Sure, Lon Chaney Jr. is known as the king of movie werewolves, but in my dojo, there’s only room for one performance, that of Oliver Reed’s barrel-chested howling beast in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. I love this film above mostly all others because a) it’s Hammer, so you know it’s awesome, b) it tells the werewolf tale in a different story than just having some lonely traveler being bitten by a werewolf, and most importantly c) Oliver Reed’s ferocious performance as the cursed Leon. The combination of these three elements make this the perfect storm when it comes to werewolf movies.
Front and center the standout in this film is Oliver Reed’s Leon. Reed has a ferocity in his stare that few actors have. He looks like he has a monster inside of him waiting to come out and does so in damn near every performance he ever played. Here he literally is allowed to let that beast out to play and it’s one of his best roles. Though he doesn’t show up in this film until later (I’d say the 30 or 40 minute mark), his time on screen is the standout of CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.
But there are other performances that shine here as well. Yvonne Romaine is one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the House of Hammer and here she plays a peasant girl forced to share a prison cell with a raving lunatic. After being savagely beaten and raped, she is with child. The child grows up to by Reed’s character and the curse of the werewolf is passed down through genetics rather than a bite here. I know rape had been addressed in earlier horror films, but I don’t remember it being handled in such an overt manner as it was in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. Nevertheless, it is an original take on how the curse is passed from one person to another (one even the recent WOLF MAN with Benicio Del Toro swiped for that remake).
Being Hammer and wanting to distance themselves from Universal monsters, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF’s design for the hairy star is quite different than Chaney’s bulbous wigged version. This werewolf is an imposing bulky beast, not the lithe and gangly animal from Universal’s yarn. Reed’s size and stature makes this werewolf look more like the beast from BEAUTY & THE BEAST crossed with Quasimodo (backed up later in scenes of the monster fleeing from townsfolk to a bell tower). Though they were debatably less successful with their Frankenstein’s Monster redesign, I definitely prefer CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF’s creature over Universal’s WOLF MAN. It’s just more imposing and powerful.
Hammer always does it best for me. I’ve always been a sucker, but this film is tops in my book. I know there were many werewolf films before it, but the savagery of Reed’s performance as Leon, the amazing make-up, the presence of gorgeous Yvonne Romaine, the tweak to the werewolf story, and the full on gothic beauty that accompanies most Hammer films make CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF a tough film to beat. It was the first werewolf film I ever saw and still ranks as one of the best.