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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

‘The Curse of the Werewolf’ is One of Hammer’s Most Delicate and Emotionally Reflective Films [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect The Curse of the Werewolf.

The Context

By the early 1960’s Hammer had reached its golden age. The studio had succeeded in branding themselves as the new face of horror, taking the reins from the Classic Universal slate of monsters and carrying those figures into shocking new territory. They had tackled Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and now it was time to put their stamp on the Wolfman.

At the same time, the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) was becoming progressively more disgruntled with Hammer’s output. In addition, recent releases of films like Psycho (1960), Circus of Horrors (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) had led to a great deal of backlash by the general press aimed at the BBFC’s lack of sensory action. New leadership was instituted at the BBFC and the board adopted an even stricter and more severe point of view than it had previously held. They needed to set an example and Hammer Studios was poised to be just that.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) was developed by writer and producer Anthony Hinds, who based the screenplay on Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, which was accessible due to a newly struck deal with Universal Studios. The script was submitted to the BBFC along with a Spanish Inquisition project titled The Rape of Sabena. The BBFC made it clear to Hinds in no uncertain terms that both films would be banned from exhibition in Britain if they were produced as written. Add to this the fact that the Catholic Church had outright forbade Hammer from making and distributing Sabena and it wasn’t long before both films were pulled from production.

Still, elaborate sets had already been constructed for Sabena and Hinds was unwilling to let them go to waste. The Curse of the Werewolf was retooled, transplanted from Paris to Spain and rewritten to reflect character names and situations that would suit the locations. Veteran Hammer director Terence Fisher was brought onboard, who in turn instated Oliver Reed in what would be the actor’s first lead performance in a major motion picture. Indeed, with the man who guided Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy for the studio at the helm, the werewolf was all set to receive its Hammer redux.

When the finished film was submitted to the BBFC for review, the cut was shredded. Hammer had completely ignored the board’s warnings and, as such, received word that nearly every piece of violence, every shot of blood and even the bulk of the scenes featuring the werewolf in the final act would have to be removed. Irreparably damaging the narrative and crippling the film’s commercial prospects, the studio was forced to release a neutered cut to what would end up being disappointing box office results and middling reviews.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that The Curse of the Werewolf was restored and released to the public as it was meant to be seen some 30 years prior. The film was reevaluated and many soon viewed it as one of Hammer’s best, most handsome efforts. While the film did little to slow Hammer at the time, its performance certainly quelled any hope of a follow up, making the werewolf one of Hammer’s only Universal monster iterations to receive just a single picture.

Today the film stands in Hammer’s filmography as a beautifully photographed, nuanced take on the duality of man as seen through the lens of the werewolf mythos. It served as a launching pad for Oliver Reed’s formidable career, it featured one of frequent Hammer effects artists Roy Ashton’s finest designs and carried a stunning, experimental score by Benjamin Frankel. Altogether, the film is a grand example of the artistry thriving in Hammer’s productions at the time.

Regardless of box office or franchise potential, The Curse of the Werewolf holds its own with any of Hammer’s other iconic properties. More than that, it serves as evidence that censorship is often short-sighted and temporary, willed out in the end by the inquiring minds of the audience such bowdlerizations are in place to supposedly protect.

The Film

“A werewolf is a body with a soul and a spirit that are constantly at war.”

Out of the darkness a pair of eyes swim into focus. Brown and bloodshot, they hang below a ridged brow and just above a nose lined with wiry hairs. While animalistic in nature, they reflect a forlorn quality that is undeniably human. Indeed, as the opening titles grace the screen, accompanied by a disarming score which seems to defy the scale itself, a tear forms and falls down the thing’s coarse cheek. These are eyes evoking not fear, but sadness.

This initial glimpse at the film’s title draw serves an important function, establishing the painful dichotomy between man and beast well before the story has even begun forging its path. Somber and introspective, The Curse of the Werewolf charts its fairytale-like course with thoughtful visualization, crafting an experience that seems far less interested in terror than it is in emotional effectiveness.

