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Groovy Werewolves: British and American Lycanthropes of the Swinging Sixties

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

British werewolf films during the sixties came in a trio, two of them being fun anthology outings and one being the sole lycanthropic venture from the world renowned Hammer Studios – the magnificent The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).

Opening like a fairy tale complete with a voice over narration from one of the central characters (Don Alfredo Corledo as played by Clifford Evans), The Curse of the Werewolf is a grand, operatic, lavish and visually sumptuous offering from Hammer Studios (distributed by Universal International). It is also incredibly dark, and a proud host to provocative subject matter and themes such as rape and blasphemy. With the exquisitely plotted opening, we come to meet a “poor and ignorant” beggar (Richard Wordsworth) who travels into a small Spanish provincial town looking for shelter, food and drink. This nomadic unfortunate is presented as an opportunistic wandering fool and after he is informed by locals at an inn that the Marques has a wedding banquet in procession, he crashes the party (a wonderful take on the outcast entering the domain of the wealthy and aristocratic) in hope of some charity.

The Marques (Anthony Dawson) is of course cruel and malicious and forces the beggar to “perform” for the wedding party. “He’s a man, not an animal,” explains the concerned young Marquesa (Josephine Llewelyn), a sympathetic and caring girl from the village, which causes her sadistic betrothed to ask, “Do you want him my dear? As a pet?” Here, the film instantly presents non-lycanthropic characters as animalistic and bestial, such as the beggar who chows down on a meaty bone much like a dog and is forced to perform tricks for the Marques in order to get wine and eventually food, while later a mute servant woman played by the stunning Yvonne Romaine (who will eventually birth the legitimate werewolf of the piece) is likened to the bestial when the narrator/Don Alfredo proclaims “she lived like an animal” in regards to her running into the woods after escaping the aged and even more nasty Marques.

If The Howling sets up its protagonist as a vulnerable young woman entering the world of werewolves, Curse of the Werewolf delivers the lycanthropy later and as a result of human horrors. A terrifying encounter with Eddie Quist sets Karen White into a dramatic turning point, which gradually preys on her psyche and gives her a hellish emotional ride, while for the poor mute girl, her experience is the catalyst for the monster show to follow. Unlike Karen, the mute girl is a pawn, it is not her story, but it is most certainly her incident that plants the seed of supernatural horror.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

The Curse of the Werewolf is peppered with some wonderfully grotesque imagery such as the decrepit Marques picking scabs off his face, the rape of the mute girl who ends up with gash wounds splayed across her ample bosom, and her vengeful slaying of the Marques which is satisfying and extremely gruesome and bloody. The most shocking element in regards to the rape scene is that it is the beggar who commits the abominable crime against the poor mute woman. He appears like a lecherous beast during this sequence, hungry for sex lustful and monstrous and the most confronting aspect of this situation at hand is that he was the girl’s “friend” while she was a young child, and that he was someone that she trusted. It is unclear if she killed the beggar after he rapes her, but when she flees for her life, the film positions it’s concerns with the repercussions of her rape – that is, that she is now pregnant and that this unborn child will suffer a horrific fate. Rape and rape culture permeate the opening moments of The Howling and this is a clear similar thematic element here in this British post-golden age offering. Here however, rape is somehow linked to ravenous appetite, while in Joe Dante’s film, rape (the attempted rape of Karen, the staged gang rape in the porno film etc) is a seedy undercurrent of a society lost to “all that neon”.

Coming into contact with scholar and scientist Don Alfredo and his maid, a superstitious village woman named Teresa (Hila Telfrey), the mute woman is looked after and given refuge. Teresa’s sympathy (“You poor lonely little thing”) parallels her paranoia about the unborn child, and her “old world” beliefs clash against Don Alfredo’s scientific reasoning. When the mute woman dies after giving birth, we come to learn that the child was born on Christmas Day, which (as we understand from Teresa) is an insult to God, even more so seeing that the baby is unwanted and illegitimate. Teresa’s gypsy friend conducts rituals to bless the child, while a howling wolf is heard in the distance, bleeding into the newborn’s first cry, startling a skeptical Don Alfredo. Teresa is a true believer, unlike Dick Miller’s Walter Paisley in The Howling who makes a buck out of Teresa’s “kind”.

