Tuesday 18 October 2016

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: John Elder, from the novel The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore
Stars: Clifford Evans, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain and Catherine Feller

Horror movies have often focused on duality, not only in obvious examples like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In folklore, both vampires and werewolves sprang from the same concept of duality, though not just to highlight good and evil in a moral sense but also on a deeper level, comparing man with his God-given soul with the savage beast without. Such thoughts were surely fresh in the minds of producer Michael Carreras and director Terence Fisher after they had made The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll in 1960. A year later, they found themselves in need of a new script, because they’d built substantial sets for a film set in Spain. Some sources say that it was going to be about the Spanish Civil War but the co-production deal fell through, while others suggest that it was about the Spanish Inquisition and the script was rejected by the censors. Either way, Hammer had sets but no story to flesh them out at a time when they had just successfully resurrected Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy (in 1957, 1958 and 1959 respectively).

So, in addition to shooting sequels, they expanded their repertoire of famous monsters: The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll in 1960, The Curse of the Werewolf in 1961 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1962. Of course, all these had antecedents in the Universal horrors, but their sources were in public domain novels so there was little likelihood of being hauled up for copyright infringement. Well, except for this one, because Universal’s The Wolf Man was based entirely on an original script by Curt Siodmak. Hammer therefore sought out a different source, transplanting the action of the 1933 novel, The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore, from France to Spain. They also eviscerated all its historical and political subtext and crafted it into what is surely as archetypal a werewolf movie as the one it was so careful not to copy. This one is slow and short on werewolf action (we don’t even meet the grown up werewolf until halfway in), but it handles the dual nature of man and beast impeccably. From that angle, it has perhaps not been surpassed.
Almost every key moment in the film is the result of the bestial nature of man and it all begins with the Marques Siniestro, a name which translates from the Spanish as ‘sinister’, a word derived from the Latin for left-handed, so playing up duality from the start. It’s a public holiday in the Spanish town of Santa Vera and all the townsfolk are ‘rejoicing’; the Marques is getting married and he’s literally ordered them to rejoice. The reason they’re not happy about it is because they’re footing the bill for the wedding and the lavish feast at the castle, to which none of them are invited. The beggar who walks into town on this day tries his luck there, only to find cruelty instead. The Marques invites him in and torments him in front of everyone. When his bride asks him to stop as she sees him as a man not an animal, he suggests that she keep him as a pet, flinging ten pesetas at him as the purchase price. He plies him with wine but refuses him food, making him dance and fall over for the entertainment of those assembled.

This is a blistering scene, not only because it sets the stage for the entire film to come, but because it’s performed by two perfectly cast actors. Because this is a British film, even the ragged beggar, who becomes more ragged after being thrown into the dungeon and forgotten, is a Shakespearean actor, Richard Wordsworth, the great-great-grandson of the poet, William Wordsworth. It’s an appropriate choice, because this beggar has no skills and has to resort to oratory to persuade folk into parting with their money. A better foil could not be found for him than Anthony Dawson as the Marques Siniestro. Dawson was a Scottish actor whose greatest role thus far had been the man paid to murder Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder. This was a fantastic opportunity for him even if his part is over relatively quickly, and it surely helped him land his next role, as Professor R. J. Dent, the geologist working for Dr. No in the film of that name. He would be a hundred years old today.
The tormenting of the beggar and his abandonment in the dungeons is the first example of many a bestial act which begets a cycle of evil. Years later, now a recluse, the Marques has his jailer’s mute daughter thrown into the same cell for not speaking to him. It can’t be too surprising that the beggar, driven insane by years of isolation, promptly rapes the girl who had fed him through those years. Released the next day to ‘entertain’ the Marques, she murders him and escapes into the countryside. Her own bestial act is punished by the fact that the rape resulted in pregnancy and, to make matters worse, the child is born on Christmas Day. ‘For an unwanted child to be born then,’ suggests the housekeeper of the man who rescues her, ‘is an insult to Heaven!’ That the mother dies in childbirth surely can’t help. Just to drum home where we’re going, we hear a wolf howl right before we hear the newborn cry and a wolf’s head seems to appear during the child’s baptism, though it’s really the reflection of a gargoyle in the font.

And so we have a werewolf who was cursed rather than bitten, even if that was partly due to the censors thoroughly rejecting the idea of a werewolf rapist, and a curse can be lifted while a bite can’t be undone. It helps that this orphan is raised by loving parent substitutes: the man who found his mother, Don Alfredo Corledo, and his housekeeper, Teresa. However, his nature will manifest itself soon enough, even if young Leon seems to be a perfect child. He’s such an animal lover that when Pepe, the nightwatchman, takes him out shooting, he can’t bear to shoot a squirrel; when Pepe kills it instead, he tries to kiss it better, tastes the blood and finds it very much to his liking. This adds the bodily changes wrought during puberty to the various metaphors for lycanthropy in this film, though the curse remains paramount. Clearly Leon is the young wolf who’s responsible for the string of deaths of local goats, not least because he gets shot at one point for his troubles, but he doesn’t know it himself; he thinks he’s merely dreaming.
The Curse of the Werewolf is a great movie in many ways but it’s also a very flawed one and the most obvious flaw is in its pacing. I’m on board with that long opening scene at the Marques’s castle, but we continue with drawn out scene after drawn out scene all the way until the halfway point. Only then does the young Leon, looking rather like a vampiric version of Damien from The Omen, stop his bestial attacks on the local wildlife, partly because he can’t break through the bars that Don Alfredo has installed on his window and partly because he’s being brought up in a loving household that weakens the curse until it appears to be completely nullified. Only then does the grown-up Leon appear, ready to set out on his own and find his place in the world. Within two minutes, he’s at the gates of Gomez Bodegas, Don Fernando’s winery, where he finds work in the wine cellar, bottling and labelling the product. It has to be said, with a sly wink, that this job was perhaps inevitable, given that the grown-up Leon is played by Oliver Reed.

