“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” with those immortal words Universal Pictures would launch another horror franchise that would rival that of its contemporary cousins Dracula and Frankenstein, but where The Wolf Man differs from those two would be in its lack of literary roots.
In 1935 Universal Pictures released a horror film titled Werewolf of London, which dealt with a botanist being afflicted with lycanthropy, but six years later it would be overshadowed by The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. in a film that would cement the werewolf as one of Universal’s key monsters. Written by Curt Siodmak, this horror entry would be like 1932’s The Mummy as it would not be based on any piece of classic literature thus giving the screenwriter a freer hand when it came to making stuff up, in fact, most of the werewolf lore we know of today was actually created by Siodmak for this film. The plot is fairly basic, with prodigal son Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returning to his ancestral home in Wales after the recent death of his brother and where he is greeted by his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) who is happy to see that his wayward son is eager to become the new heir apparent.
After a little sightseeing, via the use of his father’s telescope, Larry visits a local antique shop and meets the beautiful Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) who runs the shop along with her father, apparently, this place also deals in irony because while perusing the shop Larry purchases a walking stick that is decorated with a silver wolf’s head, which will later save his life when he’s attacked by a gypsy turned werewolf (Bela Lugosi), but it will also end his life when his own father uses it to kill him, after he himself had become the Wolf Man. You won’t find shops like that anymore. The film is loaded with atmosphere, where fog constantly shrouds the forest floor, and the cast of characters provides everything one could want out of a horror movie; you’ve got the skeptical doctor (Warren William) who thinks Larry’s just having a mental breakdown, rather turning into a furry beast, and there is Colonel Montford (Ralph Bellamy) who is the local Chief Constable and the one trying to make sense out of the murders that continue to pile up.
And what murders are these? While trying to save a local girl (Fay Helm) from a wolf attack Larry kills the creature with his walking stick, that aforementioned “lucky” purchase, but when the body of a dead gypsy is found at the scene of the crime, instead of a wolf, he becomes a suspect, but being that Larry is of the local nobility such accusations are but on the back burner. Let’s see, a rich guy getting special treatment from the law, yeah, that checks out. That Colonel Montford lets him keep the “murder” weapon is a bit odd, but hey, what are the chances of it being used to kill again? As mentioned, most of the werewolf lore found in this movie is the product of Curt Siodmak’s fertile mind, such as a person becoming a werewolf through a bite and the idea that the only way to kill a werewolf is with a silver bullet, as well as the idea of werewolves and their victims being marked with pentagrams. To aid in such delivery we have the character of Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the gypsy whose cursed son Bela started the whole ball rolling, and she is the one that informs poor Larry that he’s doomed, just as her son was.
• I find the idea of a werewolf terrorizing the English countryside more believable than the idea that Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. could be even remotely related, let alone father and son.
• We are introduced to our tragic protagonist as he uses a telescope to peek into the window of a lovely young woman, so our hero is a Peeping Tom. Are we supposed to want him to be bitten by a werewolf?
• If you made a drinking game where you took a drink every time someone quoted the werewolf poem, you’d probably get alcohol poisoning.
• When looking at his son’s pentagram-shaped wound, Sir John Talbot states, “That scar could be made by almost any animal.” And I must ask, exactly what kind of animal in the natural world leaves a pentagram-shaped scar?
• Bela Lugosi’s gypsy transforms into a full dog-like wolf, but Larry transforms into a bipedal “wolf-man” when bitten and no explanation is given for this difference. Was the werewolf bite Larry got not deep enough to result in a full transformation?
• We are told that a werewolf transformation occurs “When the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” but we never do see the Moon in this movie. Maybe it was hiding behind clouds and its diffused rays were what caused Talbot’s half-assed transformations.
The make-up provided for the monster was provided by legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce, whose six-hour job of turning Lon Chaney Jr. into The Wolf Man was truly impressive, but without Chaney’s heart-wrenching performance as the tragically doomed Larry Talbot this film would not be nearly as memorable and if not for Curt Siodmak’s inventive script Universal’s The Wolf Man may have become just another Werewolf of London instead of becoming this iconic fountain of ideas to which many future werewolf films were birthed.
You can check out my other reviews here: Universal Classic Monsters: A Cinematic World of Horror.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Movie Rank - 7/10
With a cast that included Lon Chaney Jr. Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya and Ralph Bellamy this film was always going to be one of the better Universal Picture offerings of that era, but with Curt Siodmak’s script and Jack Pierce’s make-up, it was destined to become an iconic watershed picture and that it sure is.