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Curse of the Werewolf, The
"Sometimes it so happens that the spirit of one of these beasts finds entrance into a body while it yet lives – usually at the moment of birth. Then, the soul and the spirit war with each other to gain mastery of the body. If the soul of the man is strong and clean, we'll generally exorcise the spirit of the beast before it is many years old, but if, for some reason, the soul is weak – an inherited weakness, an accident of birth – then...a werewolf. That's what he is, my son."
Conceived amongst cruelty, rape, and murder, this unwanted child was born on the same day – the very hour – as our Lord. Before he'd so much as drawn his first breath, baby Leon had been cursed as an affront to God. But Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans) isn't inclined to believe such nonsense, raising the orphaned child with love as if he were his own. And what a wonderful boy Leon proves to be! Yet one night the young boy awakens drenched in sweat and writhing in agony. Despite Leon having no memory of leaving his bedroom, a bullet fired from a musket has somehow embedded itself within his leg. This, just as a watchman is certain he's shot whatever beast has been slaughtering the goats just outside this sleepy Spanish village. The curse, as it turns out, is all too real. Appropriate measures are taken on nights of the full moon to ensure the safety of Leon and everyone around him, and he's otherwise able to enjoy a healthy, happy childhood. The beast subsides to the point that by the time Leon has grown into a young man – now played by Oliver Reed in his first starring role – that curse is hardly on the forefront of anyone's mind. But with adulthood and a lack of supervision come temptations, and with certain temptations come...well:
Cynics may sneer at Hammer's lone werewolf tale as hardly living up to its title. Thirty minutes into the film, Leon has only just been born. Oliver Reed doesn't appear right until the halfway point. The first time we see more than a hairy arm is just over an hour in, and we're not treated to a meaningful look at a fully transformed Leon until the final ten minutes of the movie. Those who complain are missing the point entirely. In keeping with its title, the emphasis here isn't directed towards the werewolf – it's about the curse. It's about the lingering horrors that stem from cruelty and inhumanity – how the aftereffects resound for generations to come. It's about unwavering love and loyalty. How the role of a true mother or father transcends blood. Duty. Sacrifice. The Curse of the Werewolf is the Hammer film I've returned to more than any other, and I've repeatedly found myself so engrossed that I've never really stopped to think about how infrequently we witness a fully transformed werewolf until it was expressly pointed out in this disc's extras.
The Curse of the Werewolf is in every way extraordinary. Its Spanish setting infuses the film with a color and atmosphere unlike anything I'd come to expect from Hammer. And "color" can be taken in the most literal sense; this is among the first – perhaps the first – werewolf movie to have been shot in full color. Its narrative is structured more like a fairy tale than a traditional horror movie. The true monster isn't a half-man/half-beast but the needlessly sadistic Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson), whose cruelty shapes everything that transpires in the film despite the man himself not surviving its first half hour. The Curse of the Werewolf is otherwise populated with good-hearted people who care for their families and their community. The tragedy is that there is no nefarious villain to vanquish so that everyone may live happily ever after. The film's performances are so uniformly strong and its characters so well-realized that the horrors to which they're subjected matter. Not only am I not champing at the bit to see a fully-transformed Leon wreaking havoc, but there's a part of me that would just as soon not see him turn at all. There are very few werewolf films I could say that about.
But when Leon's bestial side does seize hold, the result is truly astonishing. Roy Ashton's makeup effects still look spectacular even after nearly six full decades. They're a perfect complement for Oliver Reed, who, as is noted so often throughout this special edition's extras, has such a naturally animalistic quality all his own. And the gruesome aftermath of a prostitute's murder is daringly gory for a film from 1961. As little of the beast's body count is explictly shown, that sort of visceral imagery goes a long way towards allowing one's imagination to fill in the gaps elsewhere. Perhaps we don't see what accompanies the snarling and wet, crunchy gnawing we hear off-screen, but we sure as hell can picture it.
There are those who grouse and groan about the limited action throughout The Curse of the Werewolf, and there's no shortage of other movies that deliver an unrelenting onslaught of lycanthropic mayhem if that's what you're after. I don't dismiss The Curse of the Werewolf for the movie that it isn't; I celebrate it for the extraordinary film that it is. This is easily among the most powerful and enduring werewolf movies ever made. Its previous release on Blu-ray on these shores wasn't anything spectacular, devoid of any special features and buried among seven other Hammer titles. Scream Factory is lavishing The Curse of the Werewolf with the showcase it deserves, with five hours of extras – many newly-produced, others never before released in the U.S. – as well as a new 4K scan. Highly Recommended.