The werewolf folklore about births on Christmas Day dates back to centuries ago, and is the core cause in The Curse of the Werewolf (it is clearly the titular “curse”) whereas in The Howling, origins of lycanthropy are never examined, instead the film presents such monsters as regular, like “cockroaches” which is what Walter Paisley likens them to. There is also nothing overtly religious in their existence, that is to say, nothing demonic – as Karen White explains on air, “they are neither people nor animals, but monstrous mutations”. In The Curse of the Werewolf, European Christianity is integral in the plot. During the baptism of little baby Leon, the holy water aggressively ripples and exposes a gargoyle’s menacing head that sits and watches from above – the film slightly settles into a Satanic-themed film with a priest later discussing exorcism and possession.

Child werewolves do not feature as much as juvenile vampires in film, but when they do appear it’s usually in terms of establishing themselves as a threat to the “good” community. Little Leon as played by Justin Walters from The Curse of the Werewolf is a sweet little boy with cherubic cheeks and a thick non-distinct accent. When he recounts the story of drinking the blood of a squirrel and then dreamily mutters “I dream I’m wolf, like in a picture book, I dream I’m wolf drinking blood…” it is eerie and made all the more terrifying as it is a child; conflicted by what seems natural and satisfying to what it supposed to be evil and unholy. A young Eddie Quist could have very much been similar to young Leon here, but The Howling doesn’t let it’s werewolves discuss their childhoods, but it does delve into the conflict both emotional and psychological. Leon’s monologue and subsequent image of him clutching at the metal bars that are used to trap him, with his fangs bared and his eyes wild with fury as the light of the full moon spills into his bedroom encompass the notion that a sensitive boy has been driven to bestial desire, and as the film uses birth from rape and on Christmas Day as a monstrous affliction, then we feel no hope for this tragic child/werewolf.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Dr. Waggner in The Howling tells his lycan-patients that the dangers of repression may lead to neurosis and self-hate, while in The Curse of the Werewolf, we learn that whatever weakens the human soul (anger, jealousy et al) will bring about the spirit of the wolf, therefore an adult Leon, played by the magnetic and handsome Oliver Reed, must deter from a life made up of temptation and excess. His saving grace will be the young maiden that he falls in love with named Christina (Catherine Feller), who can unleash the compassionate side to Leon – as a reclusive, introspective young man. Hard working, dutiful and pensive, Leon is a perfect candidate for the Colony in that he is someone that doesn’t come across as depressed or anguished such as Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, but is most certainly someone that could learn to channel his lycanthropy. Christina (Christ-savior) can only do so much, and the wolf spirit is far too strong in the repressed Leon.

When the film decides to bring it’s monster to the foreground and have him feature as the protagonist, the filtered vision of what this young werewolf will experience is set in stone as we get the journey seen through his eyes. Oliver Reed is remarkably enigmatic to watch. His alluring features, big and broad stature and palpable sex appeal is rich and appealing, and when he throws himself into moments of sheer torment wrestling with duality and desperate to resist transformation, it is exciting to watch. The passionate romance that unfolds is very easy to be swept up in and director Terence Fisher (Belinda Balaski’s character Terry Fisher in The Howling of course named after him) manages to get incredibly believable performances from Reed and Feller, who quite honestly fall in love at first sight (a spectacle that is so necessary in the terrain of escapist cinema such as horror, musicals and westerns), and Fisher’s direction is in dedicated service to the film’s very structured and extremely formal process.

The movie plays out in steady and masterfully crafted scenarios and remains tight and intriguing all at the same time. A perfect example of Fisher’s eye to detailing torment is a scene where hedonistic happenings at a tavern results in Leon feeling both the effects of drinking and women and likening it to the effects of the full moon. When approached by a promiscuous and sexually confident woman, Leon sees it as an opportunity to service his blood lust as a werewolf. Oliver Reed’s complex performance – his outrage, his angst, his distress – is powerful, and his physical prowess while in full blown werewolf-mode is a delight for all monster movie fans. The make-up design is excellent, giving this werewolf a brawny, hulking look – menacing and thuggish, played with major physicality and intensity and unique in it’s aesthete with the grey fur, the under bite and the bare chest poking through a dishevelled peasant work shirt.

