The Wolf Man Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

    The Wolf Man Review
    Welcome back to Full Moon Frenzy, the little lycanthropic off-shoot from the Retrofest, examining and celebrating the cinematic wolfmen who have snarled, howled and scratched their way across the celluloid for over seventy years. This time we can take a look at the first of Universal's notorious monster-team-ups, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (FMTWM), from 1942. Despite the mad doctor's name coming first in the title, the movie is actually a proper Wolf Man story, continuing the tragic saga of Lon Chaney Jnr's forlorn Larry Talbot in his quest to be rid of the savage beast within him. Although Talbot would go on to meet the Monster a couple more times and even share an outing in the same picture as Count Dracula, this is really the only serious (well, semi-serious) attempt to bring such terror-titans together with anything close to resembling respectability.

    Directed by Roy William Neill and once again written by Curt Siodmak, who had penned the original, FMTWM mixes horror with tragedy and just about manages to avoid the creaky daftness and unintentional humour that would blight the entries that would follow in the franchise. Commencing four years after the events of The Wolf Man, the movie seems equally displaced in time, combining, as it does, gothic castle ruins, gypsy encampments, cobbled Germanic hamlets and an eerily deserted contemporary Cardiff. Where the original showcased the clash of the new with the old and the pragmatic with the superstitious, this addition often appears to back-peddle and regress, with only some of the costumes on show and the attitudes of certain characters marking this out as taking place more recently. Certainly the look and feel of the second half, set in the mountains of Eastern Europe, has more in common with the earlier Frankenstein movies than with The Wolf Man.

    The sequel also ditches the dreamy, time-lost quality of its forbear in favour of a much more action-oriented and incident-filled narrative. This rapid succession of events makes the film a lot more exciting although rather less coherent as a result. Aggravatingly, the studio even finds time to throw in a big song and dance routine as part of the festivities in the gothic town of Vaseria. But, and this is the one good thing about this scene, an equally irritated Larry Talbot - driven mad by the singer's simple joy-de-vivre celebration of life - disrupts the whole set-piece and shakes the performer like a rag doll. It is a clever step that would have shocked audiences of the time, who were getting used to having a musical interlude during the majority of their movies, and even plays well now to a modern audience who can clearly identify with Larry's viewpoint. “This is a horror picture ... not a musical!” he seems to speak for all of us.

    Opening with a justifiably memorable spot of ill-fated grave-robbing, FMTWM takes on an immediately bigger, bolder and more aggressive stance than we had seen in The Wolf Man. Two foolish local chancers creep into the spooky old hilltop cemetery - a wonderfully dressed and evocative set, elaborately large and designed with an eye for scale and all-round eeriness - and break into the Talbot Family crypt with the intention of plundering the deceased Larry's watch and whatever other shiny things they can find. “It's a sin to bury good money when it could help people,” one of them maintains with indignant conviction. But, after prising the lid from Larry's coffin and surveying, with awe, his un-decomposed face, the shiniest thing of all peeps in through the window - the full moon. Erroneously brushing aside the blanket of wolfbane covering the body, the old black magic works its spell once again and a clawed hand takes hold of the desecrator's arm. A nice touch is the terrified defiler, numb with shock, imploring his mate to help him, whilst the other simply, and understandably, panics and makes a break for it. The sequence is steeped in gothic chill and is as mean-spirited as old-school Universal ever gets. It is a great scene-setter too, building up the film's atmosphere of reawakened horror.

    Of course, FMTWM doesn't live up to this audacious opening ... although for the first act, set in and around a shabby, damp-looking Cardiff of poorly-lit cobbled-streets and shadow-engulfed warehouses, the mood feels vaguely reminiscent of John Landis' seminal American Werewolf - what with its confused American patient languishing in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors struggling to understand his psychological torment. The film should, perhaps, have lingered upon this situation instead of taking the avenue that it does eventually contrive to follow. But, appalled to find that he simply cannot die - with even the silver-method that did him in first time around proving to be categorically most un-final at laying him to sleep - Larry Talbot escapes the scrutiny and suspicions of the doctors and the constabulary and sets off to locate the old gypsy woman who got him into this mess to begin with, a course of action that will bring him into close contact with the Monster that Frankenstein pieced-together many years before. Modern audiences like to ridicule and lampoon this story arc - and rightly so as it turns out - but, in those days, such a turn of events was deemed shocking and revelatory. Two monsters for the price of one! What was not to love?

    Well, the collision of two franchises is very rarely a good thing as it ultimately tends to diminish the power of either one. FMTWM, though, scrapes by with the skin of its fangs. The pace is never allowed to flag and the OTT pile-up of events and characters goes a long way to papering over the numerous holes and fallacies of the plot. The introduction of Frankenstein's daughter, The Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (played by Hungarian Ilona Massey), sticks out like a sore thumb, though. Not only is Massey a truly terrible actress, with the most wooden of deliveries despite her authentic accent, but she enables the movie to take one or two ill-advised steps. The first being that the townsfolk of Vasaria have obviously been quite accommodating to her in the past - despite their continual hatred for the residue of Frankenstein's evil experimentation - yet subsequently waste valuable torch-igniting time arguing over her innocence in the grand scheme of things. The second is that she is offered up as the ubiquitous love-interest for the next person to step, albeit reluctantly, into her father's laboratory to play God. To be honest, she just isn't needed at all. Frankenstein's relatives had been put to much better use in the two movies immediately prior to this franchise-crossover.

