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DVD Review: The Curse of the Werewolf

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This is one of an eight-movie set called The Hammer Horror Series, released by Universal in their Franchise Collection. They were all produced by Hammer in the early 1960s, a time when the studio were trying out each of the classic monsters for the first time. Having made Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy pictures, The Curse of the Werewolf was next.

Casting a young Oliver Reed as a werewolf was, in retrospect, a genius stroke. He soon earned a reputation as a boozy wildman, but gained critical attention in leading roles for fellow boozy wildman director Ken Russell (in The Devils and Women in Love). Reed started off doing bit parts, and horror films for Hammer, like Paranoiac and These are the Damned. Famously, he ended his career on the job, causing havoc by passing away halfway through the production of Ridley Scott's Gladiator.

In its heyday, Hammer was trying to match Universal Studios' successful gallery of monsters, but had to carefully avoid copyright problems. They wanted a werewolf, but couldn't copy the make-up design of The Wolfman. They couldn't even call it The Wolfman because that was an original script written for Universal. Instead, they bought the rights to Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris, written in 1934.

The werewolf itself is visually unique. Decades later, other werewolves made memorable impressions due to extensive special effects rather than performances. Part of the success of Roy Ashton's make-up is the way we can still see most of Oliver Reed's face. He looks part wolf, but importantly we can still see he's part man. Together with Reed's acting, the glimpses we get of the werewolf are electrifying. His contorted, snarling face, blood dripping from his mouth — it's startling and effective.

However, it's a film from a different era. The 1980s werewolf movies — like The Howling and An American Werewolf in London — would still play today, providing a rollercoaster of blood, shocks, and in-jokes. Hammer films of the 1960s play more like costume dramas. Curse of the Werewolf is so traditional, it even refuses to veer from a linear narrative by using flashbacks. The story of young Leon and his unfortunate conception is so involved that we don't actually get any scenes with Reed until the film is halfway through.

Amusingly, when he does appear, adult Leon is soon working in a winery, surrounded by bottles of alcohol. Note also that, at the time, Oliver Reed was much more likely to get romantic leading roles, because he had yet to pick up the huge trademark scar down his left cheek. After being 'glassed' in a pub brawl, the young actor thought his film career was over. He was wrong, and the disfigurement rarely meant that he was consigned to baddie roles.

The rest of the cast is quite fascinating — I'd forgotten how many familiar faces were in it, and not all the usual Hammer crew either (Michael Ripper, notwithstanding). A couple of James Bond regulars appear — Desmond Llewellyn has a bit part here as a butler, just before he became typecast as Q in almost all the Bond films. Also, Anthony Dawson is the lecherous, disintegrating Marques, a successfully over-the-top portrayal. The actor was a baddie in the first Bond, Doctor No, and was also the shadowy Blofeld in From Russia With Love and Thunderball. Though his voice was dubbed, he was the unseen presence behind the blinds in the famous Spectre meeting room, where the chairs are all wired for electrocution — a key scene referenced in the first Austin Powers films.

Richard Wordsworth gives an extraordinary performance, ranging over two decades, from abused beggar to feral man. Both touching and frightening, he had been similarly effective as the man/monster in Hammer's first horror film The Creeping Unknown (U.K.: The Quatermass Xperiment).

Bizarrely, Peter Sallis, instantly recognisable as the distinctive voice of Wallace, from the hugely successful Wallace and Gromit animations, appears here in his prime as the town mayor. I didn't see anything in the publicity for Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) to exploit the fact he'd also appeared in The Curse of the Werewolf.

Besides enjoying the film again, I was also checking that Universal had delivered a correct widescreen aspect, generously framed at 1.85, and that the print used was also uncut. For years, I thought the pace of the story dragged in places, but that's because British movie and TV censors had snipped away the distasteful and violent scenes. The climax of the film even includes an early use of squirting blood — probably a hidden syringe effect — which was popularised by its excessive use at the end of the decade by director Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch. But in 1961, blood in colour was still a cinematic shock; the previous year, Hitchcock opted to make Psycho in black and white.

The film has a unique werewolf mythos, a unique performance from Oliver Reed, and an atmospheric, standout soundtrack from Benjamin Frankel. Admittedly it's more of a violent melodrama than a horror movie, but I hope I've demonstrated that it's watchable for many reasons.

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