Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, Terence Fisher)

 The House of Hammer's lone lupine foray into the realms of carnivorous lunar activities, Terence Fisher's masterly 1961 offering The Curse of the Werewolf was a film that - much like it's tragically hypertrichotic hero Leon Corledo - was born out of a fiery crucible of Catholic guilt and sin.

Hammer head honcho Michael Carreras had originally envisioned the making of a Spanish Inquisition picture, titled variously The Rape of Sabena and, later, The Inquisitor, to be scripted by Peter R. Newman (yes, Who-heads, the 'Sensorites' dude) fresh from gritty anti-war polemic Yesterday's Enemy (1959), and directed by John Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends [1960], The Shadow of the Cat [1961] and later back-to-back Hammers The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies [both 1966]).

Sabena was to give the usual Hammer audiences their share of Gothic Technicolor melodrama and lashings of Kensington Gore in the milieu of the 16th century Torquemadan auto-da-fe ('What's the auto-da-fe? / It's what you oughtn't to do, but you do anyway!' as Mel Brooks sang in his doubtless scrupulously accurate History of the World, Part One [1981]) whilst also aiming a polemic against the hypocrisy and abuse of power of the Catholic church.  However, with John Trevelyan, Celluloid-Snipper-in-Chief at the BBFC, hardening his views against the horror film after the reactions to Mark Lewis' (Carl Boehm) snap-happy slashathon in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), things were becoming decidedly tricky for Carreras and Hammer.  After the script for Sabena / The Inquisitor was returned with requests for major edits and rewrites a fortnight before shooting was about to commence, and with a threatened boycott and possible legal action from the Catholic League of Decency in the air, the executive producer's father James (later Sir James) Carreras stepped in and called a halt to production.  Faced with the cost of production already spent, and the fact that sets for a Spanish township complete with haciendas was in construction on the Bray lot, something had to be done or write off a considerable amount of money.  Fortunately, producer Anthony Hinds had just the thing.

 Guy Endore's 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris - charting the exploits of a young man cursed from birth with the appetites of an  animal - had been optioned by Universal-International, with whom Hammer had a co-production and distribution deal (as they did with Warner Brothers and Columbia for other films).  With little time or money to secure the services of a scriptwriter, Hinds opted to adapt the source material himself, under the nom de plume of John Elder, and shift the locations of the story from France to Spain in order to utilise the sets and costumes that had been readied for the now-abandoned Inquisition epic, and setting the tale in the 1760s: a compromise between the 1560 setting of Sabena and the 1870 Paris Commune date of the novel.

The film begins with the tale of an impoverished beggar (played by Richard Wordsworth with the same pitiable humanity that he gave to the tragic infected astronaut Victor Carroon in Hammer's breakout The Quatermass Xperiment [1955]) arriving in a small Spanish town overlooked by the castle of the Marquis Siniestro.  Mocked and rebuffed by the townsfolk, the simple-minded transient tries his luck at the castle, where the evil Marquis (a splendidly grotesque performance from Anthony Dawson) has him humiliated before throwing him into the oubliette of the castle's dungeons where he is forgotten and left to fester and feast upon scraps of meat.  This brutalising treatment and degradation has the literal effect of turning man into beast, and when years later a servant girl (Yvonne Romain) who has rebuffed the lascivious advances of the aging Marquis (now raddled with disease and decay) is thrown into the dungeons the animal atavism of the vulpine vagabond take over and leave the girl ravaged and pregnant with the now-dead beggar's baby.

The product of this union is Leon, born to the dying girl on Christmas Day and marked with the beast within his soul, and adopted by the kindly Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans, later to essay the surrogate Van Helsing role of Professor Zimmer in Hammer's Gothic fairytale Kiss of the Vampire [1963]).  Young Leon (Justin Walters) is raised in a loving home with the Don and his servant Teresa (Hira Talfrey) as his family, and yet finds that he suffers from 'bad dreams' of running wild in the fields at night.  When local shepherd Pepe Valiente's (Warren Mitchell) flock begins to be decimated by a wild animal, and little Leon mysteriously receives a bullet wound in his leg on one of his moonlit sleepwalks, an intervention is clearly required.  Barred windows seem to do the trick, at least for a while.

The adult Leon Corledo (played by the then 22 year old nephew of the director of The Third Man [Carol Reed, 1949], Oliver Reed) leaves his loving home behind him to take employment in another town, working in the vineyards of the overbearing Don Fernando (Ewen Solon), and falling in love with the Don's daughter Cristina (Catherine Feller).  this star-crossed matching is not to the liking of Fernando, however, and so Leon's thwarted lust finds him on an ill-advised night out to a bordello with co-worker Rico (David Conville), where the light of the moon brings out the beast in Leon and leads to his assignation with a lady of the night culminating in a decidedly unhappy ending.

                        Ollie was no stranger to waking like this and wondering 'What have i done?'

In the words of the priest (John Gabriel) who baptised him, Leon's soul is constantly at war with its animal half : 'during the cycle of the full moon when when the forces of evil are at their strongest, these bring the spirit of the wolf to the fore... And in turn, whatever weakens the spirit of the beast - warmth, fellowship, love - raise the human soul'.  Just as his foster family kept his bestial nature in check as a child, only the love growing between Leon and Cristina can control his primal urges now.  There is something nicely Freudian and simple about the notion that the werewolf is simply Leon's primal id and animal animus, and that the thwarting of his feelings toward that not so obscure object of his desire releases his most destructive impulses.  Leon, i feel you, man.

Terence Fisher directs with his usual flair for these things, bringing an almost simplistic fairytale ambience to this dualist Manichean myth of good and evil and the need, like Dr David Banner, to control the raging beast that dwells within us.  Sadly, the film was received with a lukewarm reception after the flop of Hammer's The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960), and was scissored by the censors of over five minutes of footage (even more in the US cut) as well as being banned in Spain by the Franco regime until 1976.  It is a film with its admirers, however (including myself) and today can be viewed pristine and restored to its growling guttural glory.

A lycanthropic legend.


  1. This looks like a pretty good film, though I am mainly left with the thought that while films don't tend to get censored and fiddled around by protests from religious groups anymore, they've been replaced by the pernicious curse of the focus group. Also 22 year old Ollie Reed was kinda hot.

  2. Ugh - the Hollywood focus group. And 'test screenings': because there's nothing like mostly finishing a work of art, then asking a random sampling of the unwashed masses how it should be finished. 'I think she needs eyebrows, Leonardo, and possibly a moustache and glasses and should be smoking a pipe.' 'Done!'

    This is a good film, though. It's one of my favourite Hammers, mainly for sentimental / mental reasons. And Ollie was great.

  3. lol. It's always depressing to hear on a commentary track what's been focus grouped in and out of a film. My prime offender is the US remake of Pulse. Focus grouping turned an appalling film into an utterly atrocious one. And it was frustrating to hear about scary bits recreated from the Japanese original that the US focus group laughed at. Ugh, hate that film.

  4. LOL, "Catholic League of Decency."