Curse of the Werewolf begins with credits rolling over the silent, anguished eyes of Oliver Reed’s grey haired werewolf, closing with a single tear running down his cheek. It is a poignant and telling introduction to the bleakest film in Hammer’s monster cycle, and perhaps the saddest lycan tale ever committed to celluloid. But the picture didn’t begin as a shape shifter tale at all. In fact, Curse’s roots are in ancient Rome.
In 1960, Hammer Film Production company was in development on The Rape of Sabena, based on a nightmarish legend set shortly after the founding of Rome in which Roman men planned to trick, kidnap and rape Sabine women during a phony festival. Hammer’s script was said to transport the brutal action to the Spanish Inquisition, and appropriately designed sets began construction at Bray Studios in Berkshire, England.
It wasn’t long before the British Board of Film Censorship caught wind of the production, and allegedly based on protest from the Catholic church, leaned on Hammer to put the brakes on Sabena. The studio quickly shifted gears, putting their next creature feature into motion. After tremendous success with their take on Universal’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy franchises, Hammer turned their attention to licensing a werewolf tale of their own, landing the rights to Guy Endore’s outrageous horror novel The Werewolf of Paris.
Werewolf of Paris tells the tale of Sergeant Bertrand Caillet, born on Christmas Eve to a young girl who had been raped by a priest. Calliet grows up troubled, obsessed with violent sexual fantasies and bizarre dreams that are actually memories of things he has done when transitioned into a wolf. He assaults a prostitute in Paris, has sex with his own mother, and murders a friend before setting out on a rampage that leaves a trail of mutilated corpses in his wake. This is all set during Franco-Prussian War.
Hammer producer Anthony Hinds was smitten with the novel, and took the screenwriting reins himself. Understanding their budgetary constraints, Hinds’ adaptation of the book left most of the globe-trotting, wartime material behind, but retained some core elements that continue threads established in Rape of Sabena. The resulting script is the story of a beggar raping a mute woman in a jail cell, resulting in a child, Leon, born on Christmas Day, who grows up struggling with violent dreams that end up being all too real as he tears through herds of goats in the countryside surrounding his village. Leon eventually grows into a man, falls in love, and is forced to come to terms with his affliction.
Hammer horror regular Terence Fisher came in to direct on the standing Sabena sets, leading a veteran cast including Clifford Evans, Yvonne Roman, Catherine Feller, Anthony Dawson and Oliver Reed as the adult Leon. Cinematographer Arthur Grant, who lensed Hammer’s Abominable Snowman several years prior, returned to Bray Studios to capture the action. Makeup maestro Roy Ashton, Hammer’s answer to Universal’s Jack Pierce, followed his work on Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, taking care of the transformations and gory details.
The resulting film is a stark black rumination on sexual violence, disease, mental illness, the vulgarity of wealth, and crisis of identity. The first third of the film is dedicated to the beggar, played by Richard Wordsworth, who is mocked and imprisoned by the wealthy and cruel Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson). While imprisoned the beggar befriends the jail keep’s daughter, merely credited as “Servant Girl” (Yvonne Romain), the only person in the subterranean holding pen with any sense of humanity. When the servant girl denies the advances of the Marques, she is thrown in the beggar’s cell, where he rapes her and then dies. She eventually murders the Marques and escapes, finding refuge with Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans) and his housekeeper Teresa (Hira Talfrey), who watch after her and help deliver her son, Leon, after which the servant girl dies.
Next we shift to Teresa and Alfredo raising Leon as the young boy is plagued with bad dreams and develops a taste for flesh and a thirst for blood, mowing through the aforementioned herds of goats as he struggles with his newly acquired appetite for the unusual. From there we are introduced to the adult Leon (Reed), a morose man who has spent confused decades managing his proclivities. He meets and falls in love with Cristina (Catherine Feller). Leon falls into depression after realizing his goal of marrying his belle may be doomed, and heads to a brothel with his pal where he transforms into a wolf and commits two murders. He is imprisoned, where he once again transitions into a wolf and escapes, killing several more people before being chased into the bell tower of a church where he is shot and killed with a silver bullet.
Like Universal’s Wolf Man, Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf tweaks werewolf mythology. Where Curt Siodmak’s Universal script made transmission of lycanthropy essentially vampiric, happening with a bite, Hinds made the exchange of the unwanted curse essentially a disease passed through intercourse and genetics. While it is unclear if the beggar girl ever suffered any kind of penchant for hirsute hellraising, her son carries forth the cocktail of tainted blood from his father. The tragedy in Universal’s Wolf Man lies in the fact that Talbot was turned into something horrible he had no control over, wanted out of his own body, and away from the curse that made him do horrible things. The horror in Hammer’s take on the tale is multi-pronged and all too human.
From the start, victims are made of those without means. Disgusting inhumanity is forced upon first the beggar by the wealthy lords, who make him dance for scraps of food and wine. Then upon the servant girl who Is preyed upon by the Marques and sexually assaulted by the beggar. Then upon Leon who is born into a world of horrible consequence, horrible men, and most importantly of all, a horrible disease transfused into him by his dying mother and rapist father. These characters exist purely in darkness and loss, never gaining any kind of footing on happiness or joy, always having to fight back against themselves and the things forced on them.
Reed’s Leon shares the plight to die with Chaney’s Talbot, but unlike Talbot’s travels, full of people trying to help exorcize his affliction, Leon’s anguish is met with disregard. He is born into helpless sickness, isolated in his suffering all his life, through to the end where he is only, finally, brought relief via a bullet lodged in his body. Leon’s ultimate reveal—that the love of Cristina can quell the beast from emerging—arrives at the 11th hour, too late for him to fully explore. The picture is tragedy from front to back, full of absolute lack of self-control, evolution, celebration, and relief. It is truly a challenging story to watch and consider, and easily the most heartbreaking of all iterations of the werewolf in classic horror cinema.
Curse was release on May 1, 1961, in the United Kingdom, then just over a month later in the United States. It would be Hammer’s only foray into the world of the werewolf, suffering from reviews and audience complaints about pacing and the fact that the werewolf so prominent in advertising only appears in the last ten minutes of the movie. Time has been kinder to the picture, now regarded as perhaps Hammer’s penultimate monster outing, with particular reverence emerging for Roy Ashton’s wolf makeup, and Reed’s turn as the long-suffering Leon.