Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Director: Terence Fisher                                    Writer: Anthony Hinds
Film Score: Benjamin Frankel                            Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Starring: Oliver Reed, Anthony Dawson, Catherine Feller and Clifford Evans

Though the studio made dozens of Dracula and Frankenstein films, it seems hard to believe that Curse of the Werewolf was Hammer Studio’s only werewolf film. When Universal gave Hammer the rights to remake their films in England, the one stipulation was that they could not remake The Wolf Man, their classic 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr. Since Universal owned the rights to Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris, they asked them to film that instead. The reason probably has to do with the fact that Curt Siodmak’s screenplay to the Chaney vehicle was an original story rather than an adaptation of a public domain work like their earlier classics. Anthony Hinds wrote the adaptation of Endore’s novel, setting it in Spain in order to use the sets constructed for the uproduced film The Inquisitor, and truncating much of the historical research of the first half of the novel. Oliver Reed, despite his bad-boy reputation he would earn later, was patient and no doubt appreciative of the opportunity to appear on film in a leading role. He also helped that he had a good relationship with director Terrence Fisher and a healthy respect for producer Anthony Nelson Keys.

The film has an interesting beginning. Instead of a prologue before the credits, the credits begin immediately over the eyes of Oliver Reed as the werewolf. In many ways the entire first act of the film could be considered a prologue, establishing first the backstory without any real information about what all of this has to do with lycanthropy. The film is set in Spain and begins with a curious beggar, Richard Wordsworth, wondering why the church bells are ringing on a weekday. It’s because Anthony Dawson, the Marques, is getting married. Looking for charity Wordsworth heads to the banquet. Once there Dawson humiliates him before giving him food and then has him thrown into the dungeon and forgets about him. Decades later, after the little mute girl who has helped take care of him has grown up, Dawson takes a fancy to Yvonne Romain and when she doesn’t reciprocate she is thrown into the cell with Wordsworth and raped by him. After she is released she kills Dawson and runs away, discovered near death by Clifford Evans. Romain is pregnant and ready to deliver near Christmas, a curse in some cultures for a child born out of wedlock. But Romain dies giving birth, and the child is raised by Evans and his housekeeper Hira Talfrey.

A few years later a wolf is suspected of killing animals in and around the village, and when Evans figures out it’s the young Leon, Justin Walters, he erects bars on the bedroom window and manage to keep his “bad dreams” from happening again. Finally, when the boy has grown into Oliver Reed, he sets out on his own to make his way in the world beginning his working life at a winery. He’s befriended by the other worker, Martin Matthews, and falls in love with the vintner’s daughter, Catherine Feller. But one Saturday night, as the full moon comes out, Reed turns into a werewolf and not only kills a prostitute, but Matthews as well before heading back to his home village and killing another man. This is the beginning of the long third act--an extended finale--when the secret comes out and the town grapples with what to do about it. Oliver Reed does a solid job as the tortured youth, though some might say it’s a bit too tortured. In the context of the film, however, it works. It’s a different kind of story for Hammer and so there’s no clearly defined villain, and no Peter Cushing-type hero, though it’s still difficult to know why the studio never returned to that monster again since the film made back five times its production costs.

Other than Reed, Anthony Dawson is the main draw for film buffs. Best known as the blackmailed villain in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, he is perfectly sadistic in the film and dominates the screen in the few scenes he has. There is little special effects work in the film, other than one transformation scene near the end of the film when Reed’s--rather artificial looking--hands transform into paws. The full werewolf makeup was saved until the finale, a grey wolf with a lot of white hair rather than the traditional brown. The stunt work in the finale is also pretty terrific, with Reed’s double climbing up and down nearly the entire set before arriving at the bell tower of the church. And behind it all is the magnificent score by Benjamin Frankel. The studio’s house composer, and the man responsible for the most memorable scores in the Hammer catalogue was James Bernard. Frankel, in addition to scoring films, was also a working composer and conductor in London. He had first worked with the studio in their pre-gothic days and his score for the film is, above all other composers who worked with the studio, second only to Bernard. Curse of the Werewolf may not one of the finest examples of Hammer’s output, but it does occupy a beloved space in the hearts of fans as the only werewolf film essayed by studio.

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