I can’t let Halloween pass without talking about a Hammer film. They go hand-to-hand in my home and one of my favorites is Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). The film features some sumptuous color photography, incredibly sophisticated make-up effects for its time and a powerful central performance from Oliver Reed. It also happens to contain many references to wine.
The Curse of the Werewolf begins with a hungry beggar (Richard Wordsworth) who arrives in a small 18th Century Spanish town while church bells ring out in celebration of a wedding. He immediately visits a local bar where the townspeople have gathered and are drinking wine in abundance from crude cups. When the beggar asks them to share their wine and food he’s refused and told to visit the wedding party taking place at the home of a powerful nobleman appropriately named Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson). The local town’s people know just how sinister the nobleman truly is and suspect that the beggar will suffer his wrath but they selfishly send him there anyway. Their heartlessness and lack of compassion for the poor man will eventually have a devastating impact on the whole community. Although this is a crimson colored film in more ways than one, The Curse of the Werewolf smartly stresses that the true horrors of the world are man-made even when they have supernatural connotations.
When the beggar arrives at Marques Siniestro’s home he is forced to dance and act the fool for the Marques’s wedding guests who sip wine from golden goblets, illustrating the class differences between the town’s folk with their crude drinking mugs. Things go from bad to much worse when the beggar makes a gentle joke in the spirit of the wedding festivities. As a result, the sadistic Marques takes offense and has the beggar imprisoned for life.
As the years pass, the beggar grows more animalistic and begins to resemble an old grizzled wolf gone mad from gnawing hunger. From his isolated prison cell the only friendly face he sees belongs to the mute daughter of his jailer. In the film’s most terrible scene, the mute girl who is now a full-grown beautiful woman (Yvonne Romain), is imprisoned with the mad beggar after she refuses to succumb to the Marques’s crude advances. Thinking him a friend or at the very least a man worth pitying, she is overcome with horror when the crazed beggar sexually assaults her. Their brutal encounter ends with his death while she becomes pregnant with a monster.
The unfortunate girl eventually escapes her jail cell and kills the cold-hearted Marquis in retaliation. Hiding in the woods and forging for food like a wild animal, she’s found months later by a kindhearted gentlemen-scholar (Clifford Evans) who invites her into his home and offers to take care of her and her unborn child with help from his motherly servant (Hira Talfrey). When the girl dies in childbirth on Christmas day, the family adopts her infant son as their own. Years pass and as the child called Leon grows it becomes apparent that he’s developing werewolf traits and a taste for blood but the profound love of his family seems to keep his wolf-like urges at bay.
When he’s a full-grown man, Leon (Oliver Reed) decides to leave the comfort of home to set out on his own and finds work at a Spanish vineyard where he bottles and labels wine for a living. While surround by barrels of intoxicating vino, he falls madly in love with the vintner’s daughter named Christina (Catherine Feller) who seems capable of taming the wild beast that is inside Leon. Unfortunately Christina’s father insists she marry another man and when Leon’s heart is broken he begins transforming into a werewolf and terrorizing the town. Without his knowledge, he has become his father’s child and Leon’s final acts of violence manifest as the beggar’s horrific revenge from beyond the grave.
This unique Gothic horror from Hammer is part love story, part social allegory and part monster movie. John Elder aka Anthony Hinds’s script was loosely based on a book by Guy Endor (The Werewolf of Paris) and it takes a grim but very modern view of life by stressing that the werewolf is a product of his environment and circumstance instead of just a supernatural beast.
The impressive sets, which were borrowed from previous Hammer productions, still look fresh and are accentuated by Terrence Fisher’s direction. This is somewhat of a staid film for Fisher and lacks the abundant style that the director brought to The Brides of Dracula (1961) made the same year. Instead, the film becomes a creative showcase for Oliver Reed’s performance and he’s spectacular as well as deeply moving as the cursed werewolf. The film also provides a nice backdrop for some of the studio’s best make-up effects designed by Roy Ashton. Reed’s transformation from a handsome young man (he was just 21-years-old at the time) into a ferocious wolf is particularly startling but it’s matched by the makeup used to age and disfigure the beggar and the Marquis. The two men are not typical monsters but as their souls seemingly wither and die; their decaying faces illustrate the ravages of time and the darkness that has suffocated their hearts.
It’s easy to deduce that the numerous wine references in the film are a metaphor for all the blood that gets spilled and since this is a horror film I can’t argue with that assumption. But it is also a symbol of celebration and unity among the town’s people and a harbinger of romance for Leon. The winery brings him in contact with the lovely and gentle Christina while promising the notion of passionate and unconditional love ripening among the Spanish vineyards.
The film is available in a nice DVD package of Hammer films sold in the TCM Shop and you can currently stream it on Amazon if you want to make it part of your Halloween viewing.
The Curse of the Werewolf is suspenseful and surprisingly romantic and to celebrate the launch of the TCM Wine Club I recommend you pair it with Palacio del Conde Reserva 2007. This juicy red Tempranillo with a velvety taste and hint of spice is produced in Spain using handpicked old vine grapes that evoke the 18th century Spanish winery seen in the film. The wine also happens to marry well with lamb, which will satiate hungry wolves.
To learn more about the TCM Wine Club please visit www.tcmwineclub.com and join us on social at #CinemaSips
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Originally written for Turer Classic Movies/Movie Morlocks