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.