The Curse of the Werewolf/The Curse of Siniestro (1961) **½
By the early 1960’s, Hammer Film Productions had succeeded rather strikingly in reinventing its image. The English studio’s program to revitalize itself by carving out a niche as the new Universal had made it one of the biggest movers and shakers on the international horror cinema scene after some two decades of obscurity, while simultaneously breathing new life into the gothic subgenre, which had long been eclipsed by the high-tech horrors of atomic bugs and commies from space. The studio began by reinterpreting Frankenstein as The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and then moved on to Dracula (Horror of Dracula), The Mummy (The Mummy), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll). Finally, in 1961, it was the werewolf subgenre’s turn. And though it certainly isn’t up to the standard set by The Mummy or the early Hammer Frankenstein films, The Curse of the Werewolf/The Curse of Siniestro at least continues to demonstrate the bold willingness to re-examine the conventions of its timeworn subject matter that was the studio’s greatest strength at the turn of the 60’s.
A beggar (Richard Wordsworth, from The Creeping Unknown and The Revenge of Frankenstein) arrives in a small town in Spain and finds the streets deserted and the church bells ringing as though it were Sunday afternoon. It isn’t. In his confusion, the beggar steps into a pub and asks its patrons to explain the curious situation, and he is told that today is a public holiday-- the Marques Siniestro’s wedding day-- and that the whole town is under orders to “rejoice.” The villagers like this about as much as I like the similar mandatory merriment of a company Christmas party, and for good reason-- their taxes are paying for the wedding celebration, to which they are naturally not invited. This, of course, also means that no one in the pub is feeling terribly generous, and one man snidely suggests that the beggar try his luck at the castle. (“That’s where all our charity is!”) To his great disadvantage, the beggar proves to be a highly literal-minded man, and he does just that.
Which brings us to the Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson, from The Haunted Strangler). The aptly named Marques Siniestro. This guy is pretty much every evil nobleman you’ve ever seen in an old movie, distilled down into one complete and utter bastard. Even his courtiers hate him, as the one who answers the door for the beggar implies with his first words to the downtrodden drifter: “Get out of here, man, before he sees you!” Ah, but it’s already too late for that, and the marques sees not only the beggar, but the tremendous potential for an evening’s entertainment that he represents. When his new bride (Josephine Llewellyn) protests at his cruel taunting of the pauper, Siniestro asks if she’d like to have him as a pet, and then talks the beggar into selling himself to her for ten pesetas. The marques proceeds to get the beggar drunk, all the better to make him debase himself for the amusement of his lords, and then has him tossed in the castle dungeon when he tires of the joke.
He’s still there some fifteen years later, completely forgotten by the marques. The only human contact he’s had in all that time has been with the pretty, mute daughter of Siniestro’s jailer (Yvonne Romain, of Devil Doll and Circus of Horrors), whose job it has been to keep him fed and watered. She’s also in charge of sweeping up around the castle, an unfortunate assignment that brings her into occasional close contact with Siniestro. One day, he attempts to force himself on her while she cleans the coal dust out of the fireplace in his bedchamber, a move which the girl resists by biting her master on the hand. She flees the room, but she’s already earned herself a stay in the dungeon, “until [she’s] learned [her] manners... and to be a bit friendlier.” The final kick in the ass is that she gets raped anyway, by the imprisoned beggar, who has been driven quite mad by his long years of undeserved confinement-- though the girl has her revenge, in a sense, in that the beggar immediately drops dead of a heart attack or some such thing after he finishes the deed. When the girl is later released and sent back up to the marques, she brings a sharp iron implement of uncertain origin with her, hidden behind her back, which she uses to stab Siniestro to a richly deserved death. Having gotten rid of the filthy old fucker, she then sneaks out of the castle, and spends the next several months hiding in the surrounding forest.
All that takes perhaps twenty minutes of screen time, and is only tangentially related to the main plot. After months of fugitive living, the mute girl is found half-drowned in a pond by a man walking through the woods, who fishes her out and takes her back to his place. This good Samaritan is Don Alfredo Corledo (The Kiss of the Vampire’s Clifford Evans), a wealthy man whose occupation we never will learn, who lives alone with his maid, Teresa (Hira Talfrey, from The Oblong Box and The Conqueror Worm). Teresa nurses the girl back to health and sets about making arrangements for the birth of her child-- that’s right, the old beggar got the girl knocked up. And as time passes, it looks increasingly likely that the baby will be born on Christmas. This is bad news, or so Teresa says, because for an unwanted child to share his birthday with Jesus Christ “is an insult to heaven.” When you put it like that, I don’t suppose we should be too surprised to see that the girl dies in childbirth, and that the powers of darkness seem to take an interest in baby Leon at his baptism.
