Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: C is for The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Set in 18th century Spain, our lycanthropic tale of blood and sex begins when a beggar wanders into the town of Santa Vera. Confused as to why the streets are deserted and the church bells are ringing since it isn’t a Sunday, he gets his answer in the local pub, where he’s told today has been declared a public holiday by the Marquis de Siniestro to celebrate his wedding. But even though their stiff taxes are paying for this debaucherous celebration, no commoners were actually invited to the wedding proper. And so, no one is feeling all that generous and one particularly bitter patron suggests the beggar (Wordsworth) go try his luck panhandling at the castle.

Though meant as a joke, the beggar takes the suggestion as genuine and heads to the Castle Siniestro, where he will soon find the joke is on him. For the Marquis (Dawson) is an almost comically cruel and vicious man and easily affronted -- confirmed by the beating he puts on his hapless cook when his new wife is repulsed by the main course of braised duck. Thus, knowing their master like they do, the first words spoken to the drifter when he knocks on the door is to vacate before “he” sees you.

But it’s already too late as the Marquis invites the pauper in, but will offer nothing unless the man debases himself first. And as the humiliation continues, the Marquis plies the beggar with about a gallon of wine, which makes him even more suggestible to his whims. When his new bride (Llewellyn) takes pity on the poor sod, her husband offers to buy the beggar off to be her new pet and gets the man to sell himself for ten pesetas. And that might’ve been the end of that, but the drunken beggar foolishly makes what the Marquis construes as a lewd suggestion when the couple retires for the night to consummate their marriage. And while this affront would’ve most likely gotten the beggar killed, the Marquesa reminds all the man is her property and no harm should befall him. And so, the Marquis has her pet locked up for safekeeping with his dungeon serving as the kennel.

And there the beggar remained indefinitely as the Marquis’ spiteful nature drove his wife to an early grave. And the prisoner would’ve been completely forgotten and left to rot if not for the efforts of the dungeon master and his mute daughter (Romain), who took pity on him and is the only person the now feral beggar barely recognizes and responds to. When her father dies, the unnamed daughter is promoted to work in the upper levels of the castle, where she draws the diseased eye of the perverted Marquis, who tries to molest her but is fought off and left with several deserved teeth-marks in his hand. 

As punishment, the poor girl is thrown into the dungeon where she will remain until she learns some manners and to be “a bit friendlier.” Of course she winds up in the same cell as the beggar, who is now more beast than man, who savagely rapes the girl -- his last act before finally expiring.

In the aftermath, when the girl is released and sent back to the Marquis, she stabs the old prick to death and then flees into the forest, where she spends several months “living like an animal” until she is found half-drowned by the kindly Don Alfredo Corledo (Evans), who rescues the girl and brings her to his home, where his saintly servant, Teresa (Talfrey), slowly nurses her back to health. Teresa then surprises Alfredo with the news that the girl is pregnant.

And with the child being illegitimate, as time passes and the due date draws near, Teresa fears the baby will be born on Christmas Day -- for if an unwanted child shares a birthday with Jesus Christ this would be “an insult to heaven.” (Lady, you don’t know the half of it.) And her fears are somewhat confirmed when the child is born shortly after the clock strikes 12 on Christmas Eve when the mother does not survive long after the delivery; and then things get even stranger at baby Leon’s baptism, where a storm rages up out of nowhere, blotting out the sun, and the water in the cistern begins to roil as the priest gives the rites. Somewhat surprisingly, given the tenor of the times, instead of condemning the child as the spawn of Satan, the priest (Gabriel) calmly presses on, things settle down, and Leon is properly christened.

Time passes and Uncle Alfredo and Aunt Teresa bring Leon (Walters) up in a loving home. But when the boy reaches the age of 10, strange things begin to happen around the village as the local flocks are suddenly down a few goats, whose throats have been ripped out. Believing there’s a wolf lurking in the woods, the mayor charges the town huntsman, Pepe Valiente (Churchill), to track the beast down and present its carcass in less than 24-hours or else he’ll hire someone else who can. That night, Pepe takes a shot at the wolf, is sure that he hit it, but loses the blood trail. If he hadn’t, he would’ve traced it back to Don Alfredo’s home, where he and an equally bewildered Teresa tend to a delirious Leon, who snuck off during the night, and dig a slug out of the boy’s leg!

