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The Wolf Man Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    The Wolf Man Review

    And you'd thought that I was finished with all this furry stuff, eh? Well, until the remake arrives on Blu-ray, this should be my last word on cinematic werewolfry for a while. This gorgeous R1 2-disc Special Edition from Universal must have gotten lost out on those misty moors ... but now that it has finally arrived, let's get this overdue moon-dance underway.

    “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 SD DVD on both sides of the pond (and in differing editions, to boot), 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), 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 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 Frankenstein as one of the pivotal horror trendsetters of all time. It basically wrote the template 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.

    “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), 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 diminutive 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 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, 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 American Werewolf - 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 that the movie works best as a dark and broodingly dour character study.

    George Waggner creates some wonderful moments within this spiral of despair, however. The heads of the 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 somewhat haphazard even back then), 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. 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?

    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, 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 classics, and a fair few more recent movies, such as Legend, Sleepy Hollow, The Company Of Wolves (the BD of which has been reviewed in detail separately) and The Brothers Grimm (itself associated with the werewolf myth and reviewed elsewhere), the use of stage-bound sets adds enormous atmosphere. Here, particularly, fairytale envelopes 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. 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 and in this mauling-sequence you can quite clearly see the relish with which Chaney makes his move. 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 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 place, 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. 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 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 in James Whale's 1933 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 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 are powerful indications of the turmoil within him. 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 then 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. The forties saw the studio 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) 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 gasping and recoiling as the gruesome details of wounds are explained, 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 - 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.

    “I could've sworn I hit him dead on!”

    “I too!”

    “Have you forgotten? It takes a silver bullet to kill a werewolf.”

    But there is a uniqueness in its approach to the romance between Larry and Gwen. The attractive Gwen already has a 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.

    “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 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 his furry booties are 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. 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). 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. 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. 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 is 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 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 now prowling through cinemas, this beautifully repackaged US re-issue of its progenitor makes a hugely welcome return with Universal's 2-disc Special Edition coming as part of their terrific Legacy Series. Until next time, folks, stay clear of the moors ... and gypsy fortune-tellers. Oh, and beware the moon.