Unlike Universal, which had its writers concoct original stories for its werewolf films of the ’30s and ’40s, Hammer Studios used a literary source — namely Guy Endore’s sensationalistic 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris — as the basis of its lone such effort, 1961′s The Curse of the Werewolf. Directed by Terence Fisher and scripted by producer Anthony Hinds (using the nom de plume John Elder), the film is a very loose adaptation of Endore’s book, as evidenced by the fact that the setting was moved from France to Spain in order to utilize a set that the studio had built for a film about the Spanish Inquisition that never got made due to censorship problems. Even so, within those limitations Fisher and Hinds managed to produce an engaging film that adhered to the spirit, if not always the letter, of Endore’s story.
They also gave Oliver Reed’s budding film career a boost by casting him as the title creature, the son of a mute servant girl (Yvonne Romain) who was raped by a mad beggar (Richard Wordsworth) who was imprisoned by an excessively cruel Marques (Anthony Dawson) and left to rot in his dungeon for several years. The whole set-up is a major change from the novel, but the boy’s dubious parentage — as well as the fact that he was born on Christmas Day, which is considered an ill omen — is not. That doesn’t come to pass, however, until after Romain has escaped from the Marques and been taken in by a nobleman (Clifford Evans) and nursed back to health by his servant (Hira Talfrey), who is the first to voice concern about her impending due date. She’s also the one who has to take care of the child after his mother dies in childbirth, which is only fair since his father died right after conceiving him.
The next part of the film pretty much comes straight out of Endore’s novel as the child, who has grown into a young boy (Justin Walters), begins changing into a wolf (which he believes is just bad dreams) after he gets his first taste of blood. Evans puts bars on his windows to prevent him from getting out at night and consults a priest whose knowledge of lycanthropy is pretty shaky, but the holy man’s diagnosis that what the boy needs is extra love to counteract his wolfish nature seems to do the trick until he grows up to be Reed and is ready to go out into the world. As befits a young man who needs to stay on the straight and narrow, he goes to work at a winery where he falls in love with the boss’s daughter (Catherine Feller), despite the fact that she’s already engaged to a priggish fop. Their relationship is further doomed when he abruptly resumes his beastly ways after being dragged by a co-worker to a house of ill repute for a night of debauchery. Sure enough, it isn’t long before he’s begging to be put out his misery, but first he has to have one last night on the town — literally.
Unsurprisingly, a great deal of the film goes by before we see Reed in his wolf form. (Then again, Reed himself doesn’t even show up until the film is half over, but he takes command of it once he does.) When we finally do get a look at it, though, it’s quite a stunner — unlike any other werewolf design I’ve ever seen. It’s a pity this film wasn’t a financial success for Hammer, but in a way I’m glad they didn’t drain the life out of the concept, as they did with their other, long-running monster series. This also left the door open for another British company — the short-lived Tyburn Film Productions — to take another stab at Endore’s novel 14 years later.
Not only does 1975′s Legend of the Werewolf have the feel of an old-school Hammer film (the period setting, decent production values on a limited budget, the emphasis on sex and blood), it was even made by a number of Hammer vets, from director Freddie Francis and screenwriter Anthony Hinds (again using his John Elder pseudonym) to star Peter Cushing and supporting player Michael Ripper (who also appeared in The Curse of the Werewolf). It’s no mere retread, though. Rather, Hinds used some of the story elements that hadn’t made it into his previous adaptation and even moved the setting back to Paris (which doesn’t prevent most of the cast from speaking in British accents, but there’s nothing unusual about that).
Cushing gets top billing, but he doesn’t appear until the story is well underway. Instead, the film opens with an orphaned baby being adopted by a pack of wolves and growing into a feral child who is taken in by professional swindler Hugh Griffith, who makes the wolf boy the star attraction in his decidedly low-rent traveling show. Eventually the boy grows up to be a strapping young lad (David Rintoul) who transforms into a hairy beast under the full moon one night and, after making his first kill, hightails it to the city whereupon he immediately lands a job as assistant to grubby, raspy-voiced zookeeper Ron Moody. He also promptly falls in love with prostitute Lynn Dalby, who tries to keep her profession a secret from him with predictable results. Meanwhile, forward-thinking police surgeon Cushing takes an interest when bodies start showing up at the morgue with their throats torn out and investigates the attacks on his own initiative, despite being warned off the case by inspector Stefan Gryff (one of the few actors who even attempts a French accent). As for Ripper, he’s one of Rintoul’s victims, who’s so unfortunate I don’t even think he gets to be discovered by the police.
Since Legend of the Werewolf predates The Howling and An American Werewolf in London by half a decade, its makeup and transformation effects aren’t groundbreaking in any way, but the werewolf does have a great look that holds up well even at the end of the film when the camera settles down and holds on him long enough for us to really study it. And speaking of the ending, this may very well be the first werewolf film on record where the fully transformed creature is still able to speak and be reasoned with. I know there are a number that have come out since where that is the case, but it’s nice to see a werewolf on film that isn’t entirely bestial, that hasn’t completely lost touch with its humanity.