The other two British werewolf ventures from the sixties were anthology movies – Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and it’s lesser follow up Dr. Terror’s Gallery of Horrors (1967). The former featured Peter Cushing and was directed by Freddie Francis who would both go on and team up once again for the much better Legend of the Werewolf (1975). However, here in this entertaining story-by-story outing, the lycanthropy is an added ingredient to one of the more subtle and slow moving tales told by a psychic to a group of people on a train. The piece is moody and grim and toys with family curses and class resentment, but most importantly it is played straight, however it is the most laboured of the stories and most uneventful. The best being a piece starring Christopher Lee who is haunted by a severed hand, which would be the seed of Oliver Stone’s The Hand (1980) starring Michael Caine.

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Back in America, comical and benign werewolves dominated the scene with one of the most popular being the child lycanthrope Eddie Munster from the hit TV sitcom The Munsters (1964-1965). Born from a vampire mother Lily (Yvonne DeCarlo) and a Frankenstein monster father Herman (Fred Gwynne), this little tyke as played by the wonderful Butch Patrick, is a feisty, spunky little ankle biter with a penchant for howling at the moon, “biting his nails”, hanging out with his pet dragon Spot and hugging his beloved toy Woof Woof (a werewolf in a dressing gown and pyjamas that the adorable little wolf boy sleeps with in a bureau drawer). Eddie Munster’s design would become iconic with his prominent widow’s peak, his bushy eyebrows, his little pearly white fangs and pointed ears. His outfit, modelled on the Little Boy Fauntleroy pilgrim-era costuming, would also become a pop-cultural staple and his spritely, energetic all-American boy antics would counter with his wolfish heritage.

Some memorable episodes of The Munsters featured Eddie growing a beard, befriending a chimp, running away from home, meeting a little girl who likes insects and eventually having a crush on her and playing baseball with his pop coaching. In the Techincolor film (which showcased the greasepaint tones of this monstrous family outside the confides of the black and white tube) Munster, Go Home! (1966), Eddie and his devoted family head out to England to chase after an inheritance and are subject to ridicule and systematically and one by one made to feel unwelcome. Local British boys throw tomatoes at poor Eddie which sends Lily, his dedicated mother, into a rage. The film prescribes to the idea of Americans being down to earth and good natured, while their English cousins are pompous and arrogant – this cultural difference is made the more confronting when the outsiders are visible monsters and yet presented as the most loving, functional and dedicated.

Even the seemingly “normal” Marilyn Munster is a misfit amongst misfits and this is something that a television series like The Munsters (and it’s counterpart The Addams Family (1964-1965)) embraces wholeheartedly and cherishes. Co-starring John Carradine (Erle from The Howling) and boasting some spectacular set pieces such as a drag car race and Lily and Grandpa Munster on horseback, the film is a fun rollicking triumph and little Eddie with his carefree nature and unconditional love for his mom, pop, cousin Marilyn and Grandpa is enlightening, beautiful and heart warming. His first name shares semblance with the rapist/serial killer werewolf in Joe Dante’s The Howling, however the connection is purely coincidental, as there is no arcane joke here.

Munster, Go Home! (1966)

In the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated rock’n’roll musical gem Mad Monster Party? (1967), the werewolf is a feisty, playful critter who runs about more like a domestic dog than a threatening cretin. He is dressed in beatnik attire and comes across very similar to the werewolf on the cartoon television series The Groovy Ghoulies (1970-1971) which featured a jive talking surf-slacker type bohemian werewolf who partied and played garage rock’n’roll with his monster friends. Mad Monster Party? is a triumph of animation and style, and with Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller lending their distinct imitable voices to some of the characters, the film has a very slick, sophisticated pallet, loaded with terrific songs and a tremendous amount of affection for the “monster kid”. This incredibly fun picture features in The Howling during one of the KDHB news station sequences – it plays on one of the many monitors that sit up above Freddie Francis’s overly stressed head.

