The Wolf Man (1941)
In many a distant village, there exists the Legend of the Werewolf or Wolf Man, a legend of a strange mortal man with the hair and fangs of an unearthly beast... his hideous howl, a dirge of death!
Year of Release: 1941
Running Time: 70 minutes (1:10)
Director: George Waggner
Lon Chaney Jr. ... The Wolf Man, Lawrence Stewart Talbot
Claude Rains ... Sir John Talbot
Evelyn Ankers ... Gwen Conliffe
Warren William ... Dr. Lloyd
Ralph Bellamy ... Colonel Paul Montford
Maria Ouspenskaya ... Maleva
Patric Knowles ... Frank Andrews
Bela Lugosi ... Bela
Larry Talbot returns to his father's castle in Wales to join a beautiful woman. Talbot escorts her to a local carnival, where a gypsy fortune teller, Bela, predicts the horrors that await and brings to light the curse of the wolf. Later, Bela, who already has transformed into part man/part wolf, attacks Larry to transform him as well.
The Wolf Man, remindin' us that if the full moon's on the rise an you're about to go werewolf, it's always a good idea to wear open toe shoes. After all, a good pair of work boots'll set you back about $200, an in this economy, that adds up real quick when you start goin' all Beast Mode every 29 days an end up splittin' through the leather seams like a portly biker who outgrew his jacket. I'd recommend either Birkenstocks or flip flops, as they both provide adequate hulk out room an besides that, if you do end up wreckin' 'em, who gives a flip, right?
An speakin' of hairy guys with dirty feet, I hadda wander out to the park this past week to scour the flea market after the rotary mechanism crapped out in my phone an was unable to get Shanghai Muttley out here to round up one of Silas Tankersley's goats when it started buttin' the rear passenger door on the Topaz. Took me the better part of an hour to find one with a smooth enough rotation to warrant the 85 cents they were askin', but I decided to spring for an additional $1.20 to get this old inflatable Hamms beer can, since everybody's always talkin' about how I need to class up my den. I was about to head outta there before the old church ladies started tryin' to sell me AOL discs from 1997, when I spotted this miniature pool table that Clovis Skidman was sellin' for $3.00 an I just hadda have it even though the Hamms can'd already put me 30 cents over my spendin' limit. I couldn't help myself though, cause this little table was exactly like the one Billy Hilliard an I had in our tree fort out by the dump when we were kids, an pretty quick I was swimmin' in nostalgia thicker'n the country gravy over at Mack's Stacks of Manly Snacks. Then things really got weird, cause apparently Walt Disney was right; it really is a small world after all, as I discovered when I flipped it over durin' a cursory inspection an realized it WAS our old pool table. Even had our old Mead spiral notebook that archived the dates, results, an various phony baloney "champeenships" we'd made up to make the games seem important, still taped to the underside. The notes come to an abrupt end on September 6th, 1982, which, I suspect correlates precisely with the point in time where all the girls at school started developin' breasts, but nevertheless I called up Billy an told 'im to get his hind end over here, an that he'd never believe what I'd found. I'da never believed it, but when he saw that table he actually started to tear up, an Billy didn't so much as display a minor lip quiver at his uncle's funeral after the guy was buried alive in a freak haystack avalanche, just to give you an idea of what a movin' experience this was. So after we'd both reviewed the records an determined that Billy was the current "champeen pool stud of the universe," we racked up an started playin', just like old times. The game came right down to the wire, an I was just about to sink the 8-ball an end Billy's 33 year reign of terror, when he bumped the table an made me scratch. I dunno what came over me, but I was P.O.'d like never before. He'd clearly done it on purpose, but it was still just a game, an yet, if I thought he'da noticed, I'da whacked 'im right in the gourd with my two an a half foot pool cue with everything I had for that little stunt. That was about the moment I remembered why we'd gotten rid of that thing in the first place. Suffice to say, Billy's still the champ, an the table's out in the shed awaitin' the day where we're finally mature enough to act like grown ups. Hopefully it'll happen before my legs give out.
