hammer icons curse of the werewolf
The one with Oliver Reed
words by Jonathan Clode
In the realm of great and iconic ghouls, I love the werewolf most of all. It could be because they represent the duality of the human condition; that anyone can become a beast at the flick of a lunar switch. It’s most likely because they frightened the bejesus out of me when I was a kid, such is the lineage of all great horror passions.
It was a restless night soon after moving from the city to the seaside and I was but six-years-old. Fumbling down the stairs still half asleep and looking for reassurance I found my parents glued to the television. A man in the grip of a terror I’d never seen before was racing through the London Underground, stalked by an unsighted monster. I was hastened back to bed and a slumber filled with the torment of wolves that walked like men. And so began a lifelong fascination.
For the next few years, every trip to the video shop found me taunted by VHS covers for films like The Howling, Silver Bullet and the architect of all my unease, An American Werewolf in London. I would soon muster the grit to watch it, and to this day American Werewolf remains my absolute favourite film in any genre. So many years and so many lycanthropes later, it seems daft to say that I had to build up to the moment where I could confront what had become a very real fear. But werewolves intrigued me as much as they frightened me, and that’s in no small part down to Hammer films, Oliver Reed and 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf.
Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, who have always been instantly identifiable, there is no singularly iconic werewolf born of a literary classic. In fact, it wasn’t until Universal’s The Wolf Man came along in 1941 that the mythology so closely associated with them was properly defined. If you care to read up on werewolf folklore, you’ll find all sorts of bizarre happenstance among the causes of lycanthropy. While the movies generally make use of bites as the typical origin story, I don’t recall too many werewolves being created because somebody drank water downstream from a wolf. In 1935, Werewolf of London combined bites with botany to transform and then defeat Henry Hull’s wolfman and Lon Chaney Jr. ultimately gets a silver cane to the face as his redemption. For Hammer, it was Guy Endore’s 1933 novel Werewolf of Paris that served as the basis for The Curse of the Werewolf. While it may seem a lazy title given they’d already utilised the Curse prefix for Frankenstein only four years prior, it’s far more apt than it was for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee’s gory adventure.
The opening credits present us with Oliver Reed’s eyes below a perspiring brow. He is in the throes of his transformation, not quite man and yet to fully yield to the beast. But there is something else; you miss it at first thinking it’s just more sweat, but there are tears. Whatever this creature may be, whatever he has done, it has given him cause to weep. Perhaps the curse is more important than the werewolf…?
Oliver Reed plays Leon, but first we meet him as a boy, never bitten or bedevilled, he is a wolf from the moment he is conceived. The fates of Larry Talbot and David Kessler are nothing compared to the cruel sequence of events put in motion for this little lad to turn feral.
Some years before Leon is born, a beggar chances upon an empty Spanish town where the bells ring like it’s Sunday, only it isn’t. All the locals are engaged in a kind of conscious blasphemy via enforced celebration of the Marques’ wedding day. The beggar bumbles his way into the revelry, where he is made the pet of the Marques’ bride and ridiculed in exchange for food and wine. Imprisoned and left to rot for many a year, he rapes the mute serving girl who brings him scraps. No mention is made of curses or wolves, yet his entire body is covered in hair, looking like a stray dog gone wild. The despicable Marques has found himself alone in life, his awful nature seemingly rotting his complexion. Looking to impose himself upon the servant girl, she murders him in his bed-chamber. You would be forgiven for questioning where the hell all the werewolves are, but I would urge you to remember that this is Hammer, and never quite what you expect.
To live under the curse of the werewolf is to suffer immeasurably, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sprouting fangs at the next full moon. This is a story about victims and the irrelevance of innocence. The beggar, a man at the mercy of people with so much more than he has, is transformed into everything they perceive him to be. He leaves something more than just his seed in the belly of the poor serving girl. She is rescued, taken in and cared for by kindly Teresa and Don Corledo, only to die in childbirth. Her son is adopted by the Don, raised well and always loved; but that matters not. Leon is a werewolf, and he’s killing all the village livestock. He thinks they might be nightmares, but he rather likes what happens in them. He knows it’s wrong, but the blood tastes so sweet. So finally, some werewolf action! Well, no, not quite. Leon grows into Oliver Reed and the film is almost halfway through.
It would be easy to quip that Reed didn’t have to stretch to play a wolfman. His hedonistic hijinks often leapfrogged his prodigious talent, but this was his first lead role. Much like Lon Chaney Jr and David Naughton, he is as charming as he is vulnerable, and once he can no longer escape the reality of his curse, we understand why he wept. Countless actors have played this role but these three, radically separated by style and setting, stand tallest.
Like so many Hammer monster designs, Reed’s wolfman is unique and underrated. The choice to make his fur grey seems odd, but under the light and shadow of the tiny number of scenes he appears in, it works perfectly. Three carefully placed streaks of blood running from his maw and fierce, drooping eyes reveal his wrath, but it is not Leon’s vengeance we are watching unfold. This carnage is owned by the harmless beggar who set these awful events in motion so many years before.
Mad scientists usually learn their harsh lessons, monsters are set free from their torment and vampires vanquished; but the werewolf dies tragically, often alone, and with no great justice served having seldom done any wrong in the first place. Not even love can set him free. And so it is for poor Leon, killed by a silver bullet straight through the heart. He doesn’t even revert to his human form, the wolf has always been his truth.
Werewolves have always been conveniently symbolic; their origins could easily be attempts at early psychology as much as the ravings of superstitious village folk. But more than most, this is a tale that leaves us cold and unsettled. No matter the goodness in you, there is a monster hiding inside just waiting to be unleashed; the poem in the original Wolf Man taught us as much. But Hammer, as they are wont to do, churned this notion beyond being the victim of circumstance. The cycle of this werewolf, and the fetid heart of its curse, is born from the depravity of human behaviour. You don’t need to get lost on a moor or even so much as scratched, the absence of decency is all it takes.
I’m sure that as a six-year-old I didn’t quite grasp such existential dread, and I certainly wasn’t dwelling on it on a grim Wednesday night in Newton Video. Werewolves, I thought, are scary and cool. That perspective hasn’t changed in thirty-five years, but with one small caveat. Even more so than the creature made of corpses who never asked to live, and beyond the immortal loneliness of the Count who will not die, the werewolf is a being of supernatural sadness with no Shelley or Stoker propelling it. Instead, it relies on us to give it life, our own transgressions are all it needs to come to life. It’s that frightening notion that is the true legacy of the Hammer wolfman.
A final aside: In American Werewolf in London, just as he begins to fear he might actually be a monster, David asks Alex if she’s seen The Wolf Man. Her reply: “Isn’t that the one with Oliver Reed?”
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