Tragedies and Nocturnes: The True Curse in Hammer Films' Curse of the Werewolf
Tragic Themes Make The Curse the Werewolf More Complex Than A Standard Superficial Monster Movie Potboiler
Hammer Film's 1961 classic and sole werewolf feature, The Curse of the Werewolf, holds a place among fans of horror cinema history as being one of the finest werewolf films ever made. Brilliant in segments, disjointed in others, the film garnered criticism for its decided lack of werewolf scenes in comparison to more traditional monster on the loose lycanthrope outings. More werewolf moments existed in the original script ( there were even two werewolves), but the British censors led to the werewolf scenes being cut back. Retained from the original vision of the script is the focus on the tragic life of the cursed Leon, played by Oliver Reed.
With werewolf mayhem curtailed until the climax, the bulk of the film centers on the circumstances of of the birth of Leon, the origin of his curse, his struggles with the burgeoning curse throughout childhood and adolescence, and finally, as he reaches adulthood, the fate be must endure because the curse of the werewolf was unavoidable.
An argument can be made that, due to the structure of the narrative, Curse of the Werewolf is actually a trilogy. The events leading up to the werewolf's birth, his childhood, and his adulthood descent into lycanthropy reflect three unique stories. Within the framework of the three narrative components, the film is character driven and unfolds more akin a melodrama than a horror film allowing the film to take a unique, albeit not originally planned, thematic direction. The alternations of the original vision have the impromptu effect of changing the prime focus of the actual curse.
The curse of the werewolf is not really that Leon becomes a werewolf. The circumstances that lead him to becoming a beast reflect the true curse he must contend with, a cursed and conflicted existence.
Such themes were consistent in werewolf films until the emergence of the "roleplaying" inspired direction of turning the projects into dark fantasy and adventure. A great deal more action is present in such films, but much of the tragic melodrama is lost.
The Tragic Origins of the Curse
A beggar wanders into a Spanish town circa the middle of the 1700's and is rebuked upon begging the townspeople for alms. The beggar is a simpleton and, when the townsfolk joke he will find money and gold at the castle of an evil and miserly Marquis, his simple minded nature leads him to take their words literally.
The beginning of the film is tragic in many ways and sets the events of the Leon's life in motion. The beggar foolhardily follows the townspeople's suggestion to visit the Marquis' castle and seals his own fate. The cruel Marquis reflects class struggles of the era as his lavish wedding is being paid by the taxes of the barely surviving townsfolk. The Marquis treats them like animals symbolically and then treats the beggar literally like an animal forcing him to beg like a dog and, in an act of cruelty, locking him in dungeon like a caged animal for making an inappropriate and suggestive comment to the Marquis' wife. The out of character comment followed the Marquis forcing the beggar to become drunk on wine so he can make a fool of himself dancing for the upper class guests at the wedding...and to the bemusement of a mean aristocrat in the Marquis. Regardless, the beggar is not punished with life imprisonment in a dungeon.
The beggar eventually turns into a beast like human, having devolved into an insane feral animal from years of being imprisoned in the dungeon. The elderly Marquis, always a beast and the true inhuman animal, has become even more evil in his old age and tries to force himself on a servant girl. She rebukes him, which leads him to throwing her in the dungeon where she is raped by the feral beggar.
Leon, conceived from these horrific events, is born cursed due to the circumstances of the conception and to being born on Christmas Day. The birth of an unwanted child of an unwed mother Christmas Day is considered an affront to God. While Leon is taken in by a bachelor scholar and housekeeper who love the child, Leon cannot escape his fate because he cannot escape his past or who he really is. He carries the curse of both his father, the beggar, and his distant, surrogate father, the more animal than human Marquis.
Most frightening about this scenario is it is completely believable. No fantasy element emerges until Leon is baptized and the first hints of the otherworldly curse appear. Prior to this point, the film could easily fit into another genre outside of a horror film and lose none of its unnerving impact.
Realism, Science, Psychology, Religious Themes and the Tragic Life of Leon the Werewolf
Subtexts exist in the film reveal dysfunctional relationships lead to dysfunctional curses later in life, although this type of psychoanalysis (and pop psychology) was not yet in vogue at the time of Curse's release. Perhaps by accident, the film contributed, in part, a much needed infusion of realism in the modernization of the genre. Yes, fantasy supernatural elements grow into the overarching components of the curse as the film progresses. However, it is the realism, born of the psychological and emotional side of the humans in the film, that truly give it the dramatic edge necessary for making the film memorable.
The supernatural elements in early horror films generally did not come with any real explanation. We are to take it as a given that supernatural entities exist. In Universal's 1942 film, The Wolfman, we are simply lead to believe that supernatural elements exist on a microcosmic level and small populations of supernatural beings exist. We can look past the lack of explanation for supernatural creatures in The Wolfman because the focus remains the tragedy of the character and his failed family relationships existing in the backdrop of narrative.
Somewhat overlooked in the dark genre is the role science traditionally plays in horror films. Frankenstein employs science as the root of horror as does The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although the seemingly supernatural wolfsbane plant turns Henry Hull into a monster in Werewolf of London, an argument can be made that this is a biological reaction and not a supernatural one. Science can lend credibility and plausibility in horror films and, in turn, enhance the suspension of disbelief of the fantastic.