Director Terence Fisher shepherds the film with a steady hand, an impressive task given the breadth and scope of the narrative. Elegant and provocative photography aside, each act of the story offers its own set of compelling, well-drawn characters, amounting to an ensemble piece rather than a star-focused vehicle like so many of his other classic horror adaptations. This detour from the structure of films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) allows The Curse of the Werewolf to have its own distinct flavor and personality even amongst the titans of Hammer’s extensive reservoir.

The film opens with a wandering beggar, played with just the right amount of naiveté by Richard Wordsworth, accompanied by an omniscient narrator as he navigates the strangely empty streets of a township he’s passing through. The beggar’s journey along with the alluding voice-over recitation has the effect of casting the classical haze of some well-worn fable over the proceedings. Although, given the tone already set by the opening titles, it is without question that this will be a story of fatalism and tragedy. As the title suggests: cursed.

Before long the beggar finds himself at the foot of the dinner table of the cruel and despicable Marqués Siniestro as he celebrates his wedding day with the upper crust of society. Portrayed by frequent Terence Fisher collaborator Anthony Dawson, the Marqués’ flippant disregard for humanity and irrational emotional swings make his handful of minutes onscreen immensely entertaining and memorable.

After making what the Marqués determines to be a brash remark toward his new wife, the beggar is thrown in the dungeon and forgotten. Years pass and the beggar ages into a monstrous, mindless shell of a person, his only friend the mute daughter of his jailer. Portrayed by Yvonne Romain in a nuanced and harrowing performance, she soon joins the beggar in the dungeon after rebuking the aging Marqués’ advances.

It is here that the film begins to comment on the interconnected nature of man and animal, well before a werewolf enters into the fray. Over the years, the reclusive Marqués has changed to look like a rotting corpse, a ghoulish devil driven by lust and power. The beggar too has transformed into a filthy, hairy brute, something interested only in fulfilling its most innate, carnal desires.

Caught between the two, Yvonne Romain’s mute beggar girl is treated like nothing more than flesh for consumption. In a disturbing turn, taken from Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris (1933) from which the film was based, the girl is assaulted and raped by the beggar. This sparks her conviction to murder the Marqués and escape the confines of the castle.

The film then begins to take the shape of what its title promises, ensuring that its titular curse is fully fleshed out before the full moon ever comes into play. The servant girl finds refuge with Don Alfredo Corledo and his housekeeper Teresa, affectionately played by Clifford Evans and Hira Talfrey respectively. The familial care they offer stands in striking contrast to the barbarism of the poor woman’s tragic past.

This care extends to her illegitimate child as well, as Don Alfredo and Teresa nurse the mute woman throughout her pregnancy. The baby arrives on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Day, an occurrence the midwife attempts to obviate by way of herbs and pagan wards due to the belief that an unwanted child born at the hour of the lord’s birth is an affront to God. While Don Alfredo laughs off such a notion, there’s undeniable uncertainty in his eyes when he hears the baby’s wolf-like cries alongside the chiming bells ushering in Christmas Day.

However, love wills out. The baby is born and embraced by those that helped it arrive: the midwife, Teresa, Don Alfredo and, for a moment, his grinning mother. Her smile and his life is all she is able to afford the child, however, as the light leaves her eyes seconds later. The baby belongs to Don Alfredo and Teresa, caretakers willing to overlook the circumstances, the bad omens and even the boiling Holy water at the boy’s baptism in the stead of their proclaimed son’s best interests.

While the story takes its time getting to the meat and potatoes of its conceit, the purposeful, measured approach is one of the film’s greatest assets. As the young boy matures and goats begin to be devoured in the night, there’s a sense of mysticism and inevitability which accompanies the horrific proceedings. Culture, faith and conviction play an important role in the werewolf’s curse— this is not simply a boy struck with some ailment, this is the culmination of a society’s dark past. This is humanity reaping the evil it has wrought.

It is approximately halfway through the picture that the young boy grows up and the film introduces its protagonist in the way of Oliver Reed’s Leon Corledo. Quiet, reserved and wearing a look of perpetual observation, Oliver Reed carries out his first lead feature performance with an impressive degree of gravitas and care. His ability to navigate the murky waters of his progressive loss of self mixed with his burgeoning wanton desires is what lies at the heart and soul of the film.

