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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

The Werewolf Brings Da Hamma!

Monday, October 24, 2005

One of the cool things about this werewolf movie tour has been the discovery of other little bits of movie history along the way. Like the history of the Wolf Man franchise run by Universal Pictures and all starring Lon Chaney Jr. Today's little side-discovery in the way of movie history comes compliments of the 1961 film The Curse of the Werewolf, a production of Hammer Films.

Hammer Films was a British company that perfected, during the 1950's and 60's, the production of low-budget and high-gore horror movies. The company quit making movies in the mid 1980's, but it enjoyed a long and successful run due in large part to agreements with major American studios to release their films to American audiences. Those films have come to be known as a sort of genre in themselves, the Hammer Horror genre.

O.K. Enough of history. When people say that Hammer Horror films were low budget, that they utilized cheap and second-hand sets, and that they recycled the same actors over and again, believe that it's as bad as it sounds. The Curse of the Werewolf is really not good. I mean, it's not horrendous, but it's a far howl from good.

Adapted from the novel The Werewolf of Paris, the story is actually set in Spain and centers around an orphan boy, Leon Corledo (played by Oliver Reed). Leon's mother was cruelly thrown into a dungeon by the town's evil Marques, where she was attacked by the only other prisoner, a beggar thrown in the dungeon by the same evil Marques years earlier. Leon is the offspring of that attack. His mother dies in childbirth, and he is raised by a kind citizen, Don Alfredo Corledo, and by his servant, Teresa.

As a boy, Leon discovers he likes the taste of blood. Then he takes to leaping out his bedroom window at night during the full moon and tearing out the throats of the villagers' goats. And here's where it gets interesting: his parents figure this out (they find him their fang-bearing son seeting at the window in the middle of the night), and they approach the local priest (we are in mid 18th century Spain). The priest quite matter-of-factly diagnoses the boy as a werewolf. His explanation? Sometimes, as an accident of birth, of heredity, the evil in a person's soul will so dominate the good that the person is rendered an animal. The cure, of course, is the same thing that cures everything in movieland--love.

For a time, the love of Leon's parents makes his lycanthropy abate, but then he comes of age and moves away to work on his own. Then he becomes a werewolf again, kills a few people, is racked with guilt, and then shot and killed by his silver bullet-wielding father.

O.K. The werewolf commonalities: the full moon, the guilt-ridden and tormented protagonist, and the silver bullet (also, the presence, ala Werewolf of London, of an antedote--love)

The werewolf distinctives: Leon's werewolfery is not something he got from a bite; he was born with it. And there's no mention of him passing it on to anyone else. So, unlike almost every other werewolf movie, where the afflicted party is a victim of animal violence, The Curse of the Werewolf's afflicted party is a victim of . . . fate.

The most valuable contribution that this movie makes to the genre is a more-thorough-than-usual examination of the human/animal dichotomy. Where most werewolf movies take this to be a given of human life--that we are prone to animal bahavior--The Curse of the Werewolf wants to know why. The answer it proposes is that, at least to some extent, it is a human-created problem.

In the film's opening scene, the beggar (Leon's father) is literally treated like a dog by the Marques, who marches him in front of his wedding guests, makes him dance for food, and then throws bones at him for him to eat off the floor. Then he throws him in a dungeon, never to look at him again. Such treatment turns the beggar into something of an animal, and he perpetuates a ferocious attack on another human being (Leon's mother). The "curse" of the werewolf can be said to be nothing else than the "curse" of how some people (the wealthy and the powerful especially) treat others (the poor), and what, in turn, they turn those people in to.

Finally, The Curse of the Werewolf is the most explicitly religious werewolf movie out there. The theology is not really worth elaborating on, but one interesting point should be made in relation to contemporary life. The village priest discovers the boy to be a werewolf, but does nothing and tells no one. So, later on, when the grown boy is once again wreaking havoc and death on the village, the mayor is made aware of this early diagnosis, he berates the priest: "You knew, and you didn't do anything?" To which the priest can only whimper, "I wasn't certain."

So, yeah, a Catholic priest covers up something about someone, and then that something emerges later to kill and destroy. Interpret as you will.

The Curse of the Werewolf is kind of fun, but it's not very good. It's not scary at all, and it takes waaaay to long to actually get to the werewolf stuff. It's kitchy and, at times, more thoughtful than the average werewolf movie; but it'll end up somewhere near the bottom of the list, I'm sure.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:55 AM


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