Monday, October 8, 2007

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961): or, A Tale of Bitter Woe (Wo-wo-wah-ooooooo)

First off, confession: I am a huge, HUGE fan of The Wolf Man (1941); I count it among my most favoritest movies of all time and credit it with inspiring my love of horror that continues to this day. Since first viewing Lon Chaney Jr.'s legend-making performance when I was 6 years old, I've sought out other werewolf movies, particularly the classics, in hopes of recapturing that feeling of first discovering the manbeast.

In the dark ages before the internet, before cable and even the VCR, I haunted the film section of my local library, reading every book on horror movies I could find. I scoured flea-market coverless issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, seeking information. Every week I pored over the TV Guide, looking for horror movies in the wee hours on the 3 channels available to me. Finding one was akin to discovering a buried treasure, and my entire weekend would be structured around getting enough sleep to stay up late and watch.

Bear with me here.

All through those years, the one movie that I kept reading about, kept seeing stills for, kept salivating over, and yet was never able to find on TV, was the Hammer Horror 1961 werewolf entry Curse of the Werewolf. I saw the stills of Oliver Reed in that iconic makeup, similar to Lon Chaney's but different enough to be totally new, and ached to watch this movie. I read critical reviews praising it, but never found it in my TV Guide. Incredibly, even after the advent of cable and the VCR, I never found it on my TV or in my rental store. Over the years the desire waned, and I forgot.

Until last year, when The Hammer Horror Collection was released. There he was on the cover--Oliver Reed in all his lycanthropic glory, waiting to be watched at long last by me. With childish glee I purchased the DVD set, mindless of the other features contained therein, seeking only to finally satisfy my long-held desire: to see Curse of the Werewolf and rejoice.

Perhaps it was inevitable that I would be disappointed. After all, what film could bear that level of accumulated expectation? How could it possibly live up? I am willing to admit, perhaps all those years of privation led me to expect too much.

Still, though, I didn't expect the unrelenting, pitiless snoozefest that awaited me.

Curse of the Werewolf is, quite simply, one of the WORST werewolf movies I've ever seen, and before you ask, yes, I have seen Werewolf and An American Werewolf in Paris. In a 92 minute movie, Oliver Reed (the protagonist) does not appear for nearly a full HOUR, and after he does, it's another 15 minutes before he finally becomes the werewolf. Do the math.

This (fantastic) still is better than the whole movie.
Stare at this for 92 minutes instead.

Now this would be fine if the previous running time were spent building up tension, investing us in the characters, ratcheting up the suspense until the release of the beast coincides with the release of our own unbearable expectation. But it doesn't do that, oh no. By the time Reed wolfs out, those who are not asleep will be shouting "FINALLY! ABOUT DAMN TIME!" But even then, you're in for more disappointment.

But I get ahead of myself. Plot summary follows. Complete and Utter Spoilers Below, but really, don't worry yourselves.

The first 45 minutes of the movie are an interminable back story about how Ollie was conceived, none of it having anything at all to do with lycanthropy. A beggar is unjustly imprisoned by an evil Marquis, and in the dungeon over years becomes more and more beast-like, held to his humanity only by the kindness of a mute servant girl who feeds him. When the aged Marquis tries to force himself on the girl, she rebels and is thrown in the dungeon for her insolence. The beggar, finding his angel on his side of the bars, at first reaches out to her with kindness--but when she is repulsed by his hideousness, the pain of rejection enrages him, and he rapes her.

Later the girl is released, murders the Marquis, and runs into the countryside where she is found by a respected middle class Spaniard, who has been narrating the story in voice-over up until now, though we don't know this until he appears, more than a half-hour in.

Let me stop there and give some props. There's some very nice Marquis de Sade-ish behavior by the wicked Marquis, and the devolution of the beggar from man to beast in the dungeon, made an animal because he was treated like an animal, gave me real hope that the movie would have something a bit thoughtful to say about man's inhumanity to man and the consequences of treating your fellows like beasts. The colors, as in all Hammer releases, are sumptuous, and the mute girl is nice to look at. At this point, even though the word "werewolf" had yet to be spoken, I had hope.

Alas, all for naught. The story of the Marquis and the beggar is quickly dropped and never mentioned again. The girl gives birth on Christmas Day to the young Ollie, and she dies moments later. Since she is mute and illiterate, there's a bit of a mystery as to how the middle class Spaniard who becomes Ollie's adoptive uncle was able to narrate that 45 minutes of backstory in such meticulous detail, particularly since, even if the girl had been able to write it down, she couldn't have known about half the events narrated, which happened well before her birth. But it doesn't matter in the end, because none of that has anything to do with why Ollie is a werewolf.

