The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
As usual, Terence Fisher and Hammer Studios take a concept already done exquisitely by Universal in the 30s and 40s and make it their own. This film stands out among a long hallmark of werewolf movies, going for the straight dramatic content of lycanthropy rather than the sensationalism.
The story starts off much like a fairy tale. A narrator tells of a small Spanish village, ruled over by an evil Marquis. A beggar goes to the castle of this unfair ruler for some small amount of bread, and is humiliated and jailed. He is forgotten, and after a while becomes more animal than human, gaining contact with other people only through the mute servant who feeds him. The mood begins to change (and you begin to realize that you'd never tell this story to your kids) when the servant girl is thrown into the cell and she is raped (tastefully off screen and merely suggested) by the beggar in a fit of lustful rage. Escaping the castle, she is taken in by the kind Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans), who finds that the girl is pregnant.
On Christmas Day, Leon is born. His mother dies at birth, and Corledo takes to raising the boy. Leon grows up a normal child until age 6, when he begins to go missing at night and goats wind up dead. Leon is a werewolf, a condition brought on by his traumatic heritage. However, with love and affection, the transformations can be fought, and they are, until Leon becomes a man (in the striking form of Oliver Reed).
Obviously, this is not your average lycanthropy tale. Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds propose that werewolfism comes not from a simple bite-to-bite transfer, like a disease, but from the very root and core of the soul. In a way, they are making a commentary on the nature of human failing, and how it can make a devil of us all.
Strongly supporting this idea is a bravura performance from Reed, possibly the best actor to ever play a werewolf. His rage, anger, and despair at his situation struck me. It was believable. It wasn't some silly Hollywood histrionics. It was certainly the strongest dramatic performance in a Hammer film, ever.
Of course, the rest of the cast ranges from excellent to pretty good, as it is with most pre-1970 Hammer flicks. Especially of note is Evans as Leon's surrogate father, a man who is torn between keeping his "child" and bowing to his pleas for death.
There's not too much that goes wrong with this production. Certainly it ranks in the top 3 werewolf movies of all time. It's more complicated than most, more ready to get your brain cells in action. I'd recommend that all Hammer fans get it, and everyone else at least see it once (because you may just want to go for a second or third viewing).