Horror Film Review: The Curse of the Werewolf (dir by Terence Fisher)

The 1961 Hammer film, The Curse of the Werewolf, is a good example of a film that could succeed on casting alone.

As you can probably guess from the title, this film is about a werewolf.  And there was never an actor more perfect for the role of a werewolf than Oliver Reed.  Set aside Reed’s legendary reputation for wild off-set behavior.  Set aside the fact that Reed specialized in playing men who often seemed to have a beast lurking deep within them, a beast that was constantly bursting out.  With his handsome but scarred face and his burly physique, Oliver Reed looked like a wolf.  If I had to sit down and paint a picture of how I visualized a man who transformed into a beast, the picture would probably end up looking like Oliver Reed.

In fact, Reed is so perfectly cast in this film that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he doesn’t even show up until the last quarter or so of the film.  Clocking in at a relatively leisurely-paced 91 minutes, The Curse of the Werewolf plays out more like an extremely grim fairy tale than a traditional horror film.

It begins in 18th century Spain, with a beggar stumbling across the wedding of a cruel nobleman.  When the beggar asks for food, he’s mocked.  He’s cruelly forced to beg and then, for his trouble, he’s thrown into jail.  Isolated from the world, the beggar’s only human contact comes from his kindly jailer and the jailer’s mute daughter.  When the nobleman tries to force himself on the daughter, he’s rejected.  As a result, he throws the jailer’s daughter into the cell with the now animalistic beggar.  When she’s eventually released, she promptly murders the nobleman but she’s now pregnant with the beggar’s child.

That child is named Leon Corledo and eventually, he’ll become Oliver Reed.  But first, we watch as he grows up, the adopted son of the kindly Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans).  Alfredo’s housekeeper considers Leon to be cursed because he was born on Christmas Day and his mother died in childbirth.  Alfredo may dismiss that as a silly superstition but, as Leon grows up, strange things do happen.  Goats are murdered and, even though a dog is blamed, we know that it has something to do with Leon.

Yes, Leon is a werewolf but interestingly enough, it’s not the full moon that transforms Leon into a beast.  Instead, it’s stress and depression.  When Leon grows up and goes to work in vineyard, he’s fine until he realizes that he’ll probably never be a rich man like his boss and he’ll never have enough money to marry Christina (Catherine Feller).  That’s when he loses control and transformed.

The Curse of the Werewolf is a dark and moody film, directed in an appropriately atmospheric fashion by Terence Fisher.  Leon is one of the more tragic Hammer monsters, having been born with an affliction that he can’t control and which no one else is capable of understanding.  Oliver Reed gives a wonderful performance, revealing the tortured soul that lurks underneath the fearful exterior.  This Hammer film may not be as well-known as the Dracula or Frankenstein films but it’s definitely one that deserves to be seen.

Horror Film Review: The Revenge of Frankenstein (dir by Terence Fisher)


Last year, Gary reviewed the first of the Hammer Frankenstein films, The Curse of Frankenstein.  For today’s horror film review, I’m going to take a look at the second movie in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, 1958’s The Revenge of Frankenstein!

The Revenge of Frankenstein opens where The Curse of Frankenstein ended.  The monster (played by Christopher Lee in the first film) has been destroyed and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) has been sentenced to be executed for the monster’s crimes.  However, the Baron escapes the guillotine.  Instead, he arranges for a priest to be beheaded in his place.  Working under the name Dr. Stein, the Baron escapes to another village and, after several years, re-establishes himself as a wealthy and respected doctor.  While most of his patients are rich, Dr. Stein also helps the poor and the disabled.  By all accounts, he’s doing wonderful work but he’s also deliberately enigmatic, refusing to join the local doctors council.

Right from the beginning, we’re reminded of just how different Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein was from Universal’s version of the good doctor.  In the Universal films, Dr. Frankenstein — regardless of whether the doctor in question was Henry, Wolf, or Ludwig — was always portrayed as being misguided but ultimately noble.  If any of the Universal Frankensteins had been sentenced to death, it’s probable that they would have put on a stoic face, walked to the guillotine, and allow their head to roll.  In fact, they would have felt so responsible for the actions of the Monster that they probably would feel it was their moral duty to allow themselves to be executed.

That’s not the case when it comes to Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein.  Baron Frankenstein feels no guilt over what the Monster has done.  Go the guillotine?  No way!  Baron Frankenstein is determined to create life and if creating life means that other, lesser mortals end up dead … well, so be it.  As opposed to the Universal Frankensteins, who all developed god complexes after the success of their experiment, Baron Frankenstein has his god complex from the beginning.  And if Baron Frankenstein is a god, why shouldn’t a priest be sacrificed for the good of the Baron’s work?

Anyway, Dr. FrankenStein and his assistant, Dr. Kleve (Francis Matthews) are determined to once again bring the dead back to life.  This time, the plan involves transplanting the brain of hunchback Karl (Oscar Quitak) into a physically strong body (played by Michael Gwynn).  Dr. Kleve is worried that a brain transplant could lead to unforseen complications.  For instance, one of Dr. Stein’s chimpanzees reacts to being given an orangutan’s brain by turning into a cannibal.  However, Stein tells Dr. Kleve not to worry about it.  After all, what could go wrong?