The philosophical examination of love, lust, power and violence that runs through the pages of Anthony Hinds’ script comes to life in the form of Leon’s relationship with Cristina (Catherine Feller). While love quells his blaspheming, lust ignites it. There’s confusion buried within the wavering rules that seem to dictate Leon’s transformations, much as there is in the moral bindings of the world around him. After all, Leon himself was born of lust and love. Violence sparked his existence but care nurtured him into the world. His curse, it seems, is to be beholden to both. The good and the evil.

Terence Fisher does a fantastic job of balancing the film’s thematic struggle between light and shadow, both figuratively and literally. He carries Oliver Reed’s character in and out of long, dimly lit stone rooms and out from underneath the dark shade cast by sloping roofs in the night in tandem with his character’s wavering mental state. He leverages the impressive sets and full color pallet in every frame, crafting visuals that serve the nuances of the story just as much as anything in the script.

When the werewolf finally does make an appearance in the last act, it’s Roy Ashton’s effects work that takes center stage. Having spent a great deal of time studying the physiology of wolves, Ashton brought his own unique sense of imagination to the design, crafting something monstrous and raw carefully stitched with humanity’s fragile thread.

The film climaxes with the werewolf facing off against an archetypal mob of townsfolk clamoring after thoughtless vengeance. But it’s not the chase, the violence or the action that provides the film with a satisfying ending. Rather, it’s the care with which it follows Leon’s adopted father’s sorrowful trek toward his son as he carries the silver bullet that only he can fire. After all, as the film and most fairy-tales suggest, only love can save the cursed.

The Curse of the Werewolf is a different kind of werewolf movie, less about transformation sequences and howling at the moon and more about the internal struggle of the afflicted mental state. While it stood accused at the time of its release of showcasing gratuity and offensive violence, the film emerges decades later as one of Hammer’s most delicate and emotionally reflective works.

Brilliantly directed, wonderfully performed and boasting a surprisingly impassioned narrative from start to finish, this is a film that leverages the idea of a monster to deal in humanity. After all, the film opens and closes on a tear, gracing the cheek of something that, while not entirely human, is deeply relatable all the same.

The Special Features

This release comes equipped with a new 4K scan from the interpositive from Shout! in a big step up from Universal’s 2016 transfer. Detail is incredibly fine, allowing for elegant costume textures and elaborate effects work to leap off the screen as well as maintaining the gradations between light and shadow throughout. The DTS-HD Master Mono track is in line with previous Hammer releases, supporting dialogue well while still carrying the powerful score to the forefront, crafting what is easily the best home presentation this film has yet received.

Audio Commentary, by Author/Film Historian Steve Haberman and Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr


In yet another wonderful Hammer-centric commentary track, Scream Factory regulars Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr share their thoughtful insight on the production, thematics and creative logistics of The Curse of the Werewolf.

Describing the film as Terence Fisher’s generational saga of transferred evil, the two touch on Fisher’s visual choices, the complicated history of the production and provide an in depth analysis of how the film compares to the original novel that it’s based on, 1933’s The Werewolf of Paris written by Guy Endore.

Both Haberman and Nasr exude a great deal of love and admiration for the film and its legacy, ensuring that director Terence Fisher’s deeply personal connection to the picture is at the forefront of the conversation. Also of note is the way in which they continuously reference direct passages from Anthony Hinds’ script, allowing the listener to see how the page came alive on the screen through Terence Fisher’s exquisite visual prowess.

Ultimately this is a track laced with a great deal of care and respect for one of Hammer’s finest productions. Once again, Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr deliver an essential listen for Hammer fans, providing anecdotes, observations and a sense of history that serves to amplify and strengthen one’s appreciation for the film.

Audio Commentary, by Actress Yvonne Romain, Special Effects Artist Mike Hill and Composer Leslie Bricusse


Special effects artist Mike Hill chats with actress Yvonne Romain (with her husband Leslie Bricusse quietly in tow) about her experience making The Curse of the Werewolf on this conversational commentary track.