The packaging for The Curse of the Werewolf notes that this disc is sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, but I suspect that's a typo: that, as mentioned on Scream Factory's website, it's instead a 4K scan of an interpositive. A slightly higher generation source more closely fits with what I'm seeing, and, judging by a number of fairly significant shifts in crispness and density, some other elements may have been incorporated as well.
And while this interpositive appears to have also been the same source for the previous Blu-ray release on these shores, what Scream Factory has delivered here is by any measure a profoundly different presentation. Universal's 2016 Blu-ray release was letterboxed to the unconventional aspect ratio of 2.00:1, the reframing of which felt oppressively tight. Scream Factory's 1.85:1 remaster opens things up considerably and feels far better balanced. The colors of the previous release were dull and drab, whereas the grading on this new 4K scan is brighter and immeasurably more impactful. I will confess that there are a fair number of times in which it strikes me too bright – sunny exteriors in particular – though I still greatly prefer the hues here to the ones from a few years back. Rather than continue blathering on, I'll let these screenshots tell the story instead. The older Universal release is on the left, and this new remaster is on the right:
The Curse of the Werewolf's filmic texture remains very much intact and, with the AVC encode spanning both layers of this BD-50 disc, shows no sign of artifacting. Despite not ranking among Scream Factory's most stunning Hammer releases, definition and detail are still more than respectable, impressing the greatest when the camera's closed in tightly. It's not really in question that the elements available are the limiting factor there, though; the softest and least distinct shots look much the same way on the older Universal master as well. Some very light speckling and wear remain, but that never comes the least bit close to being intrusive. Though not in the same league as, say, Frankenstein Created Woman, this is still a wonderful presentation, and the improvements in framing and color alone are well worth the asking price.
The Curse of the Werewolf's monaural, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack to my ears sounds identical to the 2016 Universal release. And don't mistake that as a complaint, considering how terrific that disc sounded in the first place. If you're in the market for a couple of comparisons anyway:
|Universal (2016)||Scream Factory (2020)|
Never struggling with its accents or for its place in the mix, The Curse of the Werewolf's dialogue is consistently clean and clear. Benjamin Frankel's eerie, unconventional score too is generally reproduced well, and I'm particularly impressed by its heft in the lower frequencies, such as the thundering percussion when Leon transforms in his jail cell – excerpted above – and when his bloodthirsty inner beast is first fully unveiled in the streets of this sleepy Spanish village. The lossless audio isn't marred by any background noise of consequence, pops, clicks, or the like. There is a dropout or some sort of abrupt cut in the audio shortly after the 46 minute mark:
|Scream Factory (2020)|
...but that dates back at least to Universal's Blu-ray release. I don't have any other editions of the film handy to verify whether or not that issue has been present for decades, but I'm not losing any sleep over it, and this certainly doesn't have any bearing on the number of stars in the sidebar. Well done.
Also included are an optional set of English (SDH) subtitles and a pair of audio commentaries.
- Audio Commentaries: This special edition's five hours of extras kick off with a pair of very different commentaries. The first is led by special effects artist and lifelong fan of the film Mike Hill, who's joined by actress Yvonne Romain and her husband Leslie Bricusse. It takes a relaxed and more conversational tack. Romain laughs about dying in virtually every film she made, her character's younger self being played by Romain's real-life cousin, and the challenges of acting without any dialogue. Considerable time is also devoted to Oliver Reed both as an actor and as a man, and conversation can't help but turn to his alcoholism. Among the other highlights are Reed having to drink milk through a straw when in full makeup, Peter Sallis' distinction as the sole actor to perform in both The Curse of the Werewolf and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, inspired acting advice from Hammer luminary Peter Cushing, and the unfortunate loss of the transition from "uncle" to "father".
In their commentary, Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr approach The Curse of the Werewolf from perspectives more historical and analytical. Of particular interest is their extensive comparing and contrasting of Guy Endore's novel The Werewolf of Paris. They also discuss the film's contemporaneous critical reaction, Terence Fisher's sage words about the power wielded by good and evil, how thematically appropriate its title is, and further insight into why Hammer moved forward with the production despite the BBFC's stern warnings. Of the two commentary tracks, this aligns the most closely with my tastes, but their approaches are so different that both prove well worth a listen.
