The opening credits for Terence Fisher's The Curse of the Werewolf play over an extreme close-up of a weeping beast. We see tears form in his unblinking, contact lensed, eyes then trickle down his hairy cheeks, foretelling an unusually tragic take on the lycanthrope legend. Rather than plug into a general idea of how a person comes to be a werewolf - bitten by somebody else already cursed with the condition - Fisher's film starts from zero, constructing an overwrought sequence of events that ends with Oliver Reed's Leon Corledo sprouting hair and craving blood. Roughly half of The Curse of the Werewolf is given over to this brilliantly melodramatic origin story, presumably so that sequels - which never materialised - wouldn't have to repeat Fisher's symphony of horror.
Written by Hammer Producer Anthony Hinds, adapting (and sanitising) Guy Endore's 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris, Curse begins with Richard Wordsworth's beggar wandering into a Spanish village in the grip of a cruel Marquess. When his pleas for charity at the local pub fall on deaf ears, the beggar takes himself off to crash the Marquess' wedding reception, in the hopes of hoovering up some free wine or food. Wordsworth's panhandler is cast into the castle jail for his troubles then forgotten about, fed scraps and bones over the course of decades until his mind is shattered and his body has become absurdly hirsute. When the jailor's beautiful daughter, played by Yvonne Romain, rebuffs the advances of a decrepit Marquess, she is thrown in the cells with the beggar, who promptly rapes her then dies. After a spell in the wilderness, the jailor's daughter is found by Clifford Evans' Don Alfredo Corledo, a gentle academic who welcomes the pregnant woman into his home.
Leon is delivered on Christmas Day, which we are told by the attending midwives is a slight against heaven itself - Jesus apparently unwilling to share any of the attention on his big day. Leon's mother passes away not long after delivering the baby, but even this isn't the last piece of this little orphan's monster make-up. The final straw comes when a young Leon is taken out on a hunting trip and forced to witness a squirrel being shot. An appalled Leon, we are told, then attempts to kiss life back into the ruined rodent, acquiring an all-consuming taste for blood for his trouble. Curse's latter half concerns Leon's circuitous attempts to be loved; rather sweetly the only circumstance that prevents the beleaguered young man from transforming into a ferocious brute. Reed's make-up during these episodes (created by Roy Ashton) is particularly good, accentuating the actor's jawline and piercing eyes. Dressed in a shredded poet blouse and jodhpurs - leaping from roof to roof - the hunched, snarling, Reed looks like a rock star.