The Wolf Man Review
This review is from the Universal Monsters Essential Collection limited edition coffin boxset. Phew - what a mouthful! Each film in the set will get its own comprehensive coverage.
Like a favourite dream, The Wolf Man seems to haunt me … returning my twitchy, taloned fingers to the keyboard every so often to wax ever more lyrical about its eloquent and mysterious combination of charm and chills in coverage of yet another incarnation that comes prowling out of those misty moors to rampage across the small screen. It seems I’ll never be finished with all this furry stuff, eh? Well, until the next viewing-medium stakes a claim upon our obsessions, our home cinemas and our wallets, this should be my last word on Lon Chaney’s inaugural cinematic werewolfry for a while. As part of Universal’s lavish and long-awaited hi-def Monsters Essential Collection, the film has now undergone restoration and gained a high-definition transfer … so let's get this overdue moon-dance underway, as the first in a series of reviews for these classic genre gems.
“Anyone who is bitten by the werewolf, and lives ... will become a werewolf, himself.”
Well, now that Universal's tragically delayed remake has now finally arrived, it seems only fair that we take some time to look back at the chiller-thriller from yesteryear that started the whole fur-ball rolling. Regular readers will know that werewolves have always been my favourite monster, even if Hollywood has not always held them in as a high regard as their nocturnal cousins, the vampires. And now, with this freshly expanded review for the studio's original classic The Wolf Man, re-released again on Blu-ray on both sides of the pond as part the long-awaited Universal Monsters Essential Collection package, we can analyse, in-depth, what the inimitable Lon Chaney Jnr and director George Waggner accomplished in the wake of their awesome 30's output featuring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Not their first stab at werewolfry, admittedly (Henry Hull as The Werewolf Of London was much sooner out of the gate, though far less successfully, and there had been a couple of short silent interpretations long before that), but certainly the film that put the ravenous, hirsute monsters on the map and created a template that is still being adhered to today.
“Evil spells! Werewolves! Pentagrams! Ohhh, I'm sick of the whole damn thing!”
It is fitting that Universal's classic lycanthropic chiller The Wolf Man came out in a year when America, and Hollywood, also went through a transformation into a meaner and more bestial nature. 1941, when George Waggner's fog-enshrouded movie was released (or should that be unleashed?) was the year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into the Second World War. Nothing would ever be the same again - not for the world, at large, and certainly not for poor Larry Talbot, self-exiled son and heir to the Talbot dynasty and its ancestral castle in the quaint and picturesque Universal-tooled backlot doubling for the weirdest Wales you have ever seen. But then, with a film whose theme revolves around metamorphosis and alienation, the oddities of the setting and its characters are exactly the sort of visual ambiguity and dislocation that is required. Curiously, for a film that not only shaped an entire genre but went a long way to creating it in the first place, The Wolf Man, scripted by Curt Siodmak, is quite often stilted and juvenile, riddled with inconsistencies and somewhat haphazardly structured. The passage of time, for instance, is thrown totally to the wind with at least one whole day clumsily rubbed out in what is initially quite a tightly linear narrative. Scenes become repetitive at the sacrifice of tension-building and, most perplexing of all, is the restraint with which the bloodthirsty proceedings are handled.
But it does get some absolutely classic components just right ... and it is this fact that sees the movie sitting comfortably beside Browning's Dracula and Whale's couplet of Frankensteins as one of the pivotal horror trendsetters of all time. It basically wrote the rule-book for all the werewolf movies that followed. Silver ... wolf's bane ... a monster who is as much a victim as those he slays ... the moon malarkey ... It's all here and all founded in Tinseltown and not derived in traditional myth and folklore. It was Siodmak that gave those legends their fairytale ribbons … and not the campfire storytellers of yore.
He lent the film its aura of bonafide hand-me-down tradition and a sense of authentic occultism.
“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.”