- The Men Who Made Hammer – Roy Ashton (19 min.; HD): Little Shoppe of Horrors' Richard Klemensen charts the life and career of his late friend Roy Ashton, one of Hammer's most prolific makeup artists. An expansive list of films is discussed here – among them The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Gorgon, She, The Plague Of The Zombies, The Reptile, Hands of the Ripper, and, most divisively, The Evil of Frankenstein – each with a fascinating note or memorable anecdote that ensures this never comes across as a lengthy laundry list. The Curse of the Werewolf is discussed in great detail, including Ashton's claim that he suggested Oliver Reed for his first leading role, along with glimpses of the artist's sketches. It's an engaging celebration of a man whose imagination allowed him to transcend his limited training and often inadequate materials.
- Serial Killer – Benjamin Frankel, Serialism, and The Curse of the Werewolf (22 min.; HD): David Huckvale (Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-Garde) offers a compellingly deep dive into Benjamin Frankel's serial score for The Curse of the Werewolf – a first for a British composer. Perched at his piano, Huckvale explains what serialism is, exactly: working within a predefined series of twelve notes to create something new. Many of the film's standout cues are explored at length, breaking down the component chords and notes as well as explaining how that suits the action unfolding onscreen. Huckvale also takes care to touch on the prolific composer's life and legacy for those not yet acquainted.
- The Making of The Curse of the Werewolf (46 min.; HD): Mike Hill is the driving force of this lengthy retrospective, which also features actresses Catherine Feller and Yvonne Romain, art director Don Mingaye, sculptress Margaret Robinson, production manager Jimmy Sangster, and archival interviews with makeup effects artist Roy Ashton and star Oliver Reed. (Sadly, Mingaye, Robinson, and Sangster have all left us since this featurette was produced.) Hill has a wealth of information about The Curse of the Werewolf to offer, including how closely the film hews to the 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris, the creature makeup drawing greater inspiration from actual wolves rather than a certain 1941 horror classic, its decidedly different approach to displaying Leon's transformation, and a great deal about how the look of the beast was executed – in parts from everyday household objects! We're also treated to some of Ashton's sketched designs, set layouts, script pages, and numerous behind the scenes photos. And, of course, there are a great many wonderful stories, from Reed making another actor literally "shit his trousers" after Lycan-Leon flung a wooden door at him to Romain running the risk of actually killing her co-star if she'd missed her mark stabbing. Well worth a watch.
- Lycanthropy – The Beast in All of Us (3 min.; HD): Mike Hill and Catherine Feller draw a distinction between werewolves and lycanthropes; perhaps a man cannot actually transform into a wolf, but he very well may believe he can. This brief conversation is peppered with panels from The House of Hammer's comic strip adaptation of the film.
- Censoring the Werewolf (14 min.; HD): The Curse of the Werewolf was hacked to ribbons by British censors, with key plot points removed, the impact of the film's final shot neutered, and virtually every shot of Oliver Reed in full, blood-caked makeup excised. A long list of film and cultural historians – Jonathan Rigby, Kevin Lyons, Steve Chibnall, John J. Johnston, and particularly Denis Meikle – explore what a dramatic impact these edits had on the movie and what led the BBFC to unleash their scissors so.
- Trailers from Hell (3 min.; SD): John Landis – sorry, I mean Terence Fisher – provides a brief introduction and commentary for The Curse of the Werewolf's trailer. And it's a different trailer than the one discussed below, for anyone keeping track at home. Landis is able to convey quite a lot in just a couple of minutes, celebrating this as the most beautifully photographed of Hammer's films and noting the production's origins as a never-to-be, decidedly werewolf-less Spanish Inquisition tale.
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min.; HD): "Their dream of love – a nightmare of horror!" It's very heartening to see The Curse of the Werewolf's trailer lovingly remastered in high definition as well.
- Radio Spot (<1 min.): And hey, it's plugging a double feature with The Shadow of the Cat!
- Still Gallery (4 min.; HD): Just over 40 promotional stills, behind the scenes photos, lobby cards, and poster art the world over are showcased throughout this automated slideshow.
The slipcover features gorgeous new artwork by Mark Maddox. If you're a purist at heart, the cover art reverses to reveal vintage painted art that's every bit as much of a knockout.
The Final Word
The Curse of the Werewolf easily ranks among Hammer's best, and it's a thrill to see this defiantly different take on the werewolf tale honored with significantly improved visuals and so many hours of extras. Highly Recommended.