    But we are more than compensated for this lapse in genre casting with some great little character actors who had graced Hollywood's vaults of horror several times before. Not only do we find the original Dracula's Renfield and Frankenstein's freakish assistant Fritz, Dwight Frye cropping up as a villager, but there is also the marvellously devious Lionel Atwill, once the bizarre experimenter Dr. X for Warner and even a police inspector in Son Of Frankenstein, seen here as the Mayor of Vasaria. Besides these, a few familiar faces from the first Wolf Man turn up too, though not all of them portraying the same characters they did first time out. Maria Ouspenkaya reprises her role of the all-knowing gypsy Maleva. Swapping that dour scowl for a more glum look, she agrees to help the stricken Larry Talbot and leads him off to rural Vasaria, a little village nestling in the shadow of the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, where she hopes to find the infamous body-building, mortality-tampering doctor, believing that if he can create life then perhaps he can come up with a cure for the Wolf Man, little suspecting that his prior misadventures have ultimately done him in. Patric Knowles, the gamekeeper Frank Andrews from the first film, also returns, though this time he is playing the determined Dr Mannering from Queens Hospital, Cardiff. Pursuing his estranged patient across Europe - it can't have been hard, as Mannering, indeed tells his quarry when he finally catches up with him, implying that Talbot has left a trail of bodies glinting in the moonlight as a veritable set of grisly signposts. Coerced into conducting some half-baked polarity-reversing experimentation (Doctor Who would love that, wouldn't he?), Mannering straps Larry and the Monster down and attaches electrodes to them in the hope that he can transfer life energies from one to the other, thereby hoping to drain the power of the wolf from Larry forever. But, damn it all, those aggrieved villagers aren't up to any good once again and they try to thwart his less-then-ethical endeavours. You've kind of got to feel for the innocent townsfolk though, haven't you? Ever since Henry (it was Victor in the book) Frankenstein cobbled his creature together they've had nothing but trouble. Even now, during a festival to celebrate years of peace and harmony, the fun is quashed when the Wolf Man tears open a throat or two, releases the Monster from his frozen prison and allows him to lumber back into the village to spread fear and panic all over again. Even the pretty, but wooden as hell Baroness Elsa (no doubt named after the original actress who played both the Bride Of Frankenstein and the writer of the classic original in the same film, Elsa Lanchester) is hardly glamorous enough to compensate for the ensuing misery.

    Thankfully, Vasaria no longer has the exclamatory Una O'Connor as horror's greatest gothic harridan to squawk and bleat everyone else off the screen. Just Rex Evan's erstwhile innkeeper with a taste for proactive monster-bashing. As a direct tie to the Frankenstein series, there is even a scene of a little girl's dead body being carried back into the town square at the head of a grieving crowd eager to transform itself into a baying mob and it is clever how we still feel empathy for the werewolf that killed her. Talbot is a monster but it is telling how much we side with him as opposed to the vulnerable village fodder he has at his mercy. Universal had a thing about massed vigilantism - it runs rife throughout many of their films. Hammer Films would, very notably, carry on with this baton of natural justice during their interpretations of these classic yarns as well. The surprising thing, overall, is that these vengeful do-gooders always come across as the party-poopers when, years later, genre cinema would celebrate the vigilante in virtually all his forms and we, the audience, would naturally be on their side.

    Jack P. Pierce's makeup for Chaney is a bit more accomplished this time out. Not only is the face a little more savage-looking, with its more pronounced snout, but the yak-hair seems less woolly and more streamlined. The furry gloves and boots are much more adept and dexterous now, as well. Whereas the beast in The Wolf Man had to content himself with tiptoeing through the mist, here he positively leaps about the place, from crates and loaded sacks to the bizarre electrical appliances in the laboratory. His scrap with the Monster is also quite energetic and benefits from the “of-the-day” style of one-take filming, with no snap-edits and no cutaways, the two brawlers left to roll around and wrestle until almost breathless. When Mike Nichols made his ambitious werewolf-diversion Wolf with Jack Nicholson (to be reviewed separately) he seemed to have taken this leaping about to heart, with his monsters flying through the air as though they have springs fitted to their paws. Strangely enough, Chaney's chaotic snarl and dive performance is much more convincing. Just watch the bit when Lugosi's Monster hurls aside a metal rack that the Wolf Man is perched on top of - that landing just has to hurt no matter how much hairy padding you've got on! Larry's hairier side gets to let rip a bit more with his second lease of life. The slaying of a bobby on the beat is quite tasty, clearly revealing that the werewolf now knows that he should use his fangs as Talbot puts the bite on the luckless copper's throat. The transformations are a little more accomplished as well. We get a nice early one of Larry changing whilst lying on the hospital bed, the moon - something that was never actually shown in the original film - shining in through the window. But a later one that takes place as Larry cowers behind a tree in the wilds of Eastern Europe is better again, with clever and atmospheric use of shadow and lighting. Last time out we only got to see his facial metamorphosis as he died and returned to a human being again. But now, Pierce and John P. Fulton's photographic cronies took on the more challenging, and time-consuming, plate-change process. The remarkable thing is that Universal and Pierce had actually done this with a reasonable degree of success almost ten years prior with their first wolfman picture Werewolf Of London in 1935 (to be reviewed separately). Whilst obviously cruder in execution, the overall effect even back then was impressive.