The next morning, when Don Alfredo asks Leon to remember what happened yesterday, the boy draws a blank, saying he remembers nothing but a bad dream. Seems Leon has been having a lot of bad dreams lately. And it all began after Pepe took him hunting because he wanted to learn how to shoot. But when Pepe popped a squirrel, the sensitive Leon is so distraught he tried to kiss the animal back to life, getting his first taste of blood. He knew this should repulse him, but he liked the taste of it. And he wanted more, but Pepe took the carcass away. And now, his dreams are plagued with visions of blood and fangs. (And this would also explain what happened to the family cat.)

Distressed over this news, the sudden presence of coarse hair on the boy’s wrists and palms, and of course the condemning bullet, Alfredo consults with the friendly priest. And once presented with the evidence, he is convinced Leon is a werewolf. But all hope is not lost, he says. For while the spirit of the savage beast has a hold on the boy’s soul due to the unfortunate circumstances of his birth, this can be countered, and has been countered to a point already, by the love and affection Alfredo and Teresa have shown the boy. And to continue to strengthen his resolve against the call of the beast, the boy must love and be loved; and so, Don Alfredo must continue providing a strong moral compass of love, compassion, and virtue for the boy. But until these recent outbursts can be brought under control, Alfredo works to protect both the villagers and Leon by fortifying his room and barring up the windows to keep him contained during the full moon.

Meanwhile, the village is in a bit of a panic over these attacks and fear they might have a genuine werewolf on their hands. Pepe even goes so far as to melt his wife’s silver crucifix down for his latest batch of musket balls. And later that night, as he keeps watch, something is prowling around the herds, stirring them up. Pepe gives chase, spots something, and fires. At the Corledo’s home, Alfredo and Teresa hear the gunshot and rush to Leon’s bedroom. He is still there, but they barely recognize him as the possessed boy, covered in fur, eyes wild, his fangs bared, violently tries to break through the barred windows so he can escape into the moonlight and satiate his lust for blood...

On the heels of their first film, a rock ‘n’ roll showcase called Rock Rock Rock! (1956) for DCA, producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky wanted to tackle a horror movie next and concocted a treatment to resurrect Frankenstein and his Monster, written by Subotsky, who claimed his take would hew closer to Mary Shelley’s original novel. Looking for funding, they took the idea to Eliot Hyman, who was the head of Associated Artists Pictures at the time. And while Hyman liked the pitch, he was not willing to back these two novices. However, he knew a guy in England who would be willing to take a shot and probably pull it off.

Seems Hyman and AAP had just struck a deal with James Carreras and Hammer Films, who were looking for another American partner like Robert Lippert to help finance and promote their films and secure another source for distribution in the States. Lippert had helped finance and provided bankable stars to Hammer’s wildly successful adaptation of The Quatermass X-Periment (1955) and it’s sequel, Quatermass 2 (1957), and got them released in America as The Creeping Unknown and Enemy from Space.

And now Hyman sent him Rosenberg and Subotsky with their Frankenstein pitch, in which they envisioned a black and white feature with Boris Karloff returning to play the Monster. And while Carreras loved the idea of bringing the fabled man-made monster back to life he wasn’t really sold on the story these Americans were selling. And fearing Universal’s rabid trademark lawyers were ready to pounce and sue them over anything that even remotely resembled their back catalog, Carreras pretty much scrapped everything, kicked Rosenberg and Subotsky to the curb (-- a decision that would later come back and bite Carreras in the ass when those two would form Amicus Productions, Hammer’s chief rival over the next decade), and started from scratch, turning it into a period piece in the Gothic grand guignol tradition that focused solely on the conniving Victor Frankenstein -- played beautifully by Peter Cushing. And most importantly of all, the decision was made to shoot the film in glorious Eastmancolor to show off all the crimson blood and heaving tensile cleavage properly.

Thus, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was a huge hit for Hammer and Warner Bros., as was their follow up feature, Horror of Dracula (1958), which was picked up by Universal International. And in the wake of this success, while Universal had been apprehensive about these British interlopers elbowing their way onto their turf at first, in August of 1958, seeing there was a lot of money to be made in these colorized refurbishings, the fabled studio now granted Carreras and Hammer the remake rights to their entire library of classic monster movies. Now flush with prospects and an influx of cash, Carreras soon announced Hammer’s next three films: remakes of The Phantom of the Opera (1943), The Mummy (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933). All three were to be shot in Technicolor and be realized by the same production team -- producer Michael Carreras, director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and cinematographer Jack Asher, who had delivered The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).

And while Hammer’s version of The Mummy (1959) was pretty great, The Phantom of the Opera (1962) redo was a complete snoozer. As for The Invisible Man, well, he failed to ever materialize. Meantime, when Hammer and Universal first struck their deal back in 1958, they had no immediate interest in updating The Wolf Man (1941). And by 1960, they still had no interest in retelling Lawrence Talbot’s tale of doomed angst and woe or Wilfred Glendon’s search for the curative but highly elusive mariphasa plant. But, Universal did own the rights to Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, and so, obtained permission to adapt that for Hammer’s first werewolf picture, which would also turn out to be their last and only werewolf picture.