The bulk of the recording concerns Mike Hill prompting Yvonne Romain with questions and talking points, generating discussion on her relationships with Hammer studios and their players. The conversation traverses her career with rosy eyes and infectious nostalgia, carried by Yvonne Romain’s enduring charisma.

The track is marred with thoughtful pauses and based more in reminiscence than informative review, conveying much of what is already present in the special features Ms. Romain appears in elsewhere on the disc. Die hard fans of the film will probably appreciate the actress’ musings but, all in all, this is one the general audience can skip.

The Men Who Made Hammer: Roy Ashton (19:12)

(New: 2020, produced by Shout Factory)

Richard Klemensen, Editor and Publisher for Little Shoppe of Horrors Magazine, talks at length about his lifelong friendship with Hammer Effects Artist Roy Ashton, providing an intimate look into who Ashton was as a person, not just an artist. Klemensen describes how Ashton had a hand in most all of Hammer’s most famous monsters, making note that The Curse of the Werewolf was his opus, and discusses the artist’s frustration regarding budget constraints and management issues. Klemensen expresses great love and affection for Ashton, regaling the viewer with tales of rainy Stonehenge sightseeing, attending Hammer’s first fan convention with Ashton and, with a great deal of emotion, Ashton’s struggle with dementia along with his eventual death. The segment is a beautiful tribute to a great artist and one very much worth taking the time to experience.

Serial Killer: Benjamin Frankel, Serialism and The Curse of the Werewolf (21:52)

(New: 2020, produced by Shout Factory)

David Huckvale, author of Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-Garde, provides a brief history of prolific film composer Benjamin Frankel as well as a lesson in serialism and musical theory. Claiming outright that of his more than 100 film scores, The Curse of the Werewolf was his most important, Huckvale plays his notes on the piano to demonstrate how Frankel leveraged the film to bring serialism to Britain and presaged the great down of tonality. He shows the viewer how serialism challenges the idea of major and minor keys, rearranging the chromatic scale to create tone rows that have no reference to tonal shapes. The feature is a little dry but incredibly informative and completely recontextualizes the musical footprint of the film.

The Making of The Curse of the Werewolf (46:11)

(2015, Final Cut Entertainment)

Featuring film historian and effects artist Mike Hill, Actress Catherine Feller, Actress Yvonne Romain and more, this making of documentary is ported over from the 2015 UK blu-ray release of the film.

While the feature covers the film’s transformation from book to screen, the censorship issues and the history behind its repurposed Spanish sets, it’s the anecdotes offered up by the actresses that make this worth tuning in to. Between Catherine Feller’s confession that her husband shows the movie at parties to impress his guests and Yvonne Romain’s confusion about being the advertised victim of the film despite never interacting with the werewolf, there’s a great deal to be entertained by.

The conversation eventually turns to Oliver Reed. His performance, his career and his personal life get a quick, interesting examination, ultimately leading to discussion of everyone’s fondness for Terence Fisher and his belief in the young, at that point, unproven actor. It falls a bit into plot-recap territory here and there and may not fully justify its runtime, but the interviewees offer enough wit and charm to the proceedings to make this worth viewing.

Lycanthropy: The Beast in All of Us (3:28)

(2015, Final Cut Entertainment)

An incredibly short segment analyzing the differences between a lycanthrope and a werewolf featuring the same players from the The Making of the Curse of the Werewolf. While a fun little curio positing that werewolves derive from the real life manic depressive condition known as lycanthropy, this ultimately feels like loose end edits strung together in an effort to flesh out the special feature list.

Censoring the Werewolf (13:48)

(2015, Final Cut Entertainment)

Jonathan Rigby, author of English Gothic, provides an in depth analysis of what was happening in the British film industry surrounding the production of The Curse of the Werewolf and why it was the studio experienced so much outrage from the board of censors. He talks about the warnings that were issued to Hammer Studios and how the film was viewed as an affront to the commission after it was completed. He expands on the edits that Hammer was forced to execute and the detrimental cost of those cuts to the finished film, charting the course to its eventual restoration and reevaluation in 1992. A very interesting look at censorship and art in early 60s Great Britain.