Reed was a force of nature far more than he was an actor. It has been said that he’s the only British film star who never worked on stage before transitioning onto the screen, becoming what a National Portrait Gallery show in 1980 called Britain’s ‘only pure film actor’. However, he was a hugely important film star who was responsible for a whole slew of firsts. In 1966, he starred in I'll Never Forget What's'isname, a Michael Winner film infamous as the first mainstream movie to use the F word. It was also denied an MPAA seal of approval because of an implied sex scene; Universal’s choice to distribute it through a non-MPAA subsidiary helped to end the Production Code. In 1969, he wrestled Alan Bates nude in front of a fireplace in Ken Russell’s Women in Love, the first time that full frontal male nudity featured in a mainstream film. In 1972, he starred in Sitting Target, apparently the first British movie to be rated X on the grounds of violence alone. This film was a first too: Oliver Reed’s first starring role.
He’s a force of nature in this film too, both literally and metaphorically. The cast is consistently strong, from the top-billed Clifford Evans as Don Alfredo, through Reed to the various other recognisable faces further down the credits list. There’s one scene where one famous British sitcom actor berates another; that’s Peter Sallis from Last of the Summer Wine as the town’s mayor, Don Enrique, complaining to Warren Mitchell from Till Death Us Do Part that his nightwatchman, Pepe, isn’t keeping the wolves away. The catch, of course, is that they’re all English and it has to be said that this is a notably English Spain. It’s not just the accents (Dawson could get away with that as the believably foreign-educated Marques, but Mitchell can’t; Spaniards called Pepe just shouldn’t sound like they’re from Norfolk), but the attitudes. Leon falls for his employer’s daughter, Cristina, who’s to be married to a quintessentially English toff. ‘Oh I say!’ simply isn’t a line that helps set a provincial Spanish mood.

Even if we can forgive the Englishness of this film, Reed still stands out above his peers. Only Evans really matches him, because he has the internal fortitude to match Reed’s external vitality. He seems to be in the vibrancy of youth and the best of health, which is good not only for the ambitious young man but for the beast he becomes. Though he loves Cristina and Cristina loves him back, his friend, Jose Amadayo, talks him into visiting a local brothel. That’s when his bestial side returns, because the morality that governs lycanthropy in this film suggests that love and kindness lessen the curse but sex and depravity heighten it. What’s more, distance is a factor: with Cristina, Leon can control himself, but when he’s separated from her, he can’t. And, two murders later and Leon in jail, the endgame is quickly in sight, one that’s flavoured by repentance and sacrifice. Characters who have sex (even unwillingly) all suffer or die in this film, while those who remain chaste survive untouched. It’s slasher morality taken even further.
If Reed doesn’t appear as much as he should, he is at least a highly memorable werewolf. The script is ruthlessly chronological and quite a few early scenes should have been trimmed or cut entirely to make room for more scenes featuring him later, both in Roy Ashton’s excellent make-up and out of it. While this was his first lead role, it was his third film for Hammer and he’d go on to make another five. What he did after that is the stuff of legend, both on and off the screen. Hammer themselves thrived for another ten years before they started to struggle in the different cinematic climate of the seventies. While the decade arguably saw their most interesting pictures, their heyday was clearly behind them and their prominence had waned; they closed their doors after their remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979. As for Anthony Dawson, our birthday boy today, he never quite found the career he deserved, his most important contributions to film coming in the fifties and early sixties.

Oddly, his most memorable moment on screen was in a film for which he wasn’t even credited. He started out uncredited in 1940, but that’s relatively standard for a new actor. By 1963, he wasn’t new any more and wouldn’t have expected that. He’d appeared in a string of solid if relatively unknown British films, such as The Way to the Stars, School for Secrets and The Queen of Spades, working his way up the credits list. He had strong roles in pictures as varied as The Wooden Horse, Dial M for Murder and Grip of the Strangler. He’d set this film off not only on the right note but in the direction his character defined, remaining memorable even though he’s killed only twenty minutes in. And he’d become a Bond villain, working for Dr. No. That movie’s director, Terence Young, cast him often, including as the first appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in From Russia with Love. The character’s voice belonged to Eric Pohlmann but the body and the famous hand stroking a white cat belong to Dawson. There are worse ways to be remembered.

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