“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.”
Sooo, our last werewolf film (Werewolf of London, 1935) kind of sucked. It mostly neglected the true terror that would come with a man turning into a horrible, murderous beast. Instead it favored repetitive, unappealing killing scenes and unlikable or poorly acted characters. This time out, The Wolf Man (1941) fixes those problems.
After the untimely death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is returning to his family estate to reconnect with his stern father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry meets Gwen, an attractive woman in the village played by Evelyn Ankers, who sells Larry a cane with a silver handle.
Gwen is engaged to Frank Andrews, a kind man played by Patric Knowles, but Larry still makes it known that he’s romantically interested in her.
Things get dangerous when, one night visiting a gypsy fortune teller (Bela Lugosi) and his mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), Gwen is attacked by a wolf. Larry defends Gwen, but he’s bitten in the process.
Quickly after recovering from his injuries, Larry is told he clubbed Bela and not a wolf to death with his cane. Larry insists that it was indeed a wolf. Maleva reveals that Bela was a werewolf and that the bitten Larry is now one, too.
Destruction now follows in Larry’s wake as he transforms to a werewolf at night and begins killing. The village doubts Larry’s sanity and people begin to suspect his involvement in the murders being investigated by Colonel Paul Montford (Ralph Bellamy) and the police.
Larry is a little creepy. Sorry, but he is. He first sees Gwen by accidentally spotting her through his family’s giant telescope. He then continues to leer at her as she puts the finishing touches on herself before starting her day.
While, yes, Larry doesn’t actually see anything, the fact that he continues to look through her window at all is a little…weird. He also keeps hitting on Gwen despite her, apparently, being happily engaged.
That all being said, he is, besides those questionable actions, a likeable guy. That’s already a HUGE improvement over Werewolf of London. Larry is genuinely a nice person and you care that he’s been afflicted with lycanthropy.
Much of the film is spent on developing not only Larry as a character but Gwen, Sir John, and – to a smaller extent – the rest of the cast. This way, when people start being killed or when the main and supporting characters are put in danger, we actually fear for their lives. The fog-drenched werewolf scenes, oozing with horror and dark atmosphere, have much more substance this way, too.
The Wolf Man has a great writer (Curt Siodmak) behind it and he crafts an excellent psychological drama. Larry is told left and right that the werewolf thing is all in his head or that he’s a murderer. It, along with the fear that he is actually a werewolf, tears him apart, and he slowly unravels throughout a film laced with doom.
But, of course, how could I forget to mention the memorable werewolf design by Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce? He’s the man behind the Frankenstein monster, the mummy, and many, many more.
Larry’s werewolf is apparently the exact same design Pierce devised before he was forced to create a far more human looking werewolf for Werewolf of London. The wolf-like look, combined with the more animalistic performance by Chaney, makes this my preferred werewolf interpretation between the two.
Chaney’s werewolf isn’t a Mr. Hyde character like Henry Hull’s in Werewolf of London but a viscous beast that will rip your throat out if he gets the chance. I’m only sad we see so little of the makeup (two moon cycles) in the film.
The Wolf Man hits so many of the right notes, it’s easy to see why it’s been remembered all these years. It’s what a good werewolf film should be about: humans and tragedy.
Chaney, like Boris Karloff before Frankenstein (1931), had acted in dozens and dozens of films before The Wolf Man. Also like Karloff, The Wolf Man‘s success would ensure that Chaney was forever typecast in horror films.
Our next film, in fact, will see Chaney return to the genre in a role very unlike his in The Wolf Man. Come back tomorrow for The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).