Fantasy is where the supernatural and the scientific go off the proverbial rails together.
Fantasy films are those where the bizarre nature of fantastic creatures is both taken for granted and too easily accepted and believed. Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and Dracula all have reserved horror elements to them. House of Frankenstein is pure fantasy because we know the world we are looking at cannot possibly be real as suspension of disbelief truly fades away.
In Curse of the Werewolf, an explanation for the supernatural origins connect with the actual mythology of werewolves in folklore. Damnation based on an affront to God is what gives spawn to the werewolf. Ironically, proof of the werewolf is a de facto proof in the existence of God. (One cannot be cursed by God if God does not exist) Despite the strong religious motifs and symbolism in the film, the side component to the film is virtually ignored. Maybe it takes the themes in a direction some would willfully prefer not to address.
In many horror films, the actual genre is closer to fantasy than horror. Horror is most effective and frightening when it exists as an outlier to reality. In Curse of the Werewolf, we see approach, an approach taken in films such as The Exorcist. The horror element is kept limited as it intrudes and causing great chaos in a world that is no different than our own. Remove the presence of the werewolf out of the film and you have a believable melodrama.
What contributes a great degree to the fantasy facet of the film being at least acceptable for susxension of disbelief was Curse was created during time periods when religion played a more prominent role in society. Strong belief in otherworldly evils such as a devil can allow someone to suspend disbelief and accept the absurd notion of a werewolf existing in the film. No one believes werewolves exist, but the belief in God exists so strongly that accepting the creation of the werewolf due to an affront from God makes for an acceptable plot device and creates a plausible explanation for the origin of such a fantastic creature. The creature's curse does not come from the devil, but from God and the manifestation of becoming a werewolf simply is folklore come to life through defiance of the almighty.
None of this was really planned through.
Damned from Above and Cursed by the Deity
In the original screenplay for the film, the beggar was a werewolf and this is why his offspring becomes a werewolf too. British censors found a rape scene involving a werewolf to far too outrageous to allow, so the beggar became someone driven mad and bestial due to his confinement in the dungeon. Changing a werewolf to a feral human requires the notion the child is cursed by God to be taken literally. What other explanation can there be given for Leon becoming a werewolf? The beggar was a human and not a supernatural creature.
The result of the script change in the screenplay lead to the inclusion of religious themes within the work, a work that now presents a man who is spiritually cursed in addition to being mentally and physically. The more traditional curse of being a werewolf centers on being cursed due to ''no fault of your own'' leading to the mental anguish of the curse (symbolic of insanity) and the physical curse (being caught in a situation one has no control over) At least for the traditional werewolf, there is always some form of spiritual salvation available. To be killed by silver bullets that have been blessed are not commonly indicative of being a way of killing off a monster as much as they are designed to free the soul of the man trapped in the shell of a monster.
Leon in Curse of the Werewolf has no such freedom. He has already been cursed by God and his soul may very well be cursed forever more.
The Curse of He Who Walks Alone
To a degree, the actual curse of the werewolf is the curse of being an outsider. Werewolves, with rare exception, are not evil, malevolent monsters that are enthralled by the chaos they commit. There are a few exceptions to this. The Howling featured werewolves who, in human form, were still quite evil. Although we do not see the human form of the werewolves in Dog Soldiers, based on what we infer about how they live, they clearly see their role as predators of humans.
In general, the werewolf is someone who does not want to be a werewolf. Characters played by everyone from Lon Chaney Jr to Paul Naschy to David Naughton were werewolves who suffered from the curse of being a werewolf. Quite frequently, the cursed werewolf is also a flawed or tortured human. The actual curse of being an werewolf is an extension of the troubles they suffer in their human form. The wolf becomes a manifestation of their psychological anger allowing them to lash out and not have to accept responsibility. Leon acts in the same way. He never knew his mother, he knows his adopted family is not his real family, he struggles in the role of a low paid laborer, his love is unrequited, and he knows he suffers from a disorder that forever keeps him from truly joining the human race. He cannot join it for he is not a human being. He is a werewolf. Even though he is in human form with the exception of the three nights the moon is full, he is defined a werewolf. Even though he was cursed due to no fault of his own, Leon's burden of carrying the curse of the werewolf on his shoulders can never be alleviated except by leaving the human race by death.
What makes his situation even worse is a sense of hopelessness surrounds him. He was rejected by God and is cursed to become a werewolf. Once rejected by God, he has nowhere to go. The only salvation he can find is the feeling of mutual love. His adopted family offered enough love for this pitiful child the full manifestation of the beast was kept in check. The love he has for Cristina keeps his transformation in check, but the two cannot be together because Leon is cursed due to the class system that exists in 18th century Spain.
This theme of love would have been interesting to examine further in the planned, but never made, sequel, Werewolf Wedding. Perhaps the fact no sequel was produced contributed further to the impact of the film. The powerful overt and sub-textual themes of the film never end up being cheapened by a series of weak, rushed sequels.
The Curse of the Werewolf stands on it own, a true classic of the golden age of British horror.