; the shocks not at all shocking. It’s all been done better and gorier, certainly within the horror sub-genre of werewolf stories. I can easily picture a 2016 viewer taking in An American Werewolf in London for the first time and coming away every so slightly terrified – those Rick Baker Practical efforts still carry some currency. The Curse of the Werewolf, on the other hand, despite being made only twenty years before Landis’s horror-comedy, feels like something from a different world. It’s undeniably gentler, and there’s that ‘Olde Worlde’ setting that makes it appear quaint compared with the modern London locations used for 1981’s American Werewolf. It’s also strangely linear, opting to tell the complicated back-story building to its protagonist’s tale in an extended flashback, which takes up more than half the running time. The narration by Clifford Evans exacerbates the film’s ‘fable’ tone, like you’re sat by the fireside alongside him, watching him smoke his elaborately designed pipe as he delivers his account. The atmosphere is something that approaches a dreamlike state.
Evans tell us we’re watching a story from eighteenth century Spain, with a nod to the studio’s set and costume designers who spent comparatively little in redesigning existing props to make it look so authentic. One day, an unfortunate beggar interrupts a cruel Marques’s wedding celebrations and for his troubles is locked up for years and years. Time passes, and the mute servant girl who’s been kind to the prisoner is jailed alongside him. He rapes her, and the resulting child is born on Christmas Day. Normally a celebratory event, the unhappy circumstances surrounding Leon’s arrival are enough to curse him as a werewolf – with each full moon he transforms into a murderous wolfman, a state of affairs that can only be broken if he finds true love…
Two elements elevate this stuff. The first is director Terence Fisher, who uses a fabulous sense of economy and some marvellous shooting to keep everything moving. The film’s points are never laboured. Fisher was a master of visual storytelling and, alongside the narrative structure, chose his images judiciously to show, for instance, the passage of time, transforming Richard Wordsworth’s tattered beggar into a hairy, dirty and pathetic figure as a consequence of his years spent in incarceration, the length of time showing on his make-up and manic demeanour. It looks lovely. As Evans tells us the beggar is travelling to the Marques’s mansion, the shot chosen is of Wordsworth in silhouette, walking before a glorious sunset vista. Not only is it gorgeous cinematography but it also gives us a glimpse of the character’s freedom, something precious that he’ll soon lose forever.
An essential of Hammer’s retelling of classic horror stories was the order that it couldn’t simply redo the old Universal entries. This extended from not being allowed to rehash the special effects and the ‘look’ of creatures to having to come up with fresh plots. That’s why Christopher Lee’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein looks nothing like Boris Karloff, and why the action in this one moves to the past, significantly to a deeply religious and conservative Spain in its declining, post-Armada years. The source material is 1941’s The Wolf Man, a title I don’t count among my Universal favourites perhaps because I have never been enamoured by Lon Chaney Jr, the stocky star who clearly obsessed the studio to the extent he went on the play their entire stable of monsters, but as a horror player didn’t do a lot for me. What did sit well was the theme of the ‘curse’, Chaney Jr’s character becoming more suicidal as he realises he’s stuck this way forever, and this element was carried over into Hammer’s film, one I would argue is superior to its Universal forebear.
Oliver Reed plays the adult Leon. He doesn’t appear until the film’s second half, and of course it was made long before his infamous hell-raising days, so what’s left is all that brooding intensity that marks him out as decidedly superior to the material he performed. Reed was a Hammer player for some time, putting in supporting work for the likes of Night Creatures and The Devil Ship Pirates, and more significant roles in Paranoiac and The Damned, two unusual titles that are well worth a watch. The Curse of the Werewolf might be his best work for the studio. It was made before he suffered the facial scar that came as a result of his bar fight in 1963, so we get an extraordinarily handsome man with a propensity for physical performance, important for the part, and undoubted charisma levels to spare. He’s really impressive during the transformation scenes, the moments before he becomes the wolfman when the pain he’s supposed to be experiencing is conveyed via his eyes.
It’s great work, and it’s the second thing that makes this film click so well. He’s supported by a very fine cast. Desmond Llewelyn’s cynical butler goes without credit, but there’s also Anthony Dawson – impressive in Dial M for Murder and Dr No – as the evil Marques, Richard Wordsworth transferring the inner turmoil of his work on The Quatermass Xperiment to bear as the beggar, Evans and Hira Talfrey playing Leon’s surrogate parents, Michael Ripper putting in his usual sterling work as Old Soak (the clue’s in the title). Yvonne Romain appears in most of the film’s publicity, numerous stills that show her being terrorised by Reed’s werewolf. They’re fine lurid fun, though of course her character never appears alongside Reed in the film and is dead long before he turns up. I don’t suppose for one second the casting directors had Romain’s acting talents in mind when they chose her for the part of Leon’s mother, though it’s a surprisingly gutsy and sympathetic piece of work – see if you can spot what made her such an ideal Hammer star.
The studio only made one werewolf movie, oddly enough, but it’s a good one. Freed from the endless recycling of plots that blighted the Dracula series, The Curse of the Werewolf represents Hammer working close to its best and remains a fascinating artefact of what made it such a powerful and enduring influence over the horror genre. I understand that efforts are afoot to reboot the Universal classics for modern audiences, something we’ve already witnessed with 2010’s The Wolf Man. A much tougher prospect to do the same for Hammer’s efforts, rooted as they are in a fabled and fictional past, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth enjoying.
The Curse of the Werewolf: ****