In The Maltese Bippy (1969), comedy meets horror head on in a bizarre tale of theft, extortion and a family of werewolves that torment our protagonists played by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin who created the popular comedy sketch show Laugh-In (1968-1973). In this lively and sometimes funny feature, lycanthropy is used as a red herring and the butt of many jokes pertaining to howling at the moon, biting, chasing cars and so forth. However, there is an entertaining dream sequence where our put upon lead who truly believes he is a werewolf, races through Los Angeles on a motorcycle in full wolf man get up. The film is a pastiche of silly set ups, hijinks and double entendre however it falls flat on it’s head because it is ridiculously wordy and completely confused. One stand out feature is the casting of Julie Newmar, who uses her elegant dance trained body to own each scene she is in. The film, quite frankly, could use more of her, and not only showcase her breathy sensuality but her natural talent for comedy.

Newmar would of course be forever known as the slinky, princess of plunder Catwoman on the 1960s series of Batman, so the actress is most certainly not a stranger to playing bestial women, and here as a supposed ageless royal werewolf, she takes on animalism with sultry perfection. It is interesting to note that both Julie Newmar and actress Michelle Pfieffer would both play cat women and werewolves (Pfieffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992) and then as a werewolf in the final moments of director Mike Nichols’s cerebral lycan-outing Wolf from 1994). The Maltese Bippy refers to contemporary horror movies of the time such as Rosemary’s Baby which is something that The Howling tributes without ever mentioning – and although The Howling features characters watching the likes of The Wolf Man, it treats film culture as an integral function to plot, whereas in The Maltese Bippy, a shout out to Polanski’s masterpiece is almost throwaway, simply for the fashionable gag’s sake. Unfortunately, The Maltese Bippy refuses to let itself go into horror terrain to match the intricate (and almost always messy) comedy, instead it presents an interesting set piece like a cemetery being the locale for some bloodletting and then shifts into talk about werewolves and people having their throats torn out, but it doesn’t explore these monstrosities the way it really should. If The Howling uses comedy as a background function to quietly relieve the high drama while intelligently never getting in the way of Karen White’s plight and the unequalled presentation of werewolves as horrific monsters, then The Maltese Bippy with it’s half-baked sequences where Julie Newmar and her fellow werewolves insist the reluctant imagined werewolf eat blood and guts, loses the entire point.

Thankfully, during the sixties, not all American werewolf movies were treated with heavy doses of comedy or sanctity. Devil Wolf of Shadow Mountain (1964) was a western with a  werewolf plot wedged inside and carries itself proudly as a straight horror film. Starring genre giant John “Bud” Cardos, the film tells the story of two brothers in the wild west who live as though they are America’s response to Romulus and Remus. In this stoic and sturdy tale, one brother drinks from the ground not knowing that the water has actually come from a paw print of a wolf (another legendary way of transforming into a werewolf). When lycanthropy does eventually catch up on him, he lashes out and terrorizes his county, forcing his brother (the more refined and considerate of the two) to fire a silver bullet into his chest. Much like Chris Halloran having to shoot down werewolf Karen White in The Howling in front of viewers who eagerly watch their television sets in the living rooms, this western/monster movie hybrid brings the sadness and tragedy home. 1962’s Beauty and the Beast was a semi-werewolf tale (as much as the classic fairy tale can be looked upon as such) and here in this lavish and rich romance, make-up artist Jack Pierce of The Wolf Man fame gets to exhibit one of his last creations – a wolf-like transformation for a young duke cursed by a corrupt and conniving alchemist who had also murdered his father. Seldom seen, but boasting some terrific spectacles such as rousing epic fights and a rich tapestry made up of musical extravagance, monstrous detailing and romantic flourishes, the film subtly suggests provocative sexuality but in no way hits the realm of Marsha Quist at the campfire in The Howling. The sexuality of werewolves would become a pivotal narrative tool and character driven force at the dawn of the seventies, with many of the films dealing with lycanthropy treading the thematic notion of wolf as sexual being and free from the trappings of human oppression.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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