Life's funny sometimes. Course, other times it just ends up with you knowin' somebody's laughin' at you from on high. Those're usually the type I get. But there's no reason to get hung up on that, cause this week we got the werewolf movie that started it all; The Wolf Man. There was actually another werewolf flick before this one titled Werewolf of London, but nobody seems to give a rip about it cause the The Wolf Man's got a higher quality mythology, taken directly from the writer's hinder. Kinda funny how people're willing to disregard their previous knowledge of a subject when a better narrative comes along, but I guess that's why we have 24 hour "news" networks. Still, we're talkin' about the flick that for all intents and purposes started the werewolf cycle, so I'ma give Curt Siodmak his due an go over a few of the things I learned from the most definitive guide to werewolves available outside a Renaissance Faire. First, the reason Gypsies're nomadic is cause there's always one guy in the bunch that's goin' werewolf at night an won't quit turnin' the locals into rawhide chew toys. Makes it kinda tough to settle down an find a nice place in the suburbs when you've got P.O.'d townsfolk showin' up at your door carryin' torches an choke collars every few weeks. Second, women may pretend to want a "sensitive" guy with a stable career an a respectable reputation, but when it comes right down to it, they'll ultimately ditch that guy to run off with a werewolf to bear litter after litter of his wolfen pups. Course, the "nice guy" still kinda wins in the end, cause after sucklin' eight or nine crabby canines every day for a coupla months, the broad's teats're gonna be hangin' down to 'er socks. An third, werewolves're a lot like wangdoodles. Some're tall, proud, an able to stand fully erect, while others're small, flaccid, an incapable of gettin' a lady's attention without the aid of a fortune.
But I've got a question about this silver business, cause in the movie the Gypsy babe says that to kill the werewolf you've gotta shoot it with a silver bullet, or shank it with a silver knife. That part's fine, cause if you figure the Achilles heel of lycanthropy is a silver allergy, you're gettin' a pretty good dose of it into the booger's bloodstream usin' those two methods. But the stick (cane) with a silver handle thing seems a little far-fetched, don't it? I mean, unless you're Ronda Rousey or somethin' an you can swing that sucker so hard that it shatters the beast's skull like a bag of marbles on the train tracks, causin' direct cane on brain contact. An while we're spinnin' the variables like a Jones soda bottle at a slumber party, would a silver neck chain or silver garrote wire work? Could you, maybe, slice one open with a regular knife an then jab your mama's antique sterling silver serving fork into its gall bladder an send ole Rover to live on a nice farm in the country? How about if a rapper with a mouth fulla silver crowns bites one on the hinder, would that get the job done? An could you confine one inside a pet carrier if the grated steel door was made of silver instead? Ya know, like they did to Warwick Davis with the iron safe in Leprechaun 2? I'm not tryin' to make light of the subject matter, but these're questions that we need some serious answers to, cause if these methods're just gonna piss the werewolf off like a grizzly bear with a .22 shell embedded in its rump I'd rather take my chances tryin' to outrun one in my car. That might be an idea too, get some winter tires with silver studs in 'em an just wait for the bastard to come chasin' after you on your way to the Dairy Queen. I prolly aughta move on with the rest of the review, all this hypothesizin's makin' me dizzy.