Lon Chaney Jnr plays the cumbersome Larry Talbot, returning home from years living and working in America. His older brother and the first-born to the esteemed Talbot Family, having recently died in a hunting accident, looks down coldly from his portrait above the fireplace as the prodigal son is welcomed back. The patriarch, played by studio favourite Claude Rains (often a villain in films, himself, with his homicidal zeal as 1933’s deranged The Invisible Man and a later turn as a Technicolor Phantom of the Opera revealing the diminutive star to have a penchant for the macabre), quickly discovers his son's practical uses when Larry fixes the complex telescope up in the attic. The scene of father/son bonding is strangely rounded off with Larry performing some long-distance voyeurism on the unwitting Gwen Conliffe, played by Evelyn Ankers in the first of several films she would make with Chaney, as she admires her earrings in her bedroom mirror and he admires a couple of other things. Despite his ungainly build and his complete lack of family resemblance to his gnomish father (although it is quite obvious that Chaney, himself, posed for that portrait above the fireplace) and relative “stranger in a strange land” attitude, Larry wastes no time in putting the moves on Gwen. Purchasing a silver-tipped, wolf-headed cane from her father's antique store in the village he manages to coerce her into visiting the gypsy camp that has taken up on the outskirts of town and, before the night is out, he will have killed a werewolf (actually the gypsy-matriarch's son) whilst defending Gwen's friend Jenny (Fay Helm), and received a rather nasty bite on the chest for his troubles.
“Wolf? Gypsy-woman? Murder? What's all this about?”
Playing the troubled Lenny in the classic film adaptation of Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men brought Chaney Jnr a lot of respectability from critics and audiences alike, but the lumpy, pugilist-faced actor would forever be remembered for this one role. Indeed, Chaney, himself, would remark on many occasions that the role of the fate-bashed Larry Talbot was his favourite. He would, of course, go on to portray the split-personified figure in three more bonafide Universal horrors, as well as reprising the role in a TV show and the surprisingly effective Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein from 1949 (also released on restored Blu-ray and to be reviewed soon), but his performance here is justifiably legendary. Indeed, it comes as quite some recompense that, in return for being somewhat short-changed in terms of actual “werewolf” scenes, Chaney's depiction of the forlorn, persecuted Larry should be so acute and interesting. Hardly renowned as being a classy actor, the star found in the human side of the wolf man the perfect outlet for his unique brand of hangdog, much put-upon loser. Proud of his ability to cry convincingly on camera and given plenty of opportunity to lavish his anguish across the screen here, Chaney wrings his meaty hands and tears his hair out with a practically heartbroken glee. The wheels of lycanthropic melancholia were well and truly sown with this portrayal of an innocent man cursed by cruel devilry. Without this twist of the unfortunate monster-cum-victim, it is doubtful that we would ever have had An American Werewolf In London - the pathos of the wolfman mythology thus forever entwined around his lupine whiskers. So, it is something of an irony that, for this very reason, I still find The Wolf Man slightly disappointing. With such preponderance for misery and angst, Larry runs the risk of becoming a bore and it is only through Chaney's hulking stature, play-dough smile and puppy-dog eyes that we manage to care about him when he isn't out on his hefty-footed prowl. Thus it is actually the case that the movie works best as a dark and broodingly dour character study, and not, as you would expect, as a straight-up creature-feature.
George Waggner creates some wonderful moments within this spiral of despair, however. A shot of the heads of the vast congregation all turning to face him, one by one, with fear and suspicion, as Larry stands dejectedly at the back of the rather impressive village church is splendidly alienating. His inability to shoot the metal wolf target at the gypsy fair is a tense psychological treat. And watch Larry's reactions to Ralph Bellamy's ex-army colonel and now local Chief Constable Montford's flippant remarks regarding mounting a stuffed werewolf in Talbot Castle, his fists balled and his stature seemingly magnified by having the tiny Raines hovering next to him. The battle for dominance over his soul is already weighted in favour of the beast even as he tries to gain help from the dapper Dr. Lloyd (Warren Williams in a definite dry-run for John Woodvine's mind-game-interested Dr. Hirsch from American Werewolf). This schizophrenic push-and-pull within Larry is well done and provides Universal with, arguably, their second actually complex and textured character in a genre picture after Karloff's pivotal Monster. Closer inspection of the film reveals that it twists our perceptions of right and wrong, innocence and guilt. Look at the scene when poor Jenny Williams' mother and her hatchet-faced entourage confront Gwen's father and then Larry, himself, in the antique shop. Semi-revisited in Jaws when a grieving Mrs. Kintner gives Chief Brody a slap in the mush and puts him in his place, this sequence distorts our allegiances in favour of the beast ... or rather, the next beast in line as we just cannot sympathise with the mob of harridans, despite their justified wrath, and strangely side with the very couple whose fledgling canoodle they blame for the girl's murder. Thus, as awkward and ungainly as the screenplay may be, and it was the recipient of some extensive rewrites (proving that Universal's concept of the werewolf was quite haphazard even back then before Joe Johnston’s gouged and mutated version eventually gained a premier), there is much more meat on the bone than casual viewers usually think - although I would say that some of this is brought about more by happy accident than by complete design.