Now, I had always felt the main reason the ever cash-strapped Hammer was hesitant to make The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and shied away from any type of sequel or follow-up like all their other monster franchises was because it was too expensive and too time-consuming to pull off the needed transformation sequences. But after digging into the history of its production, turns out it wasn’t concerns over the special-effects budget that was the problem. Nope. See, after years of proudly flaunting the X-certificates their films had received from the British Board of Film Censors, even flagrantly incorporating them into their titles with The Quatermass X-Periment and X: The Unknown (1956), the BBFC, who had taken a lot of heat and grief from many quarters for what they’d let the studio get away with already over the years, was now ready to, forgive me, drop the hammer on Hammer Studios.

And so the stage was set for this showdown as producer Anthony Hinds hammered out a script for The Werewolf, because there was no money in the budget to hire an actual screenwriter. Meantime, producer Michael Carreras was in the process of getting its proposed co-feature off the ground -- The Rape of Sabena a/k/a The Inquisitor, which dealt with the Spanish Inquisition. And so, to save even more money and allow the two films to utilize the same sets, Hinds moved his werewolf out of Paris and into a brothel in Spain. Both proposed scripts were submitted to the BBFC at the same time, which is where The Inquisitor officially died due to its salacious and blasphemous content and The Curse of the Werewolf barely clung to life as it drowned in red censor ink.

This was not unprecedented, as Hammer’s proposed adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend met a similar fate back in 1958, dying a quick and early death in the scripting phases. Now, the BBFC had crapped a brick on nearly everything in The Curse of the Werewolf, too, but the biggest objection was over the werewolf’s paternity and seedy origin, which reeked of bestiality; and so they wanted the whole subplot with the beggar raping the girl removed, leaving it to Hinds to find an alternative. They also demanded every werewolf attack be implied and not explicit in anyway. And most importantly of all, any notion of the perceived perverse combination of blood and sex was to be expunged, meaning Hammer essentially had no movie: no beginning, no middle, and no end as once the lengthy origin concludes with Leon’s demons brought under control as he grows older under the care of his “aunt and uncle.” But when he comes of age, and sets out on his own, it's no longer blood he’s lusting after if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

And so, Leon (Reed), apparently cured, leaves home and takes a job at Don Fernando’s vineyard outside of town, where he makes a new best friend in fellow employee, Jose Amadayo (Matthews). And when these two aren’t bottling wine, Leon spends his time at the window, pining after the boss’s daughter, Cristina (Feller), who is engaged to an empty-headed ponce that she cannot stand. 

Thus, as the weeks pass, even though her father (Solon) would kill them both if he ever found out, Christina and Leon engage in a clandestine love affair. But temptation comes during the next payday, when Jose talks Leon into accompanying him to the local brothel and gambling den, where they hit the wine too hard and the beast bottled up inside Leon begins to assert itself once more, which causes him to wretch out some of that wine.

And when he goes outside for some needed air, the full moon is just starting to rise. Then, one of the prostitutes, seeing an easy mark, lures the intoxicated Leon into her room, where they get a little hot and heavy until the aroused Leon loses control and bites her, drawing blood, which triggers a full transformation into his alter ego. 

After he viciously kills the girl, his rampage continues when he butchers Jose next, who had come looking for him, and then he stalks a shepherd, whose dog Pepe had killed with that silver bullet all those years ago, and kills him, too.

The following morning, when Don Alfredo finds Leon back in his old room, half naked, covered in blood, with no memory of how he got there or why the bars in the window have been destroyed, as if something preternaturally strong had busted its way in, his worst fears have been realized. And so, he takes Leon to see the priest, where they break the news to Leon that he is a werewolf and has been since he was a child. They thought they could cure him, but have ultimately failed. And so, for Leon’s sake and the safety of those around them, the priest will arrange for him to join a monastery, who specialize in this sort of thing, apparently. But until then, he will have to be chained-up and confined until the cycle of the full moon ends.

Overwhelmed by all of this, Leon flees back to the vineyard. And as the sun goes down, and the memories of the terrible things he’d done bubble to the surface, Christina finds him and is able to calm Leon down, halting the change when the moon peeks out from behind a cloud. Realizing Christina’s love can keep the werewolf at bay and is the key to his ultimate salvation, Leon convinces the girl to run off with him. But when she leaves to gather her things, the authorities arrive and arrest Leon for the murders, linking him to the crime scene through several eyewitnesses and the bloodied clothes he left behind.

