The Curse of the Werewolf, from 1961, is the tragic tale of a beggar who is imprisoned by a cruel marquis. Then it is the tragic tale of a mute servant girl. Then it is the tragic tale of a young boy who grows up in a rich household with the loving attention of a pair of surrogate parents. Then it is the tragic tale of a young man attempting to make his own way in the world, who falls in love with a woman he cannot have. Then, finally, it is the tragic tale of a man cursed with lycanthropy. I have seen some films with long setups, many of them this month, but the setup in this film is so long and rambling compared to the promise of the title that I was wondering at times if I was watching the wrong movie.
Directed by Terence Fisher and written by Anthony Hinds, The Curse of the Werewolf opens, as I wrote above, with an itinerant beggar (Richard Wordsworth) making his way to the manor of a Spanish marquis. The marquis is celebrating his wedding with a vast feast. All his sycophants are invited, and the beggar decides it’s as good a place as any to try and get some food. But, Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) is a real sonofabitch. He’s cruel, in both a childish and devilish fashion, forcing the beggar to dance for his food. After the beggar makes an ill-timed allusion to the matrimonial bedchamber, the marquis throws the beggar into the dungeon to rot for all time.
While there, the beggar becomes friends with the jailer’s mute, buxom daughter (Yvonne Romain). I’ve been using the word ‘buxom’ more this month that at any time in my life. Hammer wasn’t into nudity until the 1970s, but before then they made sure that the women in their films wore dresses that pushed their breasts up to their chins. It’s shameless exhibitionism, but who am I to complain?
Anyway, the jailer’s daughter also ends up angering the marquis and finds herself thrown into the dungeon with her friend. Only, the beggar has now been imprisoned for decades, and his confinement has turned him into something no longer all man. The beggar attacks and rapes the jailer’s daughter. She later escapes and flees, and is taken in by a writer, Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans), and his servant, Teresa (Hira Talfrey). The jailer’s daughter is pregnant with the beggar’s child, and she gives birth to the child under the care of Teresa. The birth kills her and Don Alfredo and Teresa raise the child as their own. The child grows up and turns into a handsome young man, Leon Corledo (Oliver Reed), with a werewolf lurking inside him.
This film is different from most of the werewolf origin stories I’ve seen. The general rule is that in order for a person to become a werewolf, they have to survive an attack by another werewolf. That’s not what happened here. Something about the beggar’s condition and the rape places a curse on poor Leon. His lycanthropy in many ways resembles the throes of puberty, right up until people start getting ripped to shreds, that is.
The extended setup works in that it is a good and entertaining stretch of film. But it’s somewhat frustrating waiting for the appearance of the werewolf. If one can put the werewolf completely out of mind, the movie is much more enjoyable. This is especially so considering the payoff is not as good as the setup. There’s nothing all that original about the werewolf, and it even looks hokey, what with Hammer showing, yet again, that they hired some of the worst makeup artists in film. It’s a constant, inexplicable failing in the majority of Hammer films I’ve seen for this month, and I can’t believe the filmmakers found it acceptable. At times, it appears the makeup artists were used to working in black and white, and their skills didn’t transfer to working with color photography. The beggar’s early appearance is particularly poor.
There’s nothing that makes this film stand out from any number of Hammer horror films. It’s not exactly mediocre, since Hammer tasked Terence Fisher with directing duties, but it feels like throwaway entertainment — a way to spend an afternoon in the dog days of summer, lounging in a movie theater. All the performances are worthy, as is the direction, yet I have the feeling most of my memories of this film will flee from my mind the moment I finish this review.