Friday, May 29, 2009

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

The 1961 Hammer Films production of The Curse of the Werewolf, directed by Terence Fisher, marked Oliver Reed's first starring role, even if Clifford Evans got top billing. It is also one of my favorite Hammer horrors, and my favorite werewolf movie of all time.

After Hammer had put its unique stamp on Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy, it was inevitable that the studio would make its own variation on The Wolf Man. When a proposed co-production about the Spanish Civil War fell through, the ever-frugal Hammer executives ordered a script to make use of the sets that had already been built. Producer Anthony Hinds adapted Guy Endore's novel The Werewolf of Paris, writing the script under the pseudonym John Elder, transplanting the action to 18th century Spain. The result is an atmospheric, grim little tale of lycanthropy, good vs. evil, and the horrors of adolescence. Or as the ads for the fim so colorfully put it, ‘He fought the hideous curse of his evil birth, but his ravished victims were proof that the cravings of his beast-blood demanded he kill… Kill… KILL!’

Unlike Universal's Wolf Man films of the '40s, The Curse of the Werewolf does not hold back on the sex and gore, especially in the version released in the US, which contained scenes the British censors had ordered excised from the film (it is this version which is included in the Hammer Horror Series DVD boxed set, available HERE). The werewolf's origin story is particularly twisted, as Leon is the bastard offspring of a feral lunatic rapist and the town jailer's deaf mute daughter, played by the Yvonne Romain. When she dies in childbirth, Leon is adopted by the kindly Don Corledo, and after an uneventful childhood, develops an unnatural bloodlust at the onset of puberty, allong with an overwhelming urge to roam the countryside disemboweling area livestock.

Trapped in a world he never made, Leon inevitably graduates to killing humans as things go horribly wrong with a local prostitute, when in the middle of a "date," Leon turns into a werewolf and rips her throat out.

Only true love, it seems, can cure Leon's full moon fever, and it arrives in the second act in the person of the lovely Catherine Feller as the virginal Christina, who loves Leon despite the occasional lycanthropic mayhem and savagery at the local bordello. But when the bodies start piling up, the local authorities are forced to take action.

From the opening scene, the recurring theme is cruelty: the cruelty of life, the cruelty of fate, and the cruelty of the ruling class, for it is the cruelty of one particularly nasty noble that sets Leon's fate in motion. In his highly insightful essay for Cinemafantastique, Steve Biodrowski writes that The Curse of the Werewolf "plays out like a deliberate piece of Theatre of Cruelty, in which most of the sympathetic characters come to a tragic end. The result is not especially frightening, but undeniably effective, in a depressing sort of way."

Quite true, as Hinds's bleak view of humanity pervades the film, and subsequent Hammer horrors, such as Evil of Frankenstein, for which he provided the screenplays. Terence Fisher gives the film that iconic Hammer feel, with great color cinematography by Arthur Grant.

Oliver Reed, though raw, and a bit over the top at times, is riveting. He manages to capture Leon's torment while still projecting the charisma that would make him an international star. His performance, and the vivid production values, easily make this my favorite werewolf movie -- well ahead of The Wolf Man, even if that film came first. Lon Chaney's Lawrence Talbot is just a mopey lummox with a death wish, while Reed's Leon combines danger and vulnerability to make for a much more compelling character. Talbot is basically suicidal, while Leon wants to live. And therein lies the tragedy.

The Curse of the Werewolf makes a fine double feature with either 1958's Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee, or Paranoiac, from 1963, a sub-Hitchcock psychodrama featuring another early performance from Reed.

For further reading, check out Steve Biodrowski's essay on The Curse of the Werewolf at

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Oliver Reed Film Festival, Pt. 1: the '60s

Ollie stars as a a young Spanish nobleman with a problem: he keeps turning into a wolf and disemboweling people. The film that led indirectly to Ollie getting his face slashed with a broken bottle in a bar fight in 1964. With Clifford Evans and Yvonne Romain.

Sub-Hitchcock hoo-hah with Reed as a creepy rich kid out to make sure he collects on his inheritance -- even if it means murder! My favorite (and most prophetic) line of dialogue: "I've been drinking. Now I'm going to drink some more."