From his jail cell, Leon is able to get word to Don Alfredo. Guilty of these terrible crimes, Leon’s conscience cannot let this continue despite his Uncle’s assurances that he was not responsible for his own actions. And so, he charges Alfredo, the only father he has ever known, to convince the authorities of what he is and then execute him for his crimes before the sun goes down and he inevitably kills again. And failing that, he begs Alfredo to put him down personally. Despite the priest’s help, Alfredo is unable to convince the mayor that Leon is a werewolf. He will hang for his crimes, have no doubt, but he must stand trial first. Knowing that will be too late, with a heavy heart, Alfredo goes in search of Pepe for one of those leftover silver bullets...

After the initial wholesale rejection of the entire script by the BBFC, James Carreras was ready to pull the plug on The Curse of the Werewolf altogether but too much money had already been spent on the pre-production phase of both Werewolf and the now abandoned The Inquisitor as Hammer converted the town square at Bray Studios into a Spanish village. In Wayne Kinsey’s indispensable book Hammer Films the Bray Studio Years, the author goes into great detail on the censors demanded cuts and Hammer’s efforts to try and salvage something.

Both Carreras and Hinds tried every trick in the book to appease the BBFC. I have no doubt that Hinds original screenplay overdid the blood and guts and sex in some areas so other slightly less offensive material would stay in and slip by. But this appears to have backfired as the BBFC summed up his plot: “A man becomes a dog and rapes a dumb girl watched by a poor man’s Marquis de Sade … And while we understand when Mr. Carreras makes an honorable film he loses money, he should be ashamed of this obscene muck.” And when Hinds pointed out his script had already been submitted to Universal and was approved by the MPAA, the BBFC only dug its heels in even more.

With just two weeks before shooting was scheduled to commence -- ironically enough to get the film finished and released by May, 1961, in time for summer break so American school kids could see it more easily, it took a meeting between the head of the BBFC, John Trevelyan, director Terence Fisher, and Hinds and a lot of promised compromises for The Curse of the Werewolf to receive an Adults Only X-rating in Britain. And this was only tentative, as the finished film would have to pass the censors again before it could be released or banned outright. This shaky truce was at least enough to get the production rolling.

Again, Trevelyan’s biggest objection was the bestiality of the opening segment and the implication Leon was having sex and sucking the blood of the prostitute before he killed her. And while Hammer complied to some of these demands and cuts, they fudged on some others as a lot of objectionable material was left in -- otherwise the film had no punch and made no sense. And when the film wrapped, in another attempt at subterfuge, they presented a black and white work-print to the BBFC, hoping the lack of color and sound would lessen the impact of some scenes, but again, this backfired and then the shit really hit the fan.

“There is a good case for rejecting this film,” said Trevelyan in a memo to Hammer. “The theme is horrible enough and it has been made, despite all our warnings, in a morbid and disgusting fashion … But it was agreed that a list of heavy cuts should be made without a promise for eventually passing it. The only possible category is X.” Here, Trevelyan reiterated what still needed to go: cut out the beggar sequence entirely; cut out the Marquis’ death; cut out any visual reference to young Leon being a werewolf; cut out the baptism sequence; cut the entire scene with the prostitute once they reach her room; cut back the scene where he kills Jose; cut the scene where Leon killed his cellmate before his final rampage; no visible blood on the werewolf; and no shot of the werewolf postmortem. And once those changes were made, the BBFC wanted to see a color version of the film with full sound before making a final decision on the rating.

Again, if Hammer made all the demanded cuts they would have had no film left. And so they cut a little here, nipped a little there, and stubbornly refused to remove anything else. But after screening the final cut it wasn’t enough and the BBFC demanded even more changes. At this point, Hinds essentially threw himself on his sword, saying Universal was on the verge of giving up on the film, feeling it was too watered down already and no longer bookable. He also rightfully pointed out that the BBFC had recently granted Psycho (1960) an X-Certificate. Surely, if a film where a transgendered psychopath stabs a naked woman to death in a shower got a pass, Hinds insisted, why was their silly little werewolf movie having so much trouble? 

And if he cut out the shots of the werewolf at the end, he would have no ending at all as Leon broods in his cell, waiting out the inevitable as the moon rises and he once more loses his soul to the beast. And once transformed, he kills his cellmate -- only implied to appease the censors, and then breaks out of his cage and murders the jailer.

Here, Christina arrives too late, as an angry mob of villagers torch-up and man their pitchforks as the werewolf takes to the rooftops and is herded toward the church, where it climbs into the belfry and bellows at those below. 