The movie begins with Lon Chaney Jr. gettin' rocked back an forth in his car by the first an second assistant directors so he'll blend in seamlessly with the stock footage from some guy's roadside vacation video of Slugbunt, North Dakota, playin' on the rear projection screen behind 'im en route to Talbot Castle. Only once he gets there he hasta do some serious ass kissin' on Claude Rains (his father) for abandonin' the family an spendin' so long in America that he completely shed his accent an lost his taste for brain and kidney pie. Then they go upstairs to Claude's observatory where Lon starts makin' like James Stewart in Rear Window, til he spies a comely wench (Gwen) off the port bow an heads down to 'er antique shop to check out 'er curios. Course, Lon's breathin' like an winded wildebeest, so he hasta try to play it cool an inquire about an old cane with a silver wolf's head on it so she won't call the cops before he can chloroform 'er, an she goes on to explain the mythology of the werewolf an make it clear that she'll scream louder'n Kim Cattrall in Porky's if he tries anything fresh. Anybody but Bill Cosby would give up after bein' shut down like a Simplot on green card inspection day, but Lon's smitten an heads back that night at quittin' time an ends up scorin' a date with both Gwen an 'er friend (Jenny), an all the sudden it's lookin' like Lon's about to be part of a tuna fish sandwich. Then Lon takes 'em to this Gypsy encampment to see the fortune teller (Bela Lugosi) to find out if he should stop off at the drug store, cept when Bela goes to read Jenny's fortune he keeps pullin' nothin' but Grim Reapers out of his tarot deck an tells 'er to come back tomorrow after he starts seein' Pagan symbolism on 'er palm. It's prolly just a Satanic eye floater, but better safe than sorry. By this point, Lon's wandered off with Gwen an learned that she's engaged, so it's fortunate that Bela turns werewolf an starts maulin' Jenny before Lon's depression sinks in too deep an he decides to start suckin' on the fog machine's exhaust pipe. Lon ends up gettin' bit tryin' to make Bela heel an release Jenny, but ultimately clubs the beast to death with his cane like Scrooge McDuck interrogatin' an IRS agent, before doin' the Ric Flair faceplant into the dirt.
Then Gwen and an old Gypsy babe (Maleva) find 'im mixin' up mudpies with his slobber an take 'im home to bed, while the constable (Paul) an Gwen's boyfriend (Frank) head out into the marsh an find Jenny bled out like a busted jar of Pace Picante, with Bela layin' not too far away lookin' like he tried a 300lb overhead press with sweaty palms. The next mornin', Claude, Dr. Lloyd, an Paul show up in Lon's bedroom with the cane he left at the scene of the crime an ask 'im what kinda callous culdgelry of clairvoyant craniums he's been up to, an Lon assures 'em that he's certain he clubbed a wolf an not a Lugosi. Then Lon goes to loiter outside the antique shop an watches two guys carry Bela's casket into a nearby crypt, til Maleva stops by to give Bela a proper eulogy an promises to bury 'im with his favorite squeak toy, an pretty quick Lon gets this look on his face like he just came home an found out his mom donated his baseball card collection to the annual church raffle. Elsewhere, a buncha hair salon crones've stormed the antique shop lookin' for Gwen an some gold-plated hairpins to get their eyebrows under control, an proceed to blame 'er for Jenny's death an make 'er out to be a harlot for showerin' naked. Then Lon steps in an he's about as P.O.'d as a Tribble conservationist eyeballin' Donald Trump's hairpiece an asks the Grandmothers of the American Revolution to repeat what they'd just said to his freezer burnt face. So once the hags fall back to Winifred Sanderson's place to regroup, Frank shows up an makes Lon feel about as welcome as a tick in a patch of pubic hair an tells Gwen to go do the dishes an not to go fallin' in love with Lon cause, even though he looks normal, the Kyphosis always skips a generation. Later that night, everybody in town heads out to the Gypsy party where all the men come around an put their money down while their wives check out the Cher concert, an by this point Frank's startin' to feel guilty about bein' a pathetic control-freak loser an buys Lon a round of target shootin' to bury the hatchet. Only Lon gets weirded out when one of his targets pops up in the form of a wolf an hasta go scrub 'imself an head to Maleva's tent.