THE DAMNED a/k/a THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1963): Not to be confused with Luchino Visconti's 1970 epic, this is a sort-of sequel to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED with Reed playing "King," a nasty ruffian who inevitably meets a bad end. An interesting combo of horror, sci-fi, juvenile delinquent and nuclear holocaust-type flicks from director Joseph Losey. With MacDonald Carey, Viveca Lindfors and Shirley Ann Field as the object of Reed's incestuous jealousy.

Reed plays Stephen "Tinker" Taylor, a womanizing photographer in a seaside resort who gets his comeuppance when he falls for an upper-class fashion model named Nicola. Directed in living black and white by Michael Winner, from a screenplay by Peter Draper. Great theme song by the Searchers. With Jane Merrow, Harry Andrews, and David Hemmings.

Reed plays "Moise," the leader of a pack of layabout no-goodniks called, appropriately enough, "The Pack." A wealthy young American girl falls into their orbit, and tragedy ensues. Ollie is mesmerizing as the charismatic, nihilistic would-be beatnik whose idea of a miracle is a girl who won't go to bed with him. Director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger) tried to have his name removed from the credits after the British censors made heavy cuts. With Eddie Albert.

THE DEBUSSY FILM (1965): In his first collabration with director Ken Russell, Reed plays two roles, one as a dead ringer for French composer Claude DeBussy, and the other as a brooding young actor not unlike Ollie himself, who is cast as DeBussy. Audacious work foreshadows the brilliance of The Devils (1971). Russell and Reed developed a shorthand for Ollie's acting range: "Moody One," Moody Two," and "Moody Three," ranging from quiet menace to bellowing rage.

THE TRAP (1966):
Surprisingly tender adventure tale about a French-Canadian fur trapper who buys a deaf mute (Rita Tushingham) to be his bride. Ollie's accent varies wildly, at times spot-on, other times sounding more like a brain-damaged Belgian.

THE JOKERS (1966):
Reed's second collaboration with director Michael Winner, from a script by Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais, fresh off the BBC series "The Likely Lads." Two brothers plot to steal the Crown Jewels, but just for kicks. Co-starring Michael Crawford as Reed's ne'er-do-well younger brother. Hasn't aged particularly well, but proved that Reed could do comedy.

Early Ken Russell effort made for British Television with Oliver as Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Creepy opening scene has him exhuming his wife's buried remains so that he can retrieve a book of his poems from her coffin for his publisher.

Director Michael Winner and writer Peter Draper conceived this as sort of a sequel to The System. Reed plays Andrew Quint, a successful director of TV commercials who rebels by quitting his job, breaking up with his mistresses, and taking a editorial position at a failing literary magazine. Mayhem ensues. With Harry Andrews, Carol White, and Orson Welles as Jonathan Lute, Quint's Machiavellian boss.

QUINT: I'm going to find an honest job.
LUTE: Silly boy. There aren't any.

OLIVER! (1968):
"More? MORE? Never before has a boy asked for more..." Reed sports epic mutton chops as the villainous Bill Sykes, and is great in the role, even if his death scene is eerily similar to the one he did in Curse of the Werewolf. Directed by his uncle, Sir Carol. With Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Mark Lester, and Jack Wild.

An English soldier in a German P.O.W. camp is used as forced labor at the local zoo, and befriends an elephant named Lucy. It's STALAG 17 meets DUMBO. One of Ollie's most likeable performances. Co-starring Michael J. Pollard.

Reed stars as Ivan Dragamilov, head of the titular organization. Diana Rigg, at her loveliest, plays a crusading journalist who hires said organization to kill Dragamilov. Romance and mayhem ensue. With Telly Savalas.

Ken Russell adapts DH Lawrence, Glenda Jackson emotes for the ages while Alan Bates and Ollie have a nude wrestling match. With Hammer vet Jennie Linden and the imperious Eleanor Bron (Help!).

Stay tuned for The Oliver Reed Film Festival, Part Two: The '70s and The Oliver Reed Film Festival, Part Three: The '80s 'Til Death

Originally posted at BLOG! by Jm Dobies

9 August 2007