Well, a lot goes wrong.  It’s a Frankenstein movie, after all.

I have to admit that, while I love Hammer’s Dracula films, I’ve never been a huge fan of their take on Frankenstein.  While Peter Cushing always makes for a wonderfully compelling and often chillingly evil Baron Frankenstein, the majority of the Hammer Frankenstein films always seem to move way too slowly.  Whenever I watch one of them, I always find myself growing rather impatient with the endless scenes of grave robbery and body stitching.  “HURRY UP AND BRING THAT DAMN THING TO LIFE!” I’ll find myself shouting.

However, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how well The Revenge of Frankenstein holds up.  That Cushing would give an excellent performance as Baron Frankenstein is to be expected.  But really, the entire film is well-acted and both Oscar Quitak and Michael Gwynn give poignant performances as Frankenstein’s latest experiment.  It’s a visually vibrant and nicely paced horror film, one that never drags like some of the later Hammer Frankenstein films.

The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein make for a great double feature, especially in October!

Horror Film Review: Dracula, Prince of Darkness (dir by Terence Fisher)

Draculaprinceofdarkness“My master is dead but he left instructions that the house should always be ready for visitors.”

“Who was your master?”

“His name was Count Dracula…”

— A snatch of dialogue from Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

Dracula, Prince of Darkness is notable for many reasons.

First off, this movie marked Christopher Lee’s return to the role that he played 8 years earlier in The Horror of Dracula.  After being forced to make one Dracula film without Dracula, Hammer Films was finally able to make a direct sequel to The Horror of Dracula.

As a result of Lee returning, this was also the first of the Hammer Draculas to feature the previously destroyed Lord of the Vampires being revived through a splash of blood.  This was a plot element that all subsequent films in the series would feature and, to a certain extent, you have to admire Hammer’s efforts maintain some form of continuity.  Whereas it would have been easy enough to just have Dracula show up with no explanation as to why he’s back, the Hammer films at least  tried to make sure everything followed some sort of identifiable logic.  (Or, at least they did until Dracula A.D. 1972 but we’ll get to that movie later…)

This was the first Dracula film not to feature (with the exception of the footage from Horror of Dracula that opens the film) Peter Cushing in the role of Van Helsing.  And while the film probably would have been improved by the presence of Cushing, the film does come up with a more than adequate substitute in the form of Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor.  Whereas Cushing’s Van Helsing always seemed to be a rather rational vampire hunter, Keir brings a truly demented energy to the role.

And finally, Dracula, Prince of Darkness is probably best remembered for being the Dracula film in which Dracula does not speak.  He does hiss a few times but, for the most part, Dracula is silent throughout this entire film and, instead, relies on his servants Klove (Philip Latham) and Ludwig (Thorley Walters) to do most of the talking.

Why Dracula doesn’t speak is a matter of debate.  Christopher Lee has claimed that he refused to say any of the dialogue that had been written Dracula while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster wrote, in his autobiography, that Dracula was specifically written to be a silent role.  (Or, as Sangster put it, “Vampires don’t chat.”)

Regardless of why Dracula is silent, it actually works quite well.  Sangster’s right.  Vampires don’t chat and Christopher Lee’s haughty Dracula would be the least likely of all to make small talk.  Dracula’s silence both reminds us of the contempt with which he views the living and it also plays up the animalistic aspects of the character.  It helps, of course, that Christopher Lee is one of those actors who can do more with one dismissive glare than most actors could do with 20 pages of the most florid and overwritten dialogue.

As for the film itself, it serves as a reminder that the only thing that need happen for evil to be triumphant is for stupid tourists to take a holiday in Transylvania.  Ignoring the warnings of practically everyone else on the planet, the Kents — Alan (Charles Tingwell) and wife Helen (Barbara Shelley) and Charles (Francis Matthews) and wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) — spend the night at Dracula’s castle.  Dracula’s servant, Klove, murders Alan and drains his blood over Dracula’s ashes.  Soon, Helen is a vampire, Diana has been selected to be Dracula’s latest bride, and it’s up to Sandor and Charles to save everyone’s soul.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a lot of fun.  It’s full of all the usual Hammer touches — melodramatic dialogue, ornate castles, pretty costumes, plentiful gore, unfriendly villagers, and not-quite-brilliant heroes — and, best of all, it’s got Christopher Lee proving that Dracula doesn’t need to speak to be frightening.  Subsequent films in the Hammer Dracula series would grow increasingly uneven but Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a worthy entry.

Horror Film Review Repost: The Horror of Dracula (dir by Terrence Fisher)

(As some of our longtime readers might remember, I originally posted this review on October 11th, 2013.  I’m going to be posting reviews of all of the Hammer Dracula films today so I figured I would start things off by reposting my thoughts on the very first of them, 1958’s Horror of Dracula.  Add to that, I happen to really like this review!)


