Stuart Walker, 1935
Starring: Henry Hull, Valerie Hobson, Warner Oland, Lester Matthews
“A werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.”
Though overshadowed by The Wolf Man (1941), Werewolf of London was Universal’s first werewolf movie and the first feature length werewolf film ever made. It's strange that it is so forgotten alongside the later Wolf Man. Though Werewolf of London is flawed, it has plenty to offer, such as imaginative effects, and it’s slower, talkier elements are also present in other early Universal films hailed as classics like Dracula (1931), which is often little more than a parlor room drama.
A famed botanist, Wilfred Glendon, travels to Tibet to find the rare mariphasa plant, which blooms by moonlight. When he attempts to collect a sample, he is attacked in the dark by a strange animal. He escapes relatively unharmed, with just a few scratches. Because he’s hugely pompous, he takes the entire plant back to London with him. Back at home, he is desperate to complete his experiments and shuts himself up in his laboratory room, ignoring his lonely wife. Another botanist, Dr. Yogami, approaches him and claims they met in Tibet. He shows an interest in the mariphasa and tells Glendon tales of the werewolf, stressing that the mariphasa is an antidote. Glendon is standoffish and skeptical until, during an experiment, he begins to grow furry and wolfish under the moonlight. He briefly uses the mariphasa until it is stolen from him by Dr. Yogami. Yogami was the werewolf in Tibet who attacked and infected him. He warns Glendon that a werewolf kills the thing it truly loves, and after Glendon kills a girl while in werewolf form, he is desperate to protect his wife, Lisa.
Henry Hull’s Glendon is certainly not the most likable character, something that seems difficult for a lot of horror fans. He ignores his wife, is uptight, self-important, and humorless. His icy character may be hard to sympathize with, but is certainly not out of place in the horror canon. Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, and others have played characters like this and it is certainly a horror type that became popular as early as Frankenstein (1931). No one can say Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein is likable in the least and he treat his wife almost exactly the same way in both Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Speaking of the latter, Valerie Hobson reprised her role as the neglected scientist’s wife for this film. Here she is equally two-dimensional, though her blatant flirtations with another man make her hard to sympathize with.
Part of the problem with Werewolf of London is that none of the characters are particularly likable. Lester Matthews (The Raven), as the rival for Lisa’s affections, is way too old for the role and spends a lot of time pushing himself on her. His actions don’t make it obvious that he would be a better partner for her than Glendon, but at least he’s attentive. Warner Oland does his best as Dr. Yogami, a role allegedly meant for Bela Lugosi, just as Glendon's role was rumored to be intended for Boris Karloff. Maybe their presences here would have made a difference, but Oland is decent. He essentially reprises his token role as the mysterious Asian (he was in several Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu films during the period), despite the fact that he is Swedish. Hello, racism.
There’s some nice make up from Universal regular Jack Pierce, though credit goes to Invisible Man effects maestro John Fulton. One of the best sequences of the film involves Glendon’s first transformation. Instead of doing what would become the standard transformation process in The Wolf Man, Hull is shot moving between pillars in the night and each time the camera returns to his face, he is more wolfish. Due to Hull’s resistance, the make up was simpler than Pierce intended and Glendon’s werewolf form is often too human-looking. He dons a hat and coat to leave the house and speaks at the end of the film. While a more in depth exploration of this could have enhanced the film, Glendon often feels like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character. Allegedly complaints of the similarities between Werewolf of London and the beloved Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) resulted in the film suffering at the box office. It also explains why Universal took the werewolf story in such a different direction when they rebooted the series with The Wolf Man.
The atmosphere is probably the film’s strong point and includes plenty of the German expressionist elements found in Dracula and Frankenstein, such as fog, strange laboratories, shadowy night time settings, and an excellent scene with strange, oversized carnivorous plants.
The women in the film are interesting, as are the erotic elements. It could be argued that both Lisa and Glendon suffer from sexual issues, as the main struggle of the film is basically her attempt to deal with her husband’s disinterest and try to avoid the temptation of infidelity. The latter sets off Glendon’s werewolf rage once or twice and though (as a werewolf) he threatens his wife and other upper class women of her social stature, he can only ravenously attack and kill a street girl. Even his werewolf aspect represents his ultimate repression when he puts on clothes and reject his animal nature despite his monstrous appearance.
Other than Lisa, the two main female characters are a pair of older ladies responsible for some teeth grinding comedy, though their appearance certainly lightens the tone of the film at times. They, along with some of Glendon and Lisa’s older, upper class friends, are unapologetically alcoholics and the film is peppered with jokes about alcoholic delirium and their shaky grasp on reality.
The film is not perfect and aside from the talkiness and occasionally plodding pace, suffers from a number of inconsistencies. If Glendon was a botanist, he would know that night blooming plants are not rare and he wouldn’t have to go all the way to Tibet to find a subject to test on. Of course, the plant is not as important as we are led to believe and is ultimately little more than a MacGuffin. Dr. Yogami, the foreign monster expert of the film, would also know that turning into a werewolf is called lycanthropy, not lycanthrophobia, as he states, which is presumably a fear of werewolves. Nitpicking, I know.
Overall I would recommend this to fans of early horror who will not be turned off by the measured pace. If you can get past that, there is plenty to enjoy. This neglected film is available on DVD with all of Universal’s early werewolf films as part of The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection set. Probably the most meager of their classic horror collections, this includes The Wolf Man, She-Wolf of London, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, as well as some nice special features.