Thus, although still undeniably contrived, The Wolf Man manages to avoid the clichés that would hound the genre for decades to come.
Praise should, naturally, go to Chaney for this. The son of the legendary Man Of A Thousand Faces, Chaney Jnr. (his real name is actually Creighton and not Lon) seemingly only inherited one, but it is enough to place his Larry Talbot firmly at the root of the werewolf family tree. Out of the three classic Universal monsters epitomised by Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney (two of them even swapped characters on occasion and Chaney was the only one to actually play them all, as well as Kharis the Mummy in several bandaged outings!), the Wolf Man has got to be the most intriguing. Like Frankenstein's creation, we both sympathise and fear him. Like Dracula, we know he is a predator with the deadly power to transmit his unholy curse to others – unknowing AIDs metaphor for those who like such subtexts. Yet, because he is also profoundly human - at least for some of the time - we can totally associate with his plight and also consider the almost limitless potential that he has if he could just learn to either control the affliction or merely to accept it. In short, of the three iconic terrors, the Wolf Man actually asks questions of us. How would we cope? Would we see it as a sufferance ... or as a gift? Would we choose to live with it, or to end it all ourselves?
Despite its iconic status, Universal's FX-supremo Jack P. Pierce's makeup for Chaney is let down by the bouffant hairdo that his wolf man sports, leading to a monster that is just too damn cuddly to be frightening. What are good, however, are the paws that Chaney has to walk on. Pierce fashioned a pair of furry boots that disabled Chaney from lowering his heels to the floor and, with the paws built up with horribly bony claws, the result, which at first looks comical with the werewolf taking what resembles little dainty tippy-toe steps, is actually quite effective as it produces veritable haunches for the creature. Likewise the hands, transformed into bestial gropers topped-off with thick, grubby talons, yet, in reality, nothing more accomplished than a pair of hairy gloves. The snout-piece is good, too, and Chaney deserves some credit for trying to emote from beneath the meticulously-adhered yak-hair. His twitchy, scent-aroused snufflings and narrowed, flitting eyes really do convey the notion that slab-featured Larry has, indeed, transformed into something even uglier. But you just have to giggle when you see his bottom lip doing a Muppet-style quiver as he lies crippled in the mist by a man-trap. There is some narrative weirdness regarding the fact that Larry becomes a two-legged monster whilst the original beast that infected him was actually a four-legged wolf, but there are some novel ways of looking at this. In his commentary track, Tom Weaver makes references to this with a reasonably plausible solution (earlier drafts had only one fully-fledged monster, Bela, and Larry merely imagining that he has become a werewolf and only seeing the beast he thinks he has become in reflections of himself), but I like to think that perhaps the contagion is lessened with each successive transmission - thus Bela's first generation werewolf makes a full metamorphosis, whilst Larry's next-in-line victim, with a perhaps diluted strain of the curse/virus, becomes a monster with a greater retention of human form. This is only my way of interpreting what is actually a production mystery, but at least it lets the film off the hook, doesn't it? But however you look at it, the bipedal lumbering of this thug-like monster is far more macabre and frightening than the graceful lope of a fully-fledged animal.