She's still a little hacked off about 'im clubbin' Bela to death an considers puttin' the Thinner curse on 'im, but ultimately sees how pitiful he is an gives 'im a Mickey Mouse pocket watch an some game tokens to go ride the log flume. Course, Maleva spills the beans about Lon joinin' the Hair Club for Men an pretty quick all the other Gypsies start rollin' up the sidewalks like the cops just dropped by an discovered the loaded dice at their craps table. Then Lon gives the pocket watch to Gwen cause it's been said that Mickey can ward off werewolves an heads home to see about buyin' some stock in the Norelco corporation. Unfortunately, it ain't long before Lon starts gettin' hairier'n Robin Williams an heads out into the cemetery, where he goes all Wolfman Jerk on the groundskeeper an chews 'im up like a pair of suede house slippers. The next mornin', Lon wakes up extremely groggy, with a tattoo on his chest, an no memory of what happened after he entered Maleva's tent, an gets this look on his face like he just woke up from involuntary castration surgery. Then he looks down an notices the place looks like the floor of a barber shop on prison haircut day an hasta sweep it all under the rug an scrub his muddy paw prints before Claude starts thinkin' he's hidin' a pet in his room. Lon's a little concerned that he might get some more wild hairs up his ass an tear apart Claude's antique Victorian sofa cushions, so he heads downstairs to ask 'im if he thinks werewolves really could exist an Claude tells 'im he doesn't, but that if he catches Lon floor scootin' again he may hafta revise his assessment. So later that night, Lon goes out to chase cats by the light of the moon, only he ends up steppin' in one of the bear traps Paul an Frank set up an tries everything short of chewin' his leg off to escape, til Maleva happens by an waves 'er hands around like David Copperfield an makes all his hair fall out like she's conductin' werewolf chemotherapy. Then Lon heads back to town an gets Gwen outta bed since he hasn't had much luck gettin' 'er into it, an tells 'er the dog catcher's got an APB out on 'im an that he's gotta leave town like yesterday... at which point he sees the pentagram form on 'er palm an takes off like somebody just whacked 'im on the nose with the sports section. Gonna end the description here, cause even though it's a classic, I'm sure there're a few young people out there who think the genre started with Dog Soldiers, an they might wanna take a history lesson one day.
Alrighty, well, I'm still finding these classics a little dry, but it's still easy to see why they were groundbreaking for their time. While Werewolf of London did technically come out 6 years before The Wolf Man, the public just never quite latched onto it the way they did with Wolf Man. Like most of the Universal classic monsters, the Wolf Man is portrayed sympathetically, which is a big part of what separates them from the majority of our modern horror flicks, as the "monsters" are generally the victims of some unfortunate affliction, and that tends to give these movies a little more depth than those featuring mindless killing machines. But this approach makes them a bit more accessible to a mainstream audience, and because they're so old, there's also not much in the way of offensive content to drive away the sensitive. Conversely, there's not much in the way of action for a gorehound, and even the best titles of the classic era are often a slog for me to sit though. Still, like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man before it, the movie is nearly flawless on a technical level, and doesn't overstay its welcome with a runtime of just 70 minutes. Besides, even if you prefer movies where there're still people involved in its creation walking the Earth, it's worthwhile to view the classics at least once to gain a historical understanding of the genre's origins. You can't truly understand the present if you haven't learned about how we got to this point, and The Wolf Man is the touchstone film of the werewolf genre. It establishes all the rules that're still present today, and serves as a textbook example in terms of outlining many genre cliches that aren't relegated strictly to the werewolf subgenre. Sure, some of the earlier Universal flicks beat it to the punch as it was a product of the 40's rather than the 30's, but the fog covering the marshland, vintage cemetery sets, and the underlying feeling of disbelief from all the supporting characters in the movie, are all critical components of the horror genre that'll still be around long after I'm gone. And often, to become famous for something, you don't have to be the first movie to do it, you just have to do it better than the movies that came before, which is precisely why The Wolf Man gets all the credit and Werewolf of London gets brushed aside, despite being a perfectly competent film. The Wolf Man is just better all around, although it no doubt owes some of that to having an example of its type in place to analyze and determine what worked and what didn't, thus allowing it to expand upon the aspects that were received favorably by the audience and downplay or remove entirely the parts that didn't work so well. So any way you slice it, the movie is historically significant on such a level that it is mandatory viewing for fans of the genre, even if it comes off as a little slow moving at times.
