November 04, 2006

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) vintage Oliver Reed

Region 1 NTSC DVD

(from Universal's 'Hammer Horrors Series' boxset)

Wallace and a Werewolf but no Gromit

I was inspired to watch this again after reading the latest Video Watchdog, who reviewed this entire DVD set of Hammer films - I previously looked at Night Creatures, heralding it's debut on DVD.

Casting a young Oliver Reed as a werewolf is obviously, in retrospect, a genius stroke. Years before he had a reputation as a boozy wildman, and years before he gained critical attention in leading roles for boozy wildman director Ken Russell (like The Devils and Women in Love), he was doing bit parts and horror films for Hammer, like Paranoiac and These are the Damned.

In it's 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 based on an original script written for Universal. Instead they bought the rights to Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris written in 1933. The novel may have influenced Universal's unsuccessful Werewolf of London (1935).

Decades later other werewolves that made an impression were memorable due to special effects rather than performances. In The Howling (1981) Rob Bottin used different make-up appliances for every different shot of Robert Picardo transforming. Similarly, An American Werewolf in London (1982) had Rick Baker throwing every trick in the book at David Naughton. In both cases, the final creature was mostly operated as a full-size puppet. A special effect rather than an actor. I love both movies, but the end results are successful in different ways.

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 quite startling in every glimpse we get.

However, it's a film from a different era. the aforementioned eighties werewolf movies would still play today, providing a rollercoaster of blood, shocks and in-jokes. Sixties Hammer films play more like costume dramas, Curse of the Werewolf is so traditional, it 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, he's soon working in a winery, surrounded by bottles. Note also that, at the time, Oliver Reed was much more likely to get romantic leading roles, because in 1960 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. Yet 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 Q in almost all the Bond films. Also Anthony Dawson as the lecherous disintegrating Marquess, a successfully OTT role - he was a baddie in the first Bond Doctor No, and was also Blofeld's stand-in 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 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 The Quatermass Xperiment.

Yvonne Romain spiced up the publicity stills for the film, even though she was playing Leon's mother and couldn't possibly have shared a scene with him. The two actors also appeared together in Devil Ship Pirates. Romain had another iconic part in the same year's Circus of Horrors, for a rival studio. (More on Yvonne at
Brian's Drive In Theatre.)

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 the Wallace and Gromit movie Curse of the Were-Rabbit to exploit the fact that he'd also appeared in 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 was also uncut. For years I thought the film dragged in places, but that's because British movie and TV censors had snipped away the distasteful and violent scenes away. The climax of the film even includes an early use of squirting blood - possibly a squib or hidden syringe effect - which was popularised by it's excessive use at the end of the decade, by director Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch.

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

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1 comment:

  1. I hope we get a blu-ray of this someday from Universal!..great film..Oliver Reed is fantastic in it!