“The werewolf is neither man nor wolf but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.”
Sooo…Werewolf of London…It’s just…I mean, I…Ugh! Just…Ugh!
Werewolf of London, the first mainstream Hollywood werewolf movie, follows Doctor Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), a renowned English botanist. Glendon is looking for a rare plant in Tibet that is said to only grow in moonlight. He gets his hands on a sample of the flower but not before he is attacked by a strange creature.
Left with a scratch on his right arm, Glendon heads back to his lab in 19th-century London. Glendon is obsessed with his work, often to the detriment of his marriage. His wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), says her husband has been acting differently – less fun loving, for example – since he came back from Tibet.
Glendon is visited by a mysterious man named Doctor Yogami (Warner Oland), who wants to see Glendon’s sample of the Tibeten plant. Yogami reveals himself as the creature, the werewolf, that assaulted Glendon in Tibet. The plant, Yogami says, is the only thing that will prevent a man from changing every full moon and killing what he loves most.
It’s all nonsense and superstition, as far as Glendon is concerned. He brushes off Yogami’s comments. As a full moon rises, however, he fears that what Yogami said was true.
Fearful for Lisa’s life, Glendon distances himself from her, making their already rocky relationship even rougher. It doesn’t help that Lisa has been reacquainting herself with Paul (Lester Matthews), her childhood sweetheart and the nephew of the head of Scotland Yard.
With the irresistible urge to kill during the full moon and Scotland Yard soon on his tail, Glendon’s only hope is to find a way to grow more of the plant. Failure means the spread of the lycanthropy disease, a werewolf pandemic that could destroy all of London.
My God, the cast in this movie. Everyone isn’t just British – they’re BRITISH, no one ever going beyond annoying stereotypes.
When Hobson or Matthews or anyone other than Hull or Oland attempts dramatic acting, it’s like a horrible melodrama. When the film attempts comic relief, it’s bizarre and embarrassing. No one was genuine or charming or all that likable. I tried to be interested in Lisa and Paul, but the acting simply isn’t there.
Oland was fine in his part, but he’s given very little to do. He causes serious problems for our hero and he gives necessary exposition about werewolves and the flower antidote. Besides that he doesn’t really do much.
We don’t even get to see him in werewolf form after his initial attack on Glendon. It’s such a waste. I’d rather Glendon, after he’d been scratched, killed the werewolf in the opening and the movie been slightly rewritten to accommodate Yogami’s absence.
This was director Stuart Walker’s only foray into the horror genre. The director of only 12 films before his untimely death in 1941 at the age of 53, Walker populated his short resume with dramas, war movies, and comedies, among them adaptations of Great Expectations (1934) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935).
It probably would’ve been better if he had stayed away from horror. His direction here is uninspired and offers little in the way of atmosphere or scares. It’s more like you’re watching a period drama that happens to have a werewolf in a few scenes.
To give him credit where credit is due, Glendon’s initial transformation scene is good. It uses a mobile technique that has Hull walking behind pillars to mask the cuts. I can’t recall ever seeing such mobility in transformation scenes from around this era. So kudos there.
Also, to be fair, there is one good scare. It’s when werewolf Glendon kills a woman in a dark, fog-laden London street, the poor victim emitting a horrible, bloodcurdling scream off-camera.
What might’ve helped build atmosphere and a needed sense of dread is more character development on the part of our three leads. More time spent developing Lisa, Paul, and other victims and potential victims would’ve made me care about their fates. As-is, the killing scenes are too much like shooting blank, faceless targets at the range.
The biggest disappointment isn’t the supporting cast or the other leads. It’s our protagonist. Since Werewolf of London doesn’t set aside enough time for character growth, we miss out one of the predominant and satisfying features of a great many werewolf films.
A werewolf staple is the toll it takes on and the fear it instills in the story’s lead. Glendon experiences a bit of this, like right before Glendon transforms for the second time.
We see him isolated in a London boarding house far away from Lisa. He prays to God to not let him transform again, but we the audience know what’s going to happen. The inevitable tragedy is the whole horror of being turned into a werewolf. The afflicted can’t control the transformation nor the carnage that results from it.
Glendon is kind of a dick. He treats his wife horribly, he’s cranky and glum, and he appears to have a stick up his butt the whole movie. Usually when an unlikable werewolf tends not to be the protagonist but the villain the hero is trying to kill or get away from.
This makes Werewolf of London rather problematic. It wants me to sympathize with Glendon. It really does. But I don’t. The only time I’m given a reason why I should feel bad for this guy is when he’s afraid of killing his wife. I’ll admit that’s effective, but not nearly enough.
But no. We aren’t given many moments where we experience the horror that comes from lycanthropy, nor do we get much reason to give a darn about Glendon. Instead, we are forced far too frequently in the film’s later half to watch unengaging attack scenes over and over again in a way that quickly becomes repetitive.
The werewolf design by makeup artist Jack Pierce isn’t horrible. It’s a different take that steps away from the usual wolf face look. It’s a very human werewolf, which Pierce disliked. He wanted a werewolf that resembled…well…a wolf. But for story reasons, he was ordered to create a minimal makeup that wouldn’t obscure Hull’s face too much.
I would be more annoyed by this if the Glendon werewolf actually acted like a wolf. If I’m remembering correctly, Glendon might hunch over a little bit, some of the time when he’s in werewolf form, but that’s about it in regards to animal-like qualities.
The rest of the time, he’s similar to a slightly less intelligent Mr. Hyde. After one transformation, werewolf Glendon even makes sure to put on a hat and a coat before he goes out prowling. Because that’s what bloodthirsty beasts do.
So I didn’t care about the werewolf, I didn’t care about Glendon, I didn’t care about his wife or any of the poorly acted and melodramatic side characters, I didn’t care about Yogami’s underdeveloped subplot, and I didn’t care about this uninspired horror film.