Set amongst the simple, yet sometimes divisively barbaric, culture of Eighteenth Century Spain, a beggar stumbles into the castle of a cruel king whose throwing a lavish wedding reception with his lords. The King’s young bride takes pity on the beggar as his force to be the occasion’s jester to obtain scraps of food and wine, but when the King retires with his new wife, he orders the beggar to be imprisoned. Forgotten to the point of insanity with his only visitor a lovely mute jailkeeper’s maid, the haggard and disheveled beggar goes mad with ravenous intentions and when the maid is punished for disobeying the now elderly, but still cruel, King, she is locked away with the beggar who rapes her. When the maid is released next morning, she kills the King and escapes into the woods to live like an animal until she’s barely found alive by a nobleman named Don Alfredo. Nursed back to health by Don Alfredo’s servant, Teresa, and discovering that the maid is pregnant, Don Alfredo and Teresa tend to the maid until the eventual birth on Christmas Day, an unholy time to give birth to a child according to superstition. The maid dies shortly after giving birth and the child, named Leon, is then raised by Don Alfredo and Teresa as their own, but carries with him a terrible curse stemmed from the maltreatment of his parents and being born on Christmas Day that transforms him into a bloodthirsty werewolf when the moon is full. When a priest advised that only love will restrain the beast from emerging, young Leon must be continuously shown affection, but when a young man, Leon leaves home to live his life, but the beast within him returns to ravage the village’s population.
Let’s travel back in time to the groovy year of 1961 when the renowned Hammer Horror direct, Terence Fisher (“Horror of Dracula”), was accelerating to the height of his career into what would be the United Kingdom’s very own colossally cult production studio, Hammer Horror, that economically constructed violent storied horror concepts splayed with a brilliant crimson blood inside an orgasmic gothic melodrama circulating around most of the classic monsters like Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein, but, in this review of a new collector’s edition of Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release, Fisher wrestled with the hound from Hell, the werewolf, in “The Curse of the Werewolf” that was penned by Anthony Hinds, under the pseudonym of John Elder, as his sophomore credit behind “The Brides of Dracula.” English studio locations were transformed, not under the light of a full moon, to fabricate a mock village of Eighteenth Century Spain with the immaculate details to the sets and costumes, surely recycled from previous Hammer films, to offset the inherent English accents on a broken Spanglish vernacular. Fisher and Hinds upend common werewolf narratives, spinning a wildly tangent rendition of Guy Endore’s already highly taboo tricked out horror novel, “The Werewolf of Paris,” and drape it heavily with Gothicism.
Playing the shapeshifter werewolf is Oliver Reed who at the time was relatively unknown, playing a few bit parts such Plaid Shirt (“Wild for Kicks”) or my personal favorite, Man With Bucket on Head (“No Love for Johnnie.”) Yet, Reed exuded animalistic qualities, such as his dark features and somber eyes, that made him ideal for the role by appearances alone. The thespian in him didn’t quite fit what I believe Fisher was trying to flush out for his beast as Reed held back with a stoic reserve rather than a man desperate for salvation or death, but no one could deny that Reed wore the werewolf makeup like no other, a fine tuned testament of makeup artist Roy Ashton’s creativity that intensified an already beastly framed actor. “The Kiss of the Vampire’s” Clifford Evans took the role of being the wealthy socialite and surrogate father, Don Alfredo, who took the responsibility of raising a cursed child as his own with much suppression love as he could muster to stave the beast from returning. The legendary actor who starred in countless crime-dramas step outside his niche and into horror, even if at the time horror was considered a schlocky exercise of distaste content for a cheap thrill. As Don Alfredo, Evans wages his worth solely on the prospect of being a gentled hearted father-figure doing the right thing even if it’s detrimental to himself and the veteran actor triumphs taking an aloof man with little responsibility to his village, let alone his home, and turning him into taking the matter of his adopted son’s affliction into his own hands when he fails to cobble another solution together. “The Curse of the Werewolf” holds many other fine support performances from “Circus of Horror’s” Yvonne Romain as the mute jailkeeper’s maid, Catherine Feller, Richard Wordsworth, Warren Mitchell, Anne Blake, and John Gabriel.
“The Curse of the Werewolf” is driven not by the snarling teeth action or the transformative body horror one expects of Lycanthropy features. Instead, Hammer’s film rides a story high without being arbitrary with nonsensical waning on the centerpiece of the story, the curse, coursing the path that led to Leon’s fate that was no fault of his own. Leon’s throat-ripping moonlight rendezvous was bred from cruelty and circumstance of severe class division that reaps the life from those in the same blue collar social class as Leon, leaving the higher, wealthy class virtually unscathed by the curse’s wrath in a cruel ironic twist of events. With the story leading the charge, special effects and makeup take a backseat without only some immature fangs and shadowy lurking to sate the need for creature presence. When Roy Ashton’s vision of the half-man half-beast does make a full presentation of Oliver Reed in the full hairy beast getup, complete with a furrowed brow, elongated lower canines, and large wolf ears that were connected with bristly, greyish brown hair down the side of his lower jaw, the werewolf is worth the wait for some of the best practical werewolf makeup from the mid-20th century and surely was the inspiration for future werewolf films, such as “Wolf” with Jack Nicholson. The novelty of “The Curse of the Werewolf” still remains ripe despite being nearly half a century young, giving the beast a meaningful, if not also pitiful, existence to empathize being damned on two fronts: a wretched, cursed soul and being the target of a village mob.
Can love soothe a killer heart? Find out in Scream Factory’s collector edition Blu-ray of “The Curse of the Werewolf” with a new 4K scan from the original 35mm negative and presented in a 1080p high-definition widescreen format of a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Rendering with clean textures and superb details, the image has remarkable vibrancy and hue balance in it’s tinctured technicolor. The transfer is virtually blemish-free, suggesting that the original negative aged well, with agreeable natural grain to complement the film stock. Scream Factory has produced the best looking version of this classic Hammer release. The English language DTS-HD single channel Master Audio renders, again, scot-free of aged distortion with the high-definition eminent boost to providing even clearer dialogue and untarnished ambient clattering during more turbulent scenes of laughter or beastly disarray. English subtitles are optional. A collector’s edition wouldn’t be complete with a slew of bonus materials and, boy, does “The Curse of the Werewolf” have brand spanking new material for the special features that include a new Roy Ashton tribute piece by his friend and “Little Shoppe of Horrors'” writer Richard Klemensen and new audio commentary with film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. Plus, interviews with actors Catherine Feller, Yvonne Romain, Mike Hill, art director Don Mingaye, art department member Margaret Robinson, and filmmaker Jimmy Sangster in “The Making of The Curse of the Werewolf” featurette, a look at Lycanthropy that discusses whether man’s inner wolf can be a transformative source of mental will, a still gallery, and the theatrical trailer. The package is illustrated with Oliver Reed’s snarling werewolf persona by Mark Maddox, who designed Scream Factory’s “The Thing” release, and comes in a nifty cardboard slip cover. All in all, Scream Factory brought new life into the re-originating and re-orientating “The Curse of the Werewolf” that is, perhaps inarguably, the best Hammer upgrade to date.