    Alongside the Wolf Man, there is the trademarked Frankenstein Monster. Of course, with Universal holding the rights to the creature, there would be no problems rehashing the iconic design, even if Boris Karloff would not be returning to the character again (he had played the Monster for the final time in Son Of Frankenstein from 1939). Lugosi must have had some reservations about donning the asphalt-spreader's boots and the flat-top hairdo, especially when one considers that he had initially shunned the role when James Whale was casting around for the first Frankenstein. Long regarded as playing second fiddle to Karloff, he would now find himself in the unique position of portraying his rival's cast-off creation and his ambitions for the role must have been curiously, and perhaps ironically, mixed-up - he would literally be wearing dead man's boots. Famously, the Monster had previously learned to talk, but here Lugosi plays him as a mute once more, dumbing him down considerably. One early version that had test audiences reeling in laughter also had him blinded, too. The actor's inability to produce the voice adequately enough - even though he had actually dubbed the voice for him in the impressive Ghost Of Frankenstein from 1942 which saw Lugosi's inimitable character of Ygor having his brain transplanted into the Monster's skull - script alterations and the notion that giving the Monster the power to converse would detract from Chaney's pole-position in the picture are all valid reasons for this. But, if you prefer, you could always put the Monster's strangely bumbling and unaware demeanour down to the fact that the Monster has been encased in ice for a while and is not fully functioning anymore. It is also true that the production had once intended to have Lon Chaney play both roles! But Chaney despised the heavy makeup for the Monster, having worn it once, himself, in Ghost Of Frankenstein which had been released just before The Wolf Man, so was adamant that he wouldn't repeat that trial again.

    Sets for the film were quite audacious too. Added to the graveyard sequence mentioned earlier is the terrific subterranean warren of frozen caves into which the Wolf Man tumbles whilst evading those pesky, torch-wielding villagers, reawakening later as the investigative Larry who discovers and unearths the Frankenstein Monster. Listen to the creative sounds that Hans J Salter, who also worked on the first film, places in his score for this sequence as icy water drips down and Larry gropes through tumbled-down beams and ruined floors. The laboratory set and the ruined castle are quite atmospheric and the town of Vasaria is as elaborate as any Universal backlot from the era ever was. Once again, the Expressionism that so promoted the original series of Universal monster movies is forgotten and replaced by much-less stylised depictions of the setting. Model-work is not much better than was evidenced within the first movie. The drive to Talbot Castle from the original - that little plume of smoke from the chimney gets me every time - is recalled with the distance shot of the caved-in Frankenstein Castle with its shiny-watered dam further up the hillside. As patently phoney as these things no doubt are, it is still a measure of the variety of the effects-work that the studio was willing to produce to enhance their films. Going along with the impressive set-building is some occasionally striking camerawork. The opening scene features a great instance of extended crane-work as George Robinson's camera follows the two grave-robbers into the cemetery, down a dip and beneath the overhanging branches, and then on up to the Talbot crypt. The wild escape of the Wolf Man and the Monster from the village, commandeering a wagon and spilling beer barrels at their pursuers is a nice energetic touch, as is the scene of Talbot prowling around the shadows of Cardiff and bounding over crates and bales. Even the opening credits are bold and imaginative - the titles forming out of the poisonous vapours rising from a spooky array of bubbling beakers and test-tubes on a laboratory table. Moments such as these mark this film out as something that the makers, at least, took very seriously.

    This edition is found on the same disc as The Wolf Man, as part of the Monster Legacy Collection. Although clearly not as intelligent as the original, the film remains very enjoyable. The first half is especially entertaining and shows that Universal could have really gone to town with the werewolf elements if they had just had the courage to stick with Larry Talbot and not sledge-hammered in the Frankenstein chapters. In retrospect, this seems like very poor screenwriting though, as I've said already, at the time audiences would have been thrilled to see two horror stalwarts battle it out ... although the film doesn't quite settle any playground disputes over which creature would beat the other in a fist and paw fight. The pair would meet again in the lamentable House Of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House Of Dracula (1944). But their swansong for Universal, along with Dracula, would actually come with Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) which was, astonishingly, very good indeed and revealed that the studio actually realised that they had stretched the franchise out much too far and opted to lampoon it before someone else did.

    The Rundown

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