Having revitalized Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy, a werewolf picture was the logical next step for Hammer Films. Based on the novel “The Werewolf of Paris” by Guy Endore, Curse of the Werewolf was relocated to 18th century Spain to make use of sets built for a Hammer movie called The Inquisitor, which was abandoned following objections from the Catholic church. Benjamin Frankel’s score thunders as mightily as anything by James Bernard, as credits zoom in for a close-up on Oliver Reed’s scary eyes.
Whereas a writer like Jimmy Sangster might have cut to the chase, producer/scriptwriter Anthony Hinds (working under his usual “John Elder” pseudonym) dawdles over a lengthy, elaborate setup. However, this ranks among the best acted Hammer movies, while Terence Fisher's direction musters sympathy for all involved in an affecting back-story. A forlorn beggar (Richard Wordsworth) wanders into town in search of food, only to suffer imprisonment at the cruel and capricious hands of Marquis Siniestro (Anthony Dawson). Years later, the Marquis takes a fancy to his mute servant girl (gorgeous Yvonne Romain), whom he imprisons after she spurns his advances. The now-crazed beggar rapes the girl, who stabs the Marquis and escapes to the villa of Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans).
Kindly Don Alfredo and his housekeeper Teresa (Hira Talfrey) embody the compassion and warmth that enhance the tragic nature of what follows. After the girl dies in childbirth (poor soul couldn’t catch a break, could she?), the pair raise her infant son whose arrival is heralded by a thunderclap and howling wolf. As if that weren’t enough, his christening makes holy water boil. Young Leon can’t stand the sight of blood, but during a full moon sprouts fur and fangs to gnash goats and kittens or gnaw at the bars around his bedroom window. However, thanks to his foster parents’ tender loving care, he eventually grows into strapping Oliver Reed. Unaware of his lycanthropic heritage, Leon ventures into the wide world, but the lure of the full moon is too strong to resist.
Although it's forty-five minutes before Oliver Reed appears onscreen, this film made him a star. He glowers and snarls magnificently under Roy Ashton’s scary makeup, but also conveys vulnerability, brooding like a lycanthropic James Dean. Terence Fisher indulges his usual preoccupation with monstrous sexuality, as cavorting with bar girls spurs Leon to more murderous activities, yet he remains a sympathetic figure, as is traditional with werewolves. The plot turns on his redemptive romance with Cristina (Catherine Feller), but when things go awry he spurns the girl he loves for her own protection and - in a moving scene - urges Don Alfredo to kill rather than confine him to a monastery.
Catholicism mixes with superstition in the somewhat muddled theory of a “weakened soul” prone to influence by the “cycles of the moon”. Much of this metaphysical blather makes no sense on a theological level, but the core idea of true love being a force for redemption retains its power. It lacks pace compared to Fisher’s previous films, but the werewolf attacks make good use of unsettling sound effects and Ollie’s freaky facial expressions. The sets are impressively grand and the cinematography by Arthur Grant is among the finest in any Hammer horror. Things builds to a rousing climax where the werewolf rampages across the church rooftop and flings flaming bales of hay at screaming villagers. Sounds like your typical night on the tiles for Oliver Reed. Connoisseurs of British character actors should keep an eye out for Warren Mitchell as the huntsman with a silver bullet, Michael Ripper as a tavern drunk, the erstwhile “Q” Desmond Llewellyn as a servant, and Peter Sallis who forty years later would tackle a very different lycanthropic menace in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).