You see, he's a werewolf because he was born on Christmas, which is an affront to God in the eyes of the superstitious villagers. Yes, THAT'S IT. No bite by another werewolf. No gypsy curse. No beast-man metaphorical comparisons. Not even the nonsensical but sometimes-seen idea that ingestion of wolfsbane somehow turned him wolfy. Nope, because he was born on Christmas, an evil animal spirit enters him at birth, which battles his soul throughout his life for control. If he experiences love, happiness, contentment, his human soul wins; if rejection, anger, hatred, evil, the beast spirit takes over. All this is related by a priest who oversees the boy's baptism, complete with howling winds and boiling holy water. How he knows is anyone's guess. I suppose he took a class in seminary.

So we get another long stretch of Ollie as a child and the troubles of local goat farmers whose goats are getting killed by a young wolf that we never see. The adoptive uncle and aunt become werewolf enablers by keeping Ollie locked in his room and framing a local dog for the crimes. Ollie grows up unaware of his beastly nature, and because the aunt and uncle are so nice, never wolfs out again, apparently. Until an hour in, when he moves off to seek his fortune in a neighboring town.

"God, I wish I was drunk right now. Oh, wait...I am."

Another pause here--so the uncle and aunt know Ollie is a werewolf, but Ollie doesn't. They also know that if he gets mad or hurt, he's liable to wolf out. Yet they're perfectly all right with him going off on his own completely blissfully unaware of this? Not even a taking him aside, "By the way son, something you should know...?" Argh.

Blah blah blah, on and on and on. Ollie gets a job at a winery, falls in love with the vinter's daughter, she's already engaged, he gets drunk in despair, and FINALLY we get the werewolf. Check that--we get the werewolf's HANDS. He kills a couple of folks, runs back home to Auntie and Uncle, returns to work the next day, gets arrested for some reason, and rots in jail until nighttime. The uncle comes to get him out but can't, so he instead gets a silver bullet and prepares for the worst. Thanks, Unc, you're a real pal.

So it's not until literally the LAST FIVE MINUTES OF THE MOVIE you see that iconic makeup. Now I'm not one that thinks the transformation is the be-all end-all of werewolf flicks; but even so, the transformation is poor. Chaney's was better, twenty years earlier. But that makeup does look fantastic, and Reed wears it well.

But while it's good, what does he do in wolf form? Does he go on a rampage? Does he terrorize anyone? Oh no, that's too clichéd . That's just what you'd expect out of a freakin' WEREWOLF MOVIE. No, instead he climbs to the roof of a church, pursued by a torch-bearing mob, and spends much of his final 5 minutes screen time leaping from roof to roof, well out of reach of the crowd, and thus no danger to any of them. ("I spit at suspense! HOCH, PTUI!") Somewhere in there director Terence Fisher apparently got drunk and imagined he was making The Hunchback of Notre Dame instead, as Wolf-Ollie displays his gymnastics skills by vaulting and climbing and swinging and descending and then climbing again--this goes on forever, and never gets anywhere--and then at last goes into the bell tower and glowers at the crowd from there until his uncle comes up, rings the bells (stunning the poor doggie) and shoots him with a silver bullet. The end.

"Sanctuary! SANCTUARY!"

Words really cannot describe how ABYSMALLY disappointed I was in this movie. It was so bad I almost wish I'd never seen it. Better to have kept my unsulled, imaginary view of it than to see it for real and have it turn out to be the disjointed, nonsensical, poorly-acted and anticlimatic snoozefest it turned out to be. To give you an idea of my soul-crushing disappointment: I also watched Uwe Boll's House of the Dead for the first time the same weekend, and I preferred it to Curse of the Werewolf, because at least you could laugh. CotWW was so slow and uninvolving I couldn't even joke about it.

To make a long story short (TOO LATE!), just a stupid, slow, incoherent mess of a movie with a few minutes of great makeup. One-half Thumb. My advice--avoid avoid AVOID. Save yourselves. It's too late for me...


Michael said...

Tragic bitch of a lycanthropic lumiere.

I'm a big-time Hammer aficionado -- with roots in horror fandom similar to your own as described here, Vicar. I too was gleefully excited when the Hammer Horror Collection hit the shelves. CotWW was my second screening from the discs, if I rightly remember, and still my biggest disappointment. WTF? I mean Terence Fisher, Oliver Reed, Hammer in their heyday... Should'a been a shoe-in. Blehhh. All for naught. A tedious attempt at an "intelligent" horror film. And ten years later, they'd be making... "Lust for a Vampire." With definite appeal to, well, other bodily extremes.

Still one of the best Hammer makeups, though. And the whole production looks great. But best appreciated when you're ready for a little shut-eye.

My favorite werewolf scene: the opening 10 minutes from "Frankenstein meets the Wolfman". High on the Werewolf Sleaze-O-Meter: "Werewolf Woman."

Richard of DM said...

I liked this movie. Overrated? Maybe. Disappointing? Not at all.

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