Scenes of the wolf prowling through the staged woods, swirling with ground-mist, are certainly evocative and splendidly eerie. Like so many of these creepy classics, and a fair few more recent movies, such as Legend, Sleepy Hollow, The Company Of Wolves and The Brothers Grimm (itself happily associated with the werewolf myth), the use of stage-bound sets adds enormous atmosphere. Here, particularly, fairytale envelops reality with perfection. The woods aren't real (the actual trees are even moved around between shots to give the impression of different locations), the fog is being generated and pumped in and there's a man dressed like a big teddy bear prancing about from tree to tree - yet it all works. The scenario gels in the mind with such a delicious frisson that it is easy to believe that we, the collective audience, are experiencing memories from some superstitious past, a dark and witchcraft-rife throwback residing in our minds like a race memory. The savagery of the killings, albeit toned down due to the era in which it was made, is pretty raw, as well. Our wolf man may forget to use his teeth and claws whenever the camera is on him, but he still goes for the throat and grapples his victims to the ground with fearsome gusto. In particular, it is rewarding to see him get to grips with Evelyn Ankers - though sadly not in the way that his human alter-ego would have liked, you understand - because, in reality, the two actors did not get on at all well despite appearing opposite one-another in a slew of horror pictures, and in this mauling-sequence you can quite clearly see the relish with which Chaney makes his move, really throwing her about with some sadistic spite. Another nice element is when the pipe-smoking gravedigger, Richardson, reacting to the howling of the wolf, wheels about and spies the beast peering at him from behind a tree. It calls to mind the sequence in American Werewolf when the trio of tramps in the scrapyard see the monster in the light of their fire and their eyes widen with terror. Although Chaney's tree-hugging prowl can become quite tedious, it is somewhat creepy to see him just standing there staring at his prey - the implication clearly one of brutish, feral superiority. That wolf-howl clearly didn't come from him, though!
“Severed jugular. Make a note, Twiddle.”
Of course, one of the most memorable aspects of the film is the casting of Madame Maria Ouspenkaya as the gypsy woman Maleva. With a countenance that really betrays all the years the critically-lauded actress spent roughing it in Russia and Eastern Europe before coming to America, Ouspenkaya embodies the dark mythology of the story, and with a turn of phrase to make the blood run cold and a scowl that could put the Devil, himself, in the shade, she walks the fine line between cantankerous old battleaxe and sage harbinger of doom with a curmudgeonly air of benevolent fatality. In other words, she only seems content when dealing with misery and death. Poorly re-imagined by Geraldine Chaplin in the remake, and completely disposable, Ouspenkaya delivers a tragic gypsy-queen who is the ultimate morality tightrope-walker. Her brief discourse with the local priest, who laments the fact that the gypsies intend to celebrate the death of one their own with “dancing and song” is telling. Without resorting to resentful pride, she simply informs him that this is how such things are traditionally done by her people. “Fighting against superstition is as hard as fighting against Satan, himself,” the clergyman grumbles as he totters off, reaffirming the film's weighty conviction in darkness holding sway over those who believe. I do find it rather odd how Maleva keeps on trundling up on her little horse and cart whenever something wolfish has taken place, even after her brethren have departed the area. The way that Waggner stages these appearances was keenly adopted by Mario Bava, as seen especially in the likes of the classic Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan).But, as sinister as she no doubt is, what with all her knowledge of lycanthropy and beleaguered tolerance of it under her very own tent canvas, she is also the story's one strand of reassurance. Hardly malicious yet, no doubt, complicit in many more foul murders than we ever find out about, Maleva offers sanctuary and hope of salvation for the monster - be it her pentagram-tattooed son played by Bela Lugosi - and named, rather unimaginatively Bela - or Larry, and it is touching that she feels such affinity for the new wolf in town, when she could just use her son's death as her ticket out of the horror. Claude Rains, so manic and psychotic and wacky in The Invisible Man, calms down quite a bit for the part of Sir John, but still retains a baleful regard for his hulking son. There is a nice scene near the start when Sir John glosses over the troubles he has had with Larry's neglected son with a vow to put things right from now on. And later on, once murders have begun, his defence of his son is touching, even if subtle moments of Rains looking at him and commenting on his capabilities and frame of mind border on the suspicious. His determination to prove “once and for all” that this wolfman-nonsense is nothing more than gypsy poison fed into his gullible mind after the shock of killing Bela and the wound he, himself, received is strong and noble. His own struggle with the monster boasts the actor contorting his own features into something raw and primal, as well. Look at his face as the pair writhe in a death-grip on the ground. You can certainly see where the idea for the tweaked revamp with Sir Anthony Hopkins assuming the role came from.
