I have never felt much affection for Hammer’s first and only take on the werewolf legend, The Curse of the Werewolf. Oliver Reed as a werewolf seems like the most promising concept, but I always felt the movie spent too long in set-up mode with only a short pay-off. In all fairness, this was often a problem Hammer had.
This time I watched the movie immediately after completing the novel on which it is based, The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore, first published in 1933. It’s an exceptional book that combines werewolf terror with an historical novel set against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune.
The Hammer version shifts the setting to Spain for budget reasons; the studio had some standing sets leftover from a Spanish historical drama, so the story was Iberianized. Unfortunately, this means jettisons most of the flavor and political drama of the novel. Many of the same events occur in the movie, but the fervid second half of the novel set among Paris in the throes of war and revolution no longer fits, and the film doesn’t have anything equivalent for thrills. (Hammer couldn’t have afforded the scope of the conclusion of the book, anyway.)
But… I enjoyed The Curse of the Werewolf this time more than I ever have. Part of it was analyzing how it uses elements of the novel, the other part was simply letting go of “werewolf mayhem” as the prime criteria for enjoyment. The full werewolf only appears during the last eight minutes— which is definitely a problem for the pacing—but I was impressed to see how much savagery the movie packs into the first half hour, divorced of any lycanthropy: madness, torture, rape, decrepitude, brutal classism, and a vicious bloody stabbing with what appears to be a metal funnel used to douse enormous candles. The film then goes through its most difficult stretch in the center before the arrival (47 minutes into a 90 minute film) of Oliver Reed as Leon. Reed is great in the part, of course, because he carries with him the lurking sense that he’s about to flip out at any moment and doesn’t need wolf strength to rip our your throat.
What hurts The Curse of the Werewolf most and restrains it from the level of some other Hammer classics is the mentor figure as played by Clifford Evans doesn’t have the gravitas that a Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or Herbert Lom would have put into the part. This character needs to hold up the middle of the film, and Evans lets it sag.
Here’s a piece of trivia: actor Peter Sallis is in both this and Curse of the Were-Rabbit. (Sallis has done the voice of Wallace since the inception of the Wallace & Gromit series.)