The Curse of the Werewolf
Review by Mike Finkelstein
I have a deep love of the Hammer horror productions for the 1960s and 1970s. They're campy at times, but generally made with strong production values, and they told variations of monster stories that were different enough, and interesting enough, to stand on their own version against the dominant monsters, those of Universal. Their Dracula and their Frankenstein are fantastic and lead to a whole slew of other horror films from the studio, many of which hold up today.
But then we have their one and only werewolf film (which, really, is a Wolf Man film, just without the rights to call it that), The Curse of the Werewolf. I'm sure Hammer was hoping to launch yet another monster film series to rival Universal, one they could milk for a ton of sequels like they'd already started doing for Dracula (which got up to nine total films from the studio) and Frankenstein (which managed seven), but the Werewolf of this film was no Dracula or Frankenstein. Everything about this production was a total and complete mess.
The problems begin early on with the story of a beggar (played by Richard Wordsworth) who went to the manor of the local ruler, Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson), to ask for food. The marques was a cruel man and he treated the beggar horribly before throwing the man in prison where he rotted for years. Is he the Werewolf? Or what about the Marques? Nope, neither of them. Instead, the beggar is tended to by a young mute woman (Yvonne Romain), the daughter of the jailer, but when the girl doesn't give into the advances of the Marques, she's thrown into prison with the beggar, and then he rapes her. And no, she doesn't become a werewolf from this, either.
Eventually she's released so she can go to the Marques and beg for forgiveness (or at least mutely let him have his way with her), but instead she kills the Marques then flees the castle to live in the woods for months. She's eventually picked up by Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans), and he and his servant Teresa (Hira Talfrey) tend to her and treat her like family. Unfortunately for the young woman, she had been impregnated by the beggar when he raped her and, a few months later she died in childbirth but her son, Leon (played by Oliver Reed as an adult, Justin Walters as a child), lived and was raised as the Don's son. Oh, and Leon, as it turned out, is our titular Werewolf.
Why is Leon a werewolf? We don't really know, but all of this build up does mean that we go close to 45 minutes before we finally meet the main character and get anywhere close to eventually seeing our monster. As a boy, Leon was troubled. At night he's leave his room and roam the countryside as a little wolf-boy. However, the love and care the Don and Teresa showed him somehow eases his curse and allowed him to stop becoming a wolf. Years later, though, he young man would fall in love with the noble girl Cristina (Catherine Feller). And then, after making plans with her to flee together and find a new life elsewhere he started becoming a werewolf again. And then he had to be killed because monsters are bad or something.
As I said, this film is a mess. Watching it (and this is the second time I've done so, neither time I truly enjoyed) I kept wondering when the film would pick up, when we'd get to the monster, when anything would happen. This film crafted such a long and detailed back-story but none of it really made sense and all it did was serve to pad out a film that was, really, about 45 minutes long when it actually focused on the true main characters. The entire first half of the film is entirely filler.
That's not to say there isn't an interesting germ of a story here. If the movie had focused on the beggar (who maybe could have been a werewolf himself before getting captured by the Marques), his attack of the mute girl, his horror at what he'd done, and then (because she'd was scratched and bitten) her revenge against the Marques, his wife, all his guards, and everyone else that ever crossed her, that could have been an interesting movie. She's mute and powerless until the Curse of the Werewolf (TM) gave her the power to fight back. Then it's not 45 minutes of padding, it's an actual interesting story from the bones of the long intro.
Had that story worked you could then set it up that maybe she was wounded in her escape from the castle after killing everyone off, and in the last part of the last act she's gives birth out in the woods and the Don finds her, near death, and he takes the boy as his own. That could setup a sequel focused on Leon and continue the arc (maybe into a series of films where the Curse is passed from parent to child, down through the ancestry). That's certainly better than this rote and shallow story that ends right as it starts to finally get good.
Along with the fact that that story in this film sucks, there's also the fact that none of the events actually make sense. Was the beggar a bit of a lycanthrope all along or was just that because he was caged for so long he became an animal (which he did) and then somehow passed that along to the mute girls son in the womb (which is utterly stupid)? Was it the act of the rape that put a curse on the boy, an evil act that carried with it a pall the boy could never shake? And what specifically was it that caused the curse to subside, only to come back years later? If you can figure any of that out from the movie you've done a better job than I have because the movie is amazingly obtuse about all of it. Clearly they wanted to make their own mythology for the lycanthrope but it just feels like they through everything against the wall to see what stuck and then hand-waved it away after.
Outside the plot the film does have all the standard conventions of a Hammer film you want to praise: solid acting (for what little characters are given), great costumes, good sets, and solid effects. But the fact is that the movie uses all of this to dress up a bare-bones story with no substance. It's great looking but, under the surface, there's just nothing there at all to speak of. Hammer has made some terrible monster movies (quite a few from the aforementioned Dracula and Frankenstein canon) but I can't think of any that were this utterly shallow and tedious.
I guess there's a reason Hammer never revisited the Werewolf again. His movie came out early enough in their cycle then could have milked it for a good decade-and-a-half. Instead we had this one film and the concept was never revisited again. Frankly, I'm glad because this was a mess of a film and I'd hate to think how much worse if could have gotten with a slew of inevitable sequels otherwise. Best that this was a one-and-done and never spoken about again.