“All astronomers are amateurs. When it comes to the Heavens, there's only one professional.”
Even Bela Lugosi, as the gypsy fortune-teller with a penchant for howling at the moon, serves the film with distinction. Despite only uttering something like a paltry seven lines before succumbing to his bestial side, he actually performs with real strength and a fierce magnetism. His horror at the realisation of seeing the pentagram in Jenny's hand and his aggressive swiping of the wolfbane she has brought into his tent are powerful indications of the turmoil within him. It is worth pointing out that Fay Helm is marvellous in this sequence, showing genuine terror and dread in her short-lived role. You have to wonder, though, just how Maleva has managed to protect him all these years. Do all the gypsies know of his condition? If so, why do they react so hastily and with such terror when Maleva later warns them that there is another werewolf in the camp? I mean, they've been living with one for quite some time, so they should be remarkably used to it by now. Or maybe it is because Bela was one of their own and they knew they were safe from him. Thus, a strange new wolf man might not be quite so discerning just who he chomps down on. Either way, you would have to question the longevity of such a deal as having a werewolf amongst your clan. Travelling from town to town, somebody somewhere would be bound to spot the obvious connection that wherever the gypsies went bodies would soon be discovered with their throats torn out. But however hokey this staging is, the bringing together of such travelling folks and their dangerous superstitions is the bedrock that anchors the story with such a vital context. Larry Talbot, fresh from the States, represents the modern world (at least circa 1940, anyway) and his return to such an already “backward people”, as his father calls their home-town, brings about a culture clash that is even more overtly revealed by the timely arrival of the gypsy clan. The old meets the new and, unavoidably, one is assimilated by the other. Quite literally, in poor Larry's case.
“You policemen are always in such a hurry. As if a dead man didn't have all of eternity.”
Sir John reveals just how backward his ideas of detective work really are.
But the big difference between the Universal horrors of the forties and those that went before was the attitude to risk-taking and taboo-breaking. Where the hoary old Dracula and the starched Frankenstein - and its awesome first sequel especially - actually gained notoriety with censor-baiting scenes of body-horror and sexuality, Universal seemingly took the easy route with their later output. Naturally, with a war going on - the Japs had just decimated sleepy Pearl Harbor, after all - the studio was keen to provide more escapism than violence, but even with this is mind, their chillers became more tepid and inclined to be suggestive rather than explicit. There are those who could argue that this watering-down had something to do with the success that Val Lewton was having with his own magnificent series of dreamlike, psychological horror films, such as Cat People (itself a close relative of the werewolf mythos) and I Walked With A Zombie, but I don't personally feel that Universal were competing with RKO's productions at all, despite what the derisory and surprisingly arrogant Lewton said about the rival studio. The forties saw Universal running out of steam with its established triumvirate of terror - Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man - and deciding that instead of breaking new ground (which they would do in the fifties with the likes of The Creature From The Black Lagoon, Tarantula and The Mole Men) they would throw their anti-heroes into the ring together in a series of daft but fun monster-mashes. Although this made financial sense, what with guaranteed audiences waiting to lap them up, the law of diminishing returns and lousy shoe-horning scripts further cheapened such institutionalised characters to the level of a pantomime tag-team. Sadly, this toning-down starts with The Wolf Man, which makes a concerted effort to play safe a lot of the standards Universal once flouted. With scarcely any murders to speak of and a tone of sadness, vulnerability and destiny already drowning the mood of the piece, Waggner's movie plays more on our sympathies than our nerves. The character of the squeamish Mr. Twiddle (Forrester Harvey, who had also appeared in Whale’s The Invisible Man) gasping and recoiling as the gruesome details of wounds are explained to his nervous note-taker, even seems to be embodying the prudish sentiments of the times and of the censors. The stylistic look of the films had radically altered, as well. Where once the incredible influence of German Expressionism had flavoured not only the sets but the characters, themselves - Dracula's arch gestures and sharp penetrating gaze, and Karloff's tall and angular Monster and the proto-noir of his wrinkled, unwrapped Mummy - The Wolf Man marked a completely new and much softer direction. Chaney's big rounded shoulders hunched over and the fuzzy-fur that festoons him when out stalking are the physical extension of comfy-looking rooms and fluffy-misted moors. Yet, for all of this innate theatricality, the use of deep-focus photography ensures that those backlots are far more atmospheric than they have any real right to be. And if you look at Gwen's dress, you will even spot the Celtic pattern that embroiders it - another little piece of evocative detail to help instil that folkloric ambience.
