The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Being Film #1 in Hail Horror 4.  Thanks to Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder for the recommendation.

Sumptuous colors, a lush orchestral score, passions both restrained and unhinged...THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF is horror filtered through a Douglas Sirk melodrama, a tortured psychological thriller that indulges in the vibrant red of spattered blood...in other words, the singular calling card of Hammer Films.  But THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF stands out - both from its fellow Hammer productions as well as other werewolf films - by rooting its lycanthropy in religion and the base desires of human sexuality, playing up the madness and despair of its afflicted lead, and allowing the supporting cast to be more than terrified villagers.

The film is roughly divided into three sections, with the first 30 minutes dedicated to a wicked origin story that sets itself apart from the chaff.  A beggar unwisely decides to ply his trade at the reception of the depraved Marques Siniestro, whose name playfully implies his twisted nature.  He's thrown into the dungeons and left to rot away, his mind slipping through the years until it finally cracks with the arrival of the beautiful mute serving girl, imprisoned for rebuffing the now-ancient Marques' advances.   The beggar rapes the poor girl and, having indulged in his carnal appetites, promptly dies.  Upon being released with the admonition that she "apologize" the the Marques, she does so - with the pointed end of a torch holder:

It's one of only a handful of truly shocking moments, but its purpose, along with the rape and the wedding scene before it, is to set the stage for the many different conflicts the movie presents with regards to love and lust.  In that vein THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF dives directly into waters only hinted at in other werewolf films (GINGER SNAPS comes to mind as a wonderful exception), exploring the concept of love holding the beast at bay while lust unleashes it.  The mute woman runs away and is found and cared for by Lord Alfredo, a kind nobleman and his religious maid, Teresa.

The next couple of sequences play into the religious aspects of the curse, something new in my experience.  Teresa begins to fear the baby will be born on Christmas Day, a bad omen and "an insult to Heaven" as she tells Lord Alfredo.  Sure enough, a wolf's howl precedes the cry of the newborn, and the woman dies.  Deciding to raise the child himself, Lord Alfredo prepares for the baby's baptism, and the discussion with the priest yields some interesting conjectures on the nature of curses.  The priest's suspicion is that the horrible nature of Leon's conception allowed him to be possession by an evil spirit. 

So already the story's taken an interesting couple of left turns, and the quality of the story is matched by the firm direction by Terence Fisher, who also directed some of the best early Hammer Films, including THE HORROR OF DRACULA and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, both featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in their most memorable roles.  There's a great early sequence where young Leon is questioned by Lord Alfredo as to whether he remembers leaving the house (he's been mysteriously shot in the leg) and the boy recalls a frightening episode/dream where he was taken along hunting and, after refusing to kill a squirrel, later begins to suck its blood, recalling how sweet it tasted.  Taking this as a warning, Lord Alfredo bars the boy's windows, and we get a sense of what's in store for Leon as he rails against his confinement at the next full moon:

Despite the goodwill fostered by the script and direction, things could still fall flat if Leon isn't adequately portrayed as an adult.  No worries - in a very early role Oliver Reed is fantastic, barely able to be constrained by the screen.  His journey to manhood: leaving home and going to work in a nearby town is mirrored by the journey his heart takes, falling in love with the daughter of his employer, yet succumbing to his base desires by traveling to a brothel with his friend.  It's there, drunk and in the arms of a whore that the first transformation takes place, and blood is spilled.  But again THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF refuses to conform: rather than piling on scene after scene of rampant killing and hunting, the movie looks at Leon's gradual realization of what he is becoming, and his family's attempts to cure him through their love.  The night spent in the arms of Catherine, his true love, is enough to stop the transformations, and the climax of the film where Leon is jailed under suspicion of the murders is powerful, the look of fright on his face is striking as he implores the law to allow Catherine to stay.

Of course, the film has to end as it must, with a transformation, a chase through the streets, and a silver bullet through the heart.  So rather than focus on the ending, I'll just say a few words about the actual werewolf effects. While the early effects feel a little shoddy (hair tape to the young Leon's arms and palms, a hand transformation that shows a pair of obviously wooden hands slowly growing either fur or moss), the final reveal of the creature is a tour de force, sold 100% by Reed's face.  It reminds me of the early still of Benicio del Toro attacking Rick Baker back when the upcoming WOLF MAN was still going to be done practically (it has since been revamped and now appears to be mostly CGI based on the trailer).  Del Toro's face is devoid of make-up; he sells the beast with his face alone, and Reed, although covered in make-up still manages to put his own features forward.  It's a terrific look, and is reminiscent in feel if not in actual look to the Beast in Jean Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

I don't have a lot of experience when it comes to the Hammer Films, and although I wouldn't go out of my way to describe THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF as particularly frightening, it's a damn solid piece of film making that should be seen to see a great example of how the werewolf genre doesn't have to be so rote.  Here's hoping Universal's upcoming remake furthers the trend sadly left behind by other, lesser films.