And now, at last, we get to the real story. Don Corledo and Teresa raise Leon (Justine Walters, one of the most frightening looking children I’ve ever seen), though not, at first, as though he were either one’s child. Then, when the boy is about ten years old, something strange happens to him. After town watchman Pepe Valiente (Warren Churchill of The Crawling Eye) takes Leon on his first hunting trip, the boy begins having nightmares in which he is a wolf, hunting and killing the livestock of his town. And interestingly enough, it just so happens that a young wolf arrives in the neighborhood and starts doing precisely that at right about the time that Leon’s dreams begin. If that doesn’t get you thinking, maybe the amazingly dense growth of long, brown hair on the boy’s palms will. (I defy anyone to watch the scene in which this is revealed without blurting out something to the effect of, “Damn! That kid needs to spend a little less time jerking off!!!!”) Don Corledo, concerned for Leon’s welfare, consults the priest who baptized him (John Gabriel, from Corridors of Blood and Night After Night After Night), who tells Corledo that Leon is unquestionably a werewolf, possessed by the spirit of a savage beast because of a weakness in his soul related to the circumstances of his birth. The only possible cure (barring the obvious-- death) is for Leon’s human soul to be strengthened against the competing animal spirit. What the boy needs is parental love, coupled with strong moral teaching and a life of personal virtue. And as Leon has no parents, Corledo and Teresa will simply have to step in to take their places. In the meantime, he will have to be kept locked up in his room on nights of the full moon, for the protection of both the villagers and Leon himself-- the boy’s nocturnal activities have set off a full-fledged werewolf panic in town, and Pepe has even gone so far as to melt his wife’s silver crucifix down to make a werewolf-killing musket ball.
The priest’s program seems to have worked, because when we next seen Leon, he has grown up into the devilishly handsome Oliver Reed (from The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and The Brood), and there is no longer any sign of fur on his palms. Leon gets himself a job filling bottles at a vineyard in the next town over, where he meets a woman who could be his permanent salvation and a man who could be his ultimate ruin. The woman is Cristina Fernando (Catherine Feller), the daughter of his employer. She is a beautiful girl, unhappily betrothed to a pompous ass-pipe from a “good” family, and she may as well have “Somebody please rescue me from my fiance” written across her forehead. If she and Leon could just figure out a way to get together, she could provide him with the love and loyalty necessary to keep his inner werewolf at bay forever. The man is his coworker and roommate (I didn’t catch his name-- let’s just call him Larry Flynt ), who likes nothing better than to blow his wages on good times and bad girls. If Leon falls in with this one-man den of iniquity, not even Jesus will be able to save him. So which path does Leon take? Would you believe both at once? Everything’s okay at first; Leon and Cristina fall madly in love and begin making plans to run away together, egged on by Larry’s good-natured salaciousness. But a week later, on Saturday-- payday-- Larry talks Leon into coming with him to his favorite sleazy hangout. It happens to be the first night of that month’s full moon, and when Leon finds himself at the center of a whirlpool of vice come moonrise, we know what’s coming. Leon butchers first the girl he was with when he transformed, then Larry, then an old goatherd from his home town. Finally, Leon heads back to his old room in Don Corledo’s house, letting himself in through the iron-barred window.
Two heavy weights descend on Leon over the next two days. First, Corledo and the priest break the news to him that he’s a werewolf, and has been since he was a child. Then, after Leon flees his home to escape that unwanted revelation, the authorities catch up with him and jail him for the murders he committed the night before-- some of his torn clothes were found at the scene of the first crime. There are only two possibilities for Leon at this point. Either he or Corledo can convince his jailers to let Cristina stay with him overnight in the hope that her love for him will control his lycanthropy, or he can confess to the murders in the hope of bringing about his immediate execution. The first plan is obviously doomed, and the second founders on the rocks of his jailer’s firm belief in the due process of law. It’s a good thing Pepe still has that silver bullet he made all those years ago...
As you can see from the preceding synopsis, The Curse of the Werewolf is really three movies squashed down into one. The filmmakers didn’t do themselves any favors by playing it this way, as the only thing they could think of to bring the three successive storylines together was voice-over narration, a clumsy device to which they resort far more often even than is necessary. Several times over the course of the first two segments, the narrator will barge in to tell us something we could figure out perfectly well from the action onscreen. Worse still, nobody seems to have proofread the narrator’s lines, because he commits some real howlers along the way. The conceit here is that the narrator is really Corledo, which not only raises the question of how he knows anything about Leon’s origins (his only possible source for this information is a mute, and could thus not have told him any of it), but also renders the first words of the narration-- “About 200 years ago in Spain...”-- patently ridiculous. Then there are such gems as this: After introducing the jailer’s daughter (“a pretty, young girl who could not speak”) the narrator goes on to tell us that much time passed, and that the girl grew into a young woman, “but still, she could not speak.” When last I checked, most mutes did not suddenly acquire the power of speech when they came of age! Of course she still couldn’t speak!!!! And then there’s the hamming. Don’t even get me started about the hamming. Anthony Dawson is especially ridiculous as the marques, and he amazingly gets worse with each successive scene!
But then, without warning, The Curse of the Werewolf suddenly turns good at about the 50-minute mark when Leon grows to manhood. The transformation is every bit as radical as the one Leon undergoes on nights of the full moon. Indeed, it almost seems like the last 40-odd minutes of the movie were written by somebody else! Leon’s first night as a werewolf in particular is a superbly handled affair, with just the right mix of suspense and flat-out violence. Oliver Reed is probably the movie’s greatest asset in this final section. He looks like a man constantly at war with a barely controllable animal id, and he plays both sides of Leon’s personality convincingly, both in and out of the wolf man makeup. That makeup itself is also damn impressive, resembling a more bestial version of Henry Hull’s makeup from Werewolf of London. Like most pre-80’s werewolves, it bears relatively little resemblance to a wolf, but at least it doesn’t suggest an ape, like the makeup Lon Chaney Jr. wore in his wolf man movies. All in all, the strengths of the movie’s final phase do much to make up for the often risible first half, as does Hammer’s intriguing take on werewolf lore. The Curse of the Werewolf is far from the classic some have made it out to be, but neither is it quite the load of dim-witted twaddle that its early scenes would suggest.