I think I’ve told you already that werewolves scare the crap outta me. There’s something about the transformation and the uncanniness of the monster in most forms that really freak me out. I guess that’s why I like werewolf movies so much, too. I’ve seen so many horror movies that I’ve become harder and harder to scare. Werewolves can still raise the hair on my arms, so to speak. That’s why I watched The Curse of the Werewolf today, Hammer’s only werewolf movie. I was hoping for some cheap thrills. I got those, but I got something else too.
The Curse of the Werewolf is such a structurally strange movie. It opens with a prelude of sorts that sets up one character, a beggar, who suffers humiliation at the hands of a local Marquis during the latter’s wedding day feast. Made to dance and beg like a dog, the beggar then gets thrown in jail. There’s a passage of time and soon the mute daughter of the jailer is all grown up and thrown in that same jail by the Marquis, now old and as rotten on the outside as he is on the inside. During her overnight stay, the beggar, now wildly bearded and with gray tufts of hair growing on his arms, attacks her, taking her out of the frame. One cut later and we see her waking up in the morning, cuts abundant on her scantily clad bosom. She gets let out but only so she can go up to the Marquis’ room. Luckily for her she takes a point candelabra with her and stabs him in the heart as he attacks her. She runs away and, as a voiceover tells us, lives on the land like an animal for months before getting rescued, face down in a river, by a wealthy man taking a stroll in the woods. This is the first twenty minutes of the movie and the protagonist isn’t even born yet.
The werewolf doesn’t show up on screen until an hour into this 90 minute movie. It is really very strange, but it got me thinking about the symbolic role werewolves play in the pantheon of horror monsters. Where vampires are the seducers, werewolves are the violent assaulters. Unlike a vampire, they won’t use their charms to trick their victims into giving up their life, instead they will stalk and pounce upon their victims, ripping them to shreds. Later films make this sexual metaphor explicit, for example An American Werewolf in London treats the initial werewolf attack like a rape, and the new werewolf’s changes become manifestations of his PTSD that he does not want to inflict upon others in his human form. This film, released 20 years after Lon Chaney Jr.’s portrayal of The Wolf Man and 20 years before An American Werewolf in London, is surprisingly woke in some ways and disappointingly old-fashioned in others. It’s a movie that might have passed me by without much of a blip a few weeks ago, but now it’s hard to watch without thinking about the continued uncovering of the pervasive sexual abuse in the film industry.
On the woke side is the film’s understanding of the multi-generational problem at the heart of sexual harassment and assault. The werewolf is the direct result of his father, the beggar, raping his mother, the jailer’s daughter. Later a priest theorizes that evil spirits can enter people who have given up their humanity, as the beggar has been forced to do by his lengthy incarceration in the Marquis’ dungeon. He also claims that the evil spirt (toxic masculinity?) can pass into the offspring at the moment of conception where it grows with every un-loving act the child performs. It also metaphorizes the victim’s silence in her muteness and gives her a good reason to be so silent in the Marquis’ continued attempts to dominate her. Going all the way back, it even points out that men will belittle other men who don’t measure up to certain standards of manliness, as even the village-people who don’t like the Marquis laugh at the beggar when he asks them to give him some charity before he goes to the feast. The film illustrates that there is often a chain of trauma that passes from victim to victim, and it puts the blame for that chain squarely in the men’s hands. But all is not well in The Curse of the Werewolf.
After the priest theorizes about the origins of the werewolf curse, he offers a solution. The child, a boy at the time but soon a virile young man, must be loved by those around him and must ultimately find a woman who loves him to vanquish his evil spirit. That’s putting the blame on his father but the solution on his future wife. If he does not find a wife he’s doomed to roam the country, “ravishing” women and men alike. What? When did it become the job of a woman to “tame” men? This points to a larger problem with turning the real-world act of rape and sexual assault into a horror monster: when the act becomes a monster, it gets murky and problematic because horror stories generally conform to a plot structure that requires a hero, a villain, and a woman in danger. Although the Weinstein problem was brought to light by intrepid reporters who might fit into the hero role, it’s really the women who told their stories that performed a heroic act. Even still, that heroic act shouldn’t be necessary to take down men like Weinstein. There are systemic protections in place for men like him that don’t show up in horror films. Women are brushed aside again and again in Hollywood (and society at large) when they report sexual assaulters and rapists to the police or HR, whereas in this movie they’re expected to love the predator into not raping and killing them. Making the act into a monster also absolves the were part of the werewolf of the responsibility for his actions. It’s just in his nature, provoked by a monthly celestial happening, to turn into a monster who attacks women (and men) without thought. Later, he won’t remember his attack. This depiction of the werewolf as sexual abuser causes more problems than it solves.
Once I got onto this way of thinking about the movie as I watched it, provoked by the strange structure that calls attention to that chain of trauma that I mentioned earlier, it became difficult to enjoy the genre pleasures that the film might have offered in a different context. The werewolf makeup is quite good, even if the transition leaves a little to be desired. The movie hides the full reveal until his final transformation at the end of the movie and cleverly shows just a hairy arm reaching out the shadows or the bloody aftermath of an attack (and I love the unrealistic bright red blood that Hammer uses in all of these movies, it’s so expressive) rather than a full frontal. But even these genre tropes sometimes bleed into the sexual exploitation that bubbles under its surface. The women are either obviously sexually available (their only character trait) or older and marmish. The former will have costumes that highlight their breasts while the latter will be covered to the point of absurdity. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it is disappointing when you just want to have fun watching a horror movie without feeling gross about portrayal of women in it. Maybe it’s time to take a break from the werewolves for now. Or maybe it’s time to watch Ginger Snaps again instead.