Production design, whilst not as strategically epic as that of Dracula and Frankenstein, which had castles and crypts and laboratories and mountains to take the breath away,is just as influential, though possibly on a more subliminal level. I wish that Talbot Castle could have been explored a bit more – there is vast potential missed on this point – but it certainly aided the visual and thematic concepts of Fox’s 1942 werewolf chiller, The Undying Monster (DVD reviewed separately), with its isolated baronial setting, and the Sherlock Holmes series. The BBC’s dramatisation of The Werewolf Reunion took full advantage of a stately home, as did the David Tennant Doctor Who story, Tooth and Claw, which even borrowed the idea of having an observatory up in the attic from The Wolf Man. And even the look and shadows cast by the ornate iron candle-stands in the main hall seem to have inspired Michael Wadleigh’s mysterious imagery of the specially designed metal wind-chimes seen in his outstanding single horror film, Wolfen (it can’t be long now until this masterpiece arrives on Blu!). These stands would also be seen in Universal’s excellent and censor-outraging 1935 version of The Raven. Painted backdrops are hardly uncommon in genre movies – with CG now taking the baton from such artistic luminaries as Linwood G. Dunn (King Kong, Mighty Joe Young), Peter Ellenshaw (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Black Hole) and Albert Whitlock (The Andromeda Strain, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Paul Schrader’s Cat People) – and The Wolf Man embellishes wings of Talbot Castle with turrets and balconies and provides extensions to its ornate and lovely grounds. Although profoundly artificial, these scenic backdrops, courtesy of John P. Fulton (who had provided similar duties on Dracula, too), aid immeasurably to the sense of make-believe and the feeling of having fallen into a fairytale alternate reality, whereas the mountains and stormy skies actually helped generate a quasi-sense of heightened reality in both Dracula and Frankenstein. The great set of the Talbot main hall would stand through several other gothic horrors for Universal afterwards, no doubt making Chaney feel very at-home as he would tread its boards, so to speak, a couple more times.
“I could've sworn I hit him dead on!”
“Have you forgotten? It takes a silver bullet to kill a werewolf.”
As with many of the supporting players in the earlier classics, there is more than a touch of the stage-bound hanger-on to a few of the characters, but this is quite brilliantly offset by the sheer weirdness of their overall dynamic in the ensuing drama that consumes the leads.
There is a certain uniqueness in the film’s approach to the romance between Larry and Gwen. The attractive Gwen already has a loving fiancé when the Americanised Larry barges bull-headedly into her life. The guy has already confessed to having had a long-distance perv at her and his attempts at wooing her may be colossally clumsy but he is nothing if not determined - already very predatory you could say. Even a meeting with Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles), Gwen's betrothed, becomes a quirky sort of stand-off. The estranged Talbot son has only been back in town for a day - albeit a day that has witnessed two killings - and he is wrestling another man's woman from his grasp. Cleverly, though, the script sees to it that Andrews is actually the head gamekeeper at the Talbot estate, so his abilities to fight back are limited to a rifle-shooting competition at the gypsy fair, class proving, once again, that it doth have its privileges, after all. This said, Frank does seem very accommodating after some initial bad manners, even wilfully catching up with Larry at the fair. Perhaps he is testing the two ill-matched and covert lovers for evidence of their affair? This ambiguity of motive is actually something that was all the rage in Hollywood dramas made during the period. The love triangle was always more potent when one of the corners was harbouring a monstrous secret.
