George Waggner, 1941
Starring: Claude Rains, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers
“Even a man who is pure in heart/ and says his prayers by night/ may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/ and the autumn moon is bright.” -Curt Siodmak
Universal's second werewolf film after the unrelated Werewolf of London (1935) is the first landmark lycanthropy film and writer Curt Siodmak effectively created the werewolf mythology that haunts today’s screens. When Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) learns of his brother’s death, he returns to his home in Wales and attempts to reconnect with his estranged father (Claude Rains). Talbot becomes interested in Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), a young woman who works in a village antique shop. After
observing her for awhile basically stalking her, he buys a walking stick adorned with a silver wolf’s head simply so he can talk to her. She tells him about the legend of the werewolf.
Later that night, her friend is being attacked in the woods by what Talbot thinks is a wolf and he beats it away with his walking stick. Before dying, it bites him, and a local gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) warns him that the now-dead werewolf was her son (a cameo from Bela Lugosi) and that Talbot has inherited the werewolf’s curse. As she predicted, Talbot transforms into a wolf-man hybrid at night and hunts and murders villagers. He becomes horribly aware that he is responsible for these crimes and longs for death, but is unable to stop himself from transforming and preying upon the woman he loves.
This might not be a popular opinion, but The Wolf Man is one of my least favorite of the major Universal horror films. Partly this is because I love werewolf films and werewolf mythology. It is impossible to deny that we wouldn’t have movies like An American Werewolf in London or The Howling without this film, which established many modern werewolf tropes, but in light of the pre-existing mythology and Curt Siodmak’s brilliant script, I don’t think The Wolf Man takes things nearly as far as they could go. For starters, Siodmak wanted a film about human duality and supposedly his script is full of subtlety and innuendo. In the actual film, almost all innuendo is gone and we never doubt Talbot’s sanity, because we are sure he is a werewolf.
And speaking of wolves, it has always been a particular gripe of mine that the werewolves in Werewolf of London, The Wolf Man, and the monster mash up sequels all basically look like ape men. There is little wolfish about them, something that the destruction of the Production Code and future effects advancements would be able to correct. But here we are either stuck with Chaney’s whining, overly sensitive Talbot, or an ape looking wolf-man covered in yak fur, running around with clothes on.
The film is undeniably flawed. Considering that Werewolf of London was the dry run and The Wolf Man is basically a do over without the overt Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde elements, you’d think the script would be a little more solid, but Universal in the ‘40s was known for their sloppy and desperate horror films. Siodmak does do a solid job making this film feel as thoroughly steeped in myth as Dracula, though he made most of it up, including the wonderful poem I’ve quoted above. Unlike most of Universal's other horror classics, this has no literary source. Historically, werewolf legend concerns men who purposefully transform themselves via ritual to gain powers of evil and they were most often associated with witches. There is also the connection between serial killers and werewolves with the latter standing as a symbol of man’s inherently bestial nature. The Wolf Man addresses neither of these and I can’t help but feel that the script would have been more interesting if Talbot was more than just a victim of circumstance and had a more active part to play in his own downfall.
There are also some wonderful elements, namely the fantastic set pieces. The woods are magical. It is obvious those scenes were shot on a sound stage, but it does nothing to lessen their fantastical impact. It is quite clear that when characters are out running around in the foggy, shadowy woods, they have wandered somewhere beyond normal reality. Where the monsters in Dracula and Frankenstein supply their own otherworldliness, something was needed to shift the atmosphere here. There’s also an excellent supporting cast with Maria Ouspenskaya, Claude Rains, a bit part from Bela Lugosi as the first werewolf (he oddly appears as a wolf, not a wolf-man hybrid), and Universal horror regular Evelyn Ankers, who has great chemistry with Chaney. It’s a shame Chaney wasn’t a more compelling, charismatic actor or given a more dynamic part.
Jack Pierce has some great effects, which allegedly took hours to apply on Chaney and involved a lot of rubber, wigs, hair pieces, and fake teeth to give him an under bite. This make up was based on his design from Werewolf of London, but is more bestial and less restrained than in that film, because star Henry Hull refused to sit for the whole process. Allegedly the look was inspired by P.T. Barnum’s Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy, who suffered from hypertrichosis and had hair growing all over his face. The transformation scenes were accomplished with time lapses and dissolves that took hours to film.