Meantime, Don Alfredo retrieves a silver bullet from Pepe and confronts Leon in the steeple as the bells ring and the werewolf gets his Quasimodo on for a bit. And with no alternative, Alfredo fires and the silver bullet rips into the werewolf’s chest; it falls, thrashes for a bit, and then falls silent. And when Alfredo rolls the beast onto its back, he sees a single tear trickle down Leon’s face before covering him up with his cloak, bringing this tragedy to an end.

Obviously, Hinds was able to get his final shot in, but right up until the release of The Curse of the Werewolf they were still making cuts so late in the game you could actually hear the soundtrack skipping in spots in the theatrical prints. 

In the end, Hammer got their needed X-certificate and The Curse of the Werewolf was released on a double-bill with the delightful murder mystery, The Shadow of the Cat (1961), which Hammer had "borrowed" from BHP Productions after The Inquisitor bit the dust. And while it did well enough at the box-office there was no real demand or desire to do another werewolf picture. Can you really blame them?

Later, The Curse of the Werewolf was fully restored to what Fisher and Hinds had originally intended -- on which this review is based, making this whole shit-storm with the BBFC meaningless. And in hindsight, one can see it was a whole lot of something over a whole lot of nothing. Still, one can kinda see how with the constant struggle Hammer had with the censors over the years this set the stage for the Video Nasty purge of the 1980s, where owning certain horror films could land you in jail.

Thus, it’s easy to see why The Curse of the Werewolf is a bit hackneyed. Structurally, it’s a mess and could almost be considered an anthology with essentially three different stories -- the beggar werewolf, young Leon werewolf, and older Leon werewolf, smushed together. And while each individual section is kind of interesting and works separately, together it’s too much and yet not enough as I think too much time is wasted on the backstory of the beggar on the front end and not enough time was spent on the back end as the werewolf doesn’t really show up until the one hour mark of a 90-minute movie. Thus, The Curse of the Werewolf can’t quite decide if it’s a monster movie or a tragic love story and ultimately fails at being both or either.

One of the film’s true bright spots was Oliver Reed, playing his first leading role as Leon Corledo after cameoing in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) and The Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960). And Reed brings such a raw sensual sexuality to his part one can almost understand why the BBFC was in such a dither. And with the scenes where he loses control and kills the prostitute, and later, as he mournfully watches the moonrise from his jail cell, you can see that guy was going places.

Even in the heavy werewolf make-up Reed’s presence shines through. And funnily enough, the only reason Reed got the part was because make-up specialist Roy Ashton felt the actor’s facial bone structure was perfect for the werewolf design he concocted. And I do love Ashton’s take and Leon is one of my all time favorite cinematic werewolves. The effect was accomplished with a false cranium headpiece that attached just above the eyebrows. More hair was thatched in on the jowls and neck to give the actor and stuntman freedom of movement. 

Beyond that it was just a leotard covered in yak hair, false teeth, colored contacts, and nostril inserts. It took about two hours to complete the transformation, and in between takes, unable to remove the make-up, Reed was known to take his lunch breaks at a local pub just up the street fully made up as the werewolf, where, as the legend goes, one of the barmaids fainted at the sight of him. Also of note, the reason all the promotional shots of the werewolf show him menacing his mother, Yvonne Romain, is because Catherine Feller, the love interest, found the make-up too unsettling and begged off.

I guess all of this behind the scenes drama makes it kind of hard to judge The Curse of the Werewolf properly due to all the compromises Hammer made to appease the censors. It’s problems are many, to be sure, but it’s still one of my favorite Hammer productions because of Reed’s performance, the realization of the werewolf, and I even kinda dug it’s out-of-the-box thinking on the origin of the beast. 

But I honestly wish as much care and detail had gone into the final third of the film as the first and then they might’ve really had something here. Maybe even enough to bring Leon back for a sequel. Alas, it just wasn’t meant to be and, for once, the werewolf stayed dead for good. For even a film producer who is pure at heart and submits his script air-tight, won’t get another werewolf picture past the BBFC with any blood or sex in sight.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's three review down with 23 more to go! Up Next: When you go into the woods these days odds are good you're gonna die!

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) Hammer Films Production :: Universal International / EP: Michael Carreras / P: Anthony Hinds / AP: Anthony Nelson Keys / D: Terence Fisher / W: Anthony Hinds, Guy Endore (novel) / C: Arthur Grant / E: Alfred Cox / M: Benjamin Frankel / S: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller, Richard Wordsworth, Anthony Dawson, Josephine Llewellyn

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