And this psychological avenue has even more twists than you might, at first, think.
For instance, there is an interesting dynamic between Paul Montford and Dr. Lloyd that unfortunately is not allowed to properly develop. There is definitely an edge to their relationship, spurred on by their differences in professional outlook, naturally, but it also seems to run a little bit deeper than that. Montford spots Larry coming out of the gypsy’s tent, and he is also keenly suspicious when a couple of the beaters inform him that they have just seen the estranged Talbot prowling through the mist during the hunt on the second night of the new wolf man’s activities. Contrast this with the good doctor’s “protection” of Larry, and his constant thwarting of the detective’s intended line of enquiry regarding him. Suddenly the doctor seems somewhat more sinister than he would first appear. This is somewhat reminiscent of the darker side of the psychiatrist in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur classic Cat People, which would appear the following year. Although the deeper intentions of the shrink, here, are never made clear, the way that Warren William plays him seems to imply a more loaded motive. He is the one who mockingly informs both Andrews and Montford that is takes a silver bullet to kill a werewolf when their shots have seemingly no effect. Look at the grin on his face – there’s a lot more going on with this guy.
Perhaps Lloyd has already worked out what is happening to Larry … and either wants to harbour the beast for his own subsequent professional fame and notoriety, or maybe he wants to learn the secret of lycanthropy for himself. And perhaps, just perhaps, Tourneur’s far more intellectual treatise on shape-shifting was influenced by this angle too, and decided to run with it. Interestingly, Warren William played the heroic Lone Wolf in a series of pot-boiling spy-capers for Columbia before taking on the role of the (possibly) ulterior motivated doctor – so it certainly seems as though he was devising a way in which to become, ahem, even wolfier!
I like the way that Bellamy plays the pipe-smoking sleuth. He may have his own ideas about what is going on – and he has certainly been following all the right trails – but he doesn’t actually succeed in anything. In fact, he seems to get little respect from his supposed “friends”, with most of his entreaties into the mystery getting short-thrift. Something about his performance reminds me of how Leslie Nielsen portrayed the starched, semi-parodic starship captain in Forbidden Planet. He’s likeably officious, and forever hinting at a much deeper knowledge, almost like he’s looking through the screen at us. “I know you’re out there,” he seems to be thinking.
“The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over, Bela my son. Now you will find peace.”
The film is very condescending, though. That famous mantra about “Even a man who is pure in heart etc” is uttered much too often. In fact, there are a couple of scenes - one straight after the other - when the phrase is spoken aloud no less than three times by different people in the space of a few minutes. The film seeks to ram home its own mythology at every given opportunity as though afraid that we may forget some important element and, thereby, break the spell. Contrivances abound, as well. Too many scenes have narrative shorthand written all over them - such as when Larry and Andrews indulge in their spot of fairground marksmanship and the camera reveals Sir John and the ever-suspicious Montford watching them from afar. Have they been tailing Larry or is this just a coincidence? Either way, it is a visual slight and wholly unnecessary to the story. Larry's breakout from the chair he has been strapped into is very sloppily done - in that it isn't done at all. One minute he is human, terrified and locked-down nice and tight - Sir John even gives him a window-seat so that he can survey the hunt for the beast - the next he’s got his furry booties on and he’s out padding through the mist again. After such a great set-up, this is just a cop-out, I'm afraid. And what about the fact that his first transformation has him removing his shirt, yet his animal incarnation is wearing it once again. Would a werewolf really pause to button up his shirt again? Actually, if you look at it, it is a very different shirt, leading us to suspect that the Wolf Man even perused the wardrobe to select something fresh over the first one.