Trailers From Hell: The Curse of the Werewolf (2:37)

(2014, Trailers From Hell)

Ported from the website Trailers From Hell, John Landis hosts the theatrical trailer for The Curse of the Werewolf. Introducing himself as Terence Fisher, Landis comments that Werewolf is Hammer’s best looking film, notes that the full moon is never in close up and compliments Oliver Reed in his werewolf makeup. It’s funny, particularly a bit about how much werewolves simply love to hurl flaming bails of hay at people, and encourages the uninitiated to seek out the film.

Theatrical Trailer (1:51)

The title flies at the screen in green font. Shots of the church and the Spanish town usher in the narrator’s claims that “the night brought drinking and dancing and girls and the moon… the full moon… that turned an innocent man into a savage beast!”

The remainder of the trailer is dedicated to images of the werewolf from the climax of the film, revealing most every moment that the monster appears on screen. With promises that “THEIR DREAM OF LOVE” will become “A NIGHTMARE OF HORROR”, the trailer seems to indicate a far more action oriented picture than what Terence Fisher would go on to deliver.

Radio Spot (0:28)

A quick, static-encrusted radio commercial for the film, boasting “double thrill, double chill” and “Evil beast kill, kill, kill”. Advertising The Curse of the Werewolf’s double bill with The Shadow of the Cat, the commercial begs you not to miss the twin terrifying hits as a wolf howls ominously in the background. A delightfully charming throwback to a different era of movie-making.

Still Gallery (3:30)

A compilation of on-set photos, promotional postcards, close up makeup shots, glamour shots and cast headshots. Even promotional door-hangers warning you to “Watch out!” can be found here, alongside concept art for posters and advertisements from all over the world. A great way to get a sense of the people and the process that went into making the film’s cultural footprint.

Final Thoughts

The Curse of the Werewolf came at a time when Hammer was at the height of its creative accomplishments, towering over the horror genre as the new resident voice of the generation. With Hammer’s most prolific director at the helm, some of the most elaborate sets they had ever created and a screenplay by their most accomplished screenwriter, The Curse of the Werewolf was poised to succeed at the level of The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula.

What the studio hadn’t counted on was the British Board of Film Classification’s dedication to making an example of Hammer and, in particular, this film. The Curse of the Werewolf was unceremoniously sterilized, tarnishing director Terence Fisher’s most personal work regarding the struggle between good and evil and condemning it to misunderstanding.

Still, Terence Fisher crafted an intimate, carefully paced rumination on the nature of man. Oliver Reed brought the internal struggle between the purity of good and the carnality of evil to soulful life, allowing his third act transformation to carry the kind of weight befitting Roy Ashton’s astounding make-up effects. Lavishly visualized and stirringly performed, The Curse of the Werewolf ranks with the absolute best Hammer’s canon has to offer.

Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition restores the film to its original glory, presenting pristine picture quality and sound that no doubt would have made Terence Fisher proud. The supplements are plentiful and span previous releases, collecting anecdotes and insight from the film’s surviving creatives as well as respected film historians alike. Whether a lifelong fan of the film or ready to experience it for the first time, there is no better way than with this release.

The Curse of the Werewolf may not be a sweeping example of Hammer’s success but it is a testament to their enduring legacy. Employing all of the studio’s key players in their most successful period of creative output, the film is amongst their best made efforts. It’s because of the long term respect and admiration that the studio has cultivated in its fans that they found their way back to the film in the early 90s upon its restoration.

While there is no Hammer Werewolf franchise to speak of, The Curse of the Werewolf holds just as much weight and importance as those films that do have multiple outings. The film stands as proof that the artists behind the work had vision and purpose, a creative drive that reached beyond the exploitative personas of which they were accused and assigned. While the BBFC may have succeeded in making their example of Hammer in 1961, more than half a century later it’s the restored film’s enduring legacy and influence that has made an example of the sort of censorship and short-sightedness such ratings boards so often callously employ.


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