Of all the monsters who have appeared in horror cinema, Count Dracula is perhaps the most iconic.  Reportedly, Dracula first appeared on film in 1920, in a silent Russian film that is now considered to be lost.  In 1921, he would appear in a Hungarian film called Dracula’s Death and in 1922, he would be renamed Count Orlok for the German masterpiece Nosferatu.  Indeed, by the time Bela Lugosi gave his famous performance in Tod Browning’s Dracula, the count had been appearing in films for at least 11 years.  In nearly 100 years of filmmaking, a countless number of actors have brought Dracula to life.

We could spend hours debating who was the best Dracula and certainly, there are some worthy contenders.  Bela Lugosi brought a continental sophistication to the role, while John Carradine was properly intimidating and theatrical.  Udo Kier, Gary Oldman, Thomas Kretschmann, Leslie Neilsen, Zandor Vorkov, and Frank Langella have all played the prince of darkness, to varying degrees of success.

Yet for me, as worthy as any of those actors may be, there is only one true Dracula and he was played by Christopher Lee.

Lee famously played Dracula in seven movies for Hammer Films and, though he has often complained about the quality of these films (especially the later ones, which tended to mix Dracula with hippies), they were largely responsible for making Christopher Lee into the iconic figure that he remains today.  It’s also largely due to Lee’s performance that horror fans like me continue to discover and appreciate the films of Hammer today.

As played by Christopher Lee, Dracula was pure evil.  Lee’s Dracula had no use for self-pity and one can only imagine what his reaction would have been if he had ever run into the self-torturing vampires of Twilight.  Lee’s Dracula had no use for doubt or regret.  Instead, he was a determined animal who was driven by a singular lust for blood.

And yet, at the same time, Lee brought an intelligence to the role that was often lacking in previous performances.  Lee’s Dracula may have been an animal but he was a cunning animal.  Whereas it’s easy for me to imagine escaping from the clutches of Bela Lugosi, I know that if Lee’s Dracula wanted me then he would have me.  There’s no escape from Lee’s Dracula.  He’s too quick, determined, and intelligent.

Christopher Lee Is Dracula

His animal nature made Lee’s Dracula frightening but it was his cunning and determination that made him dangerous and, ultimately, even sexy.  (While I’ve read that audiences in 1931 swooned over Bela Lugosi, whatever sex  appeal he may have had is lost on modern viewers like me.)  It has often been argued that Bram Stoker meant for Dracula to be a symbol of all the desires that were repressed by Victorian society.   That’s certainly true when it comes to Christopher Lee’s carnal and viscous portrayal of the character.

Of the seven Dracula films that Christopher Lee made for Hammer Films, the first remains the best.  Released in 1958 and known as Dracula in the UK and the Horror of Dracula in the US,  it revitalized the horror genre and helped to make stars of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  Especially when compared to some of the sequels that Hammer subsequently produced, it remains one of the best Dracula films ever made.

Horror of Dracula

The film is a very loose adaptation of Stoker’s original novel.  Jonathan Harker comes to Dracula’s castle in Romania.  Though posing as a librarian, Harker has actually come to the castle to drive a stake through the heart of both Dracula and his vampire bride.  However, no sooner has Harker staked the bride than he’s overpowered and bitten by Dracula.  Significantly, all of this occurs within the first 10 minutes of the film.  As opposed to certain other Dracula films, Horror of Dracula gets straight to the point.  And why shouldn’t it?  After all, anyone watching the film already knows that Dracula’s a vampire so why waste time trying to convince us otherwise?  We don’t watch Dracula for the familiar story as much as we watch to discover how different filmmakers will choose to tell that story.

When Harker’s colleague, Prof. Van Helsing (played with the perfect amount of intensity by Peter Cushing) shows up at the castle, he discovers that Harker is now a vampire and that Dracula is nowhere to be found.

Dracula, needless to say, is out for revenge.  He stalks Harker’s fiancee Lucy, as well as Lucy’s brother Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling).  Much as in Stoker’s original novel, Lucy is eventually turned into a vampire and it’s up to Van Helsing and Arthur to stop both her and her new master.

(Of course, in Stoker’s original novel, Harker is not turned into a vampire and instead marries Mina while the aristocratic Arthur is one of Lucy’s three suitors.  However, I have to say that I always thought the literary Harker was a bit on the dull side and that Arthur was always my favorite character so I’m happy that he gets to be the hero here.)

If I had to pick one film to epitomize everything that I love about the Hammer brand of horror, it would be Horror of Dracula.  As directed by Terrence Fisher, the film moves at an exciting, non-stop pace while the traditionally lush cinematography is almost bombastically colorful.  Cushing and Lee, who were the best of friends off screen, make for formidable opponents, with Cushing embodying good just as effective as Lee embodied evil.  Though it’s been over 50 years since Horror of Dracula was originally released, the film remains effective and, not coincidentally, a lot of fun.

Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing

Quite simply put, this is a film that, for so many reasons, remains a true pleasure to watch.

One final note — I often find myself lamenting that I was born several decades too late and I realize just how true that is whenever I watch a film like Horror of Dracula.  Seriously, I would have loved to have been a Hammer girl, showing off my cleavage and getting hypnotized by Christopher Lee.

Seriously, what more could you want?