In 1960, Hammer came under scrutiny from a number of conservative religious groups, and so, to avoid controversy -- and inevitable censorship -- they abandoned their production, The Inquisitor (or The Rape of Sabena).
However, the studio had already constructed, at great expense, the exterior of the village and needed to adapt the location at Bray Studios to another project. The set was maintained as a Spanish village and became the home of Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf, Hammer’s first and only foray into the lycanthrope myth (not counting the Hammer House of Horror episode, Children of the Full Moon in 1980).
Loosely based on the 1933 historical horror novel, The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore, Curse of the Werewolf's narrative action (during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune) has been stripped down and relocated from its original French setting to rural Spain.
We open on a wandering beggar (Richard Wadsworth, from Hammer’s 1955, The Quatermass Xperiment) who stumbles into the wedding of a merciless Marques, and after begging like a dog for scraps, to the amusement of the wedding guests, he is thrown into the dungeon.
There he festers for years, his only company a jailer and his dumb daughter (the younger version is Loraine Carvana, cousin of Yvonne Romain, the adult), who takes pity on the prisoner, as he becomes less than human and more a caged animal.
When the old, lecherous and pustule-ridden Marques makes a move on the servant girl (now the older and full-bodied Romain) she fights back and is sent into the depths of the prison with the beggar. The beggar is now less-than-human, communicating with grunts, grins and growls. An implied rape follows as the beggar stalks toward the screen, and the helpless girl.
John Trevelyan – secretary for The British Board of Film Censors – had many reservations about John Elder’s (aka Anthony Hinds) original script. In one of the drafts there was the implication that the beggar himself was a werewolf, but that proved unsettling when coupled with the rape, and so was rejected.
Elder also wanted a scene where the Marques watches as the young maid is assaulted, but again, that was a little too much for the censors in 1960. Four scenes were cut from the American release. Despite the edits, the U.S. version was still longer than the English version by three minutes. All the scenes were restored in the 1980s, so we now have a more complete version of the movie.
After stabbing the Marques, the servant girl escapes the castle, wanders through the forest and is found by Alfredo (Clifford Owens), a kindly landowner, who takes her in. Alfredo’s housekeeper ironically comments that that poor girl must have “lived like an animal,” all alone in the wilderness.
Discovering she is with child, Alfredo becomes a surrogate father to the servant girl, and upon her death—after she gives birth—he becomes a surrogate father to her child, Leon. Interestingly, the publicity shots (and the poster) for the movie show the transformed Leon carrying his mother in his arms. Not possible, of course, as she died in childbirth.
Being born on Christmas Day (not to mention being a bastard child of a deranged beggar), does not bode well for the young Leon – thunder roars and font waters bubble in rage at his baptism. In one of the many moments of overt Christian symbolism, the baby Leon is held up in the shadow of Christ’s image as it stares down on him from the church wall.
Pretty soon, young Leon starts to have bad dreams where he’s killing animals and drinking blood. The cat goes missing. One night a local, superstitious shepherd, Pepe, shoots, what he believes is a wild animal with a silver bullet he has rendered down from his wife’s sanctified cross. The next morning, Alfredo extracts a silver bullet from Leon and starts to have real fears about his son’s condition.
And we all know the implication in the hairy palms.
Alfredo’s fears are confirmed by the sympathetic local priest (John Gabriel), who posits to Alfredo that an evil spirit has entered Leon’s body and his soul is at war with the entity. If his soul is pure, that will determine the outcome. Plus, a good woman might help.
Leon (now played by a 22 year old Oliver Reed) grows into a strapping lad and is off to find work, and hopefully the love he needs to keep the beast at bay. Finding work in a vineyard he befriends Jose (Martin Matthews). Pretty soon Leon falls for the vineyard owner’s daughter, Christina (Catherine Feller), who is engaged to the stuffy Rico Gomez. The two young lovers carry on an affair behind her father’s back, as she visits him in his basement lodgings. Despite Leon’s protests for Christina to leave, his beast does not appear. He awakes the next morning in Christina’s arms.
On the night of the full moon, Jose invites Leon out for a night of wine, women and song. All the necessary subtext of sin is contained in this episode, as Leon, in a primal fugue, ravishes a young woman, leading to a change. He kills her and his friend, Jose.
Making his way home, Alfredo finds Leon in bed the next morning with blood on his hands. Here Leon learns of his condition, pleading to be turned in to the police before he kills again. Arrested by the police for the murder of his friend, the distraught Leon is thrown in jail, but pleads with the authorities to kill him with a silver bullet. The authorities (in the shape of the Mayor) do not believe Alfredo’s story about Leon’s condition.
Once again the full moon rises and Leon changes, killing the jailer and going on a rampage through the town, scaling buildings as the town’s people track him from building to building with burning torches. It's up to Alfredo to do what is right. Trapped in a church bell tower like poor old Quasimodo, Leon is shot by his father and dies, his soul free. The last shot is a high angle of the street as Leon’s house keeper and Christina embrace.
Not only does Curse contain some obvious Christian imagery, but Freud rears his ubiquitous head. The werewolf myth in Fisher’s classic is thematically all about the Freudian animal within. The id ravages and eventually consumes the ego.
Much like Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man, Leon finds that romantic love can quell the beast, but only the father can destroy the beast once it appears. Alfredo has taken responsibility for Leon, and must fulfill his fatherly duty. He was not the man to begin Leon's journey in this world, but he must end it. He is the patriarch returning society to normality.
Animal desire and debauchery are manifest in the beast. Elder's script is Shakespearean (or even Greek) in its construct: fate leads inevitably to the protagonist’s downfall. With Curse, we have baser nature winning out over paternal nurture.
And like any good tragedy, Leon’s destiny is portended from the beginning. From the opening credits, with Leon’s wolf eyes darting left and right like a trapped animal, teardrops welling and sliding down his cheek, Fisher suggests to us the impotent struggle to follow.
Roy Ashton’s makeup, despite being modelled on Jack Pierce’s work on The Wolf Man (1941), presents a more primal and vicious incarnation of the man wolf, with its blood soaked lips and snarling teeth. In fact, Leon is more of a wolf man archetype than werewolf. The standard cross-fade transformation scenes (here we simply see Leon's hands change), while a little clunky, do the job.
The final chase across the roof tops of Bernard Robinson’s incredible village sets is (in my opinion) one of Hammer’s greatest and most exciting sequences. All of this is captured beautifully in Arthur Grant’s lush yellow and orange hued cinematography -- possibly some of the finest of Hammer’s golden age.
Unfortunately, Curse was not a success on its release, and Hammer never ventured into the world of the werewolf again. Nevertheless, it stands as one of Hammer's masterpieces and Leon's tragic fate remains unsettling to watch. Reed is only on screen for about 50 minutes, but he infuses Leon with such tragic pathos, it is hard to watch the unnerving finale when the bells ultimately toll for his end.
In 1975, Anthony Hinds (aka John Elder) wrote, and Freddie Francis directed, a semi-remake called Legend of the Werewolf, with David Rintoul in the lead, and the fabulous Peter Cushing in typical command. The studio, Tyburn Films, was short lived, as was the movie. Endore’s Werewolf of Paris still awaits an epic adaptation worthy of the source material.