So, considering all these gaffs and inconsistencies, how is it that The Wolf Man has endured? It is, quite simply, that Waggner's film established the filmic folklore that has governed werewolfry ever since, and because it told a powerfully symbolic and emotional fairytale. Siodmak's research into accepted lore and his own mythic embellishments fine-tuned a tale of tragedy and pathos, but Waggner's and Chaney's work set in motion one of the greatest Greek Tragedies Hollywood has ever produced. The influences the film has had are now set in stone. The guilt of the monster over his condition - something that can be seen as a thread going back to the studio's own Frankenstein - and the whole concept about silver being the only thing to kill a werewolf are now steeped in their own quasi-historical authenticity. Other films have even pilfered the delicious notion that animals can sense the beast in their midst, even if it is still in human form. Witness the horse rearing and plunging as Bela makes his off screen transformation, or the dog reacting aggressively to Larry in the antique shop. The evocative score, from Frank Skinner and Hans J Salter (who both remain uncredited) and orchestrated by Charles Previn helps to weave the famous dreamlike spell over the film, and it is nice to note that composer Pino Donnagio recalled a few of its rising string-based cues in his score for Joe Dante's homage-rife The Howling (1981), and tunesmiths like Danny Elfman, Christopher Young and Hans Zimmer have adopted very similar approaches to such exotic gypsy fare. There is even a little motif playing as Larry tosses stones at Gwen’s bedroom window that is very reminiscent of the intro to Elfman’s celebrated Batman fanfare. (There is also an image in this scene that looks like a template for Max Von Sydow’s iconic, mist-laden arrival outside the house in The Exorcist!) They crafted a lilting and memorable love them that could be skilfully woven throughout the darker motifs to remind us of what is at stake. Sadly though, one of the best passages that they created, for the scene when Maleva comes to bid her final farewell to Bela in the church, was ultimately altered and downmixed in the final cut of the film, with a lengthy portion even cut out when Waggner got cold feet about the bleakness of shooting the scene from the perspective of the dead gypsy in the casket. But their score is justly regarded as one of the best “original” scores for a studio that very often relied upon library tracks and classical pieces and was often held up as a text-book example of how to score a genre picture, informing the likes of both Bernard Herrmann and John Williams in how to boost suspense but remain melodic and totally in-character. It is worth noting that elements and motifs from this music would reappear in later Universal horrors and even the excellent and long-running Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.
When I first wrote about this film several years ago, Benicio Del Toro, a devoted fan of the old Universal horrors, was only prepping the long-delayed remake of this movie, which I confessed even then was something I was rabidly looking forward to. Del Toro, taking the title role actually appeared to be a perfect choice for the under-pressure Larry Talbot. In fact, there are many shots in the original where Chaney possesses an uncanny resemblance to Del Toro - such as when Larry wakes up after his first night's hunting on the moors, or when he hides behind the curtains when Paul Montford starts poking around the grounds outside the castle on the trail of paw-prints. Both actors have a terrifically dark and heavy visage and embody sheer anxiety with enormous presence and credibility, but Del Toro ultimately proved to be surprisingly wooden in a role he once coveted. And it is also with mixed pleasure that I have to report that the anxieties I initially expressed, over whether or not the remake would raise the horror content and up the bodycount, were eventually unfounded. The remake may be vaguely disappointing in its uneven tone, but it is certainly carnage-rife!
Undoubtedly a classic of the genre, The Wolf Man is still a troubling and flawed film. But it is probably only right that a movie detailing the two sides of nature - the human and bestial - should garner such schizophrenic reviewing. I do love the film, and despite being a fervent admirer of practically all the studio's horror output from the thirties to the fifties, it is this production that I watch the most, but I can readily distinguish its many errors and shortcomings. Hollywood, it seemed, found itself as restrained as poor Larry Talbot lashed in that chair. On the one hand they created something ferocious and untameable ... yet they lacked the courage to fully let the wolf off the leash. A shame ... but then the film still fits into that uniquely cosy and atmospheric type of vintage chiller that Universal did so well.
With the long-postponed remake having prowled through cinemas and the studio apparently working on another remake, this beautifully packaged and hugely anticipated hi-def issue of its progenitor makes a welcome return with Universal's Blu-ray Essential Collection. Until next time, folks, stay clear of the moors ... and gypsy fortune-tellers. Oh, and beware the moon, as well.
Bring on Volume II of these classics, I say! We need Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man now!!!