Okay then, let's get this thing to the grooming salon and see if there's a Westminster Kennel Club contender or a junkyard mutt under all that hair. The plot is reasonably faithful to the existing werewolf mythology of the time, but also makes up a lot of new mythology seemingly out of nowhere. The writer, Curt Siodmak, made up several of these rules on the spot, including silver being the only way to kill a werewolf, the affliction passing from person to person via a bite, and having the transformation take place under a full moon. So we've got a mixed bag on originality, and technically speaking he may well have just made it communicable through bites because it'd already proven believable with vampires, but for the most part the plot is on the original side, and doesn't follow the same set of rules from Universal's previous werewolf offering, Werewolf of London. The only thing that really doesn't make sense is the scene where Lon Chaney Jr. fights the "werewolf" that's indistinguishable from a German Shepard. Why they did this is clear, as they didn't want to give everything away that early, but it still doesn't make sense unless you're familiar with some of the really old literature, wherein people with this affliction simply became wolves rather than a hybrid of a wolf and a man. The acting, though very much a product of its era, is superb, and when paired with an excellent script, succeeds in presenting Lon Chaney Jr.'s character in a sympathetic light. He's not really a monster, or at least doesn't want to be, and Chaney does a great job of creating a genuinely tragic character. Claude Rains turns in a respectable performance as well, despite having a rather dull character who's written as such to serve as the unwavering voice of reason throughout the shenanigans. But aside from Chaney, the only real standout performances come from Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya, who both play Gypsies and're generally there to creep us out. Bela had his sights set on the Larry Talbot role, but ultimately lost out to Lon Chaney Jr., perhaps explaining why he was desperate enough to star in The Ape Man. A fur suit is a fur suit, after all. Anyway, for the time, the acting is pretty good, with the best performances coming from the roles that really needed them, so as to avoid having the movie come off silly.
Here's who matters and why, less Chaney, Lugosi, and Rains, who're irrefutably genre legends: Ralph Bellamy (Rosemary's Baby, Amazon Women on the Moon, Something Evil, The Ghost of Frankenstein), Patric Knowles (Terror in the Wax Museum, From the Earth to the Moon, Tarzan's Savage Fury, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Strange Case of Dr. Rx), Maria Ouspenskaya (Tarzan and the Amazons, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), Evelyn Ankers (Son of Dracula, Tarzan's Magic Fountain, The Invisible Man's Revenge, The Mad Ghoul, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Hold that Ghost), J.M. Kerrigan (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1954, Tarzan and the Amazons, Werewolf of London, The Monkey's Paw 1933), Fay Helm (One Body Too Many, Night Monster), Forrester Harvey (The Invisible Man, Tarzan and His Mate, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1941, The Invisible Man Returns, Kongo, Tarzan the Ape Man 1932), Jessie Arnold (Man Made Monster, The Ape, Black Friday 1940), Caroline Frances Cooke (Son of Frankenstein, The Bells, The Mummy's Ghost), Harry Cording (The Black Cat 1934, Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy's Tomb, The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man Returns, The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939, Son of Frankenstein), Gibson Gowland (The Phantom of the Opera 1925, The Ape, The Mysterious Island), Leyland Hodgson (Bedlam, The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man's Revenge, The Strange Case of Dr. Rx, Adventures of Captain Marvel, The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy 1932), Olaf Hytten (The Son of Dr. Jekyll, She-Wolf of London, House of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man's Revenge, The Return of the Vampire, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1941), Connie Leon (Cat People 1942, Werewolf of London), Doris Lloyd (The Time Machine 1960, Tarzan the Ape Man 1932, The Son of Dr. Jekyll, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, The Invisible Man's Revenge, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Night Monster, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1941, Tarzan the Ape Man 1932), Ottola Nesmith (The Return of the Vampire, Invisible Ghost, The Son of Dr. Jekyll, The Leopard Man), Ernie Stanton (The Ghost of Frankenstein), Anne G. Sterling (House of Dracula, The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939, House of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), Harry Stubbs (The Invisible Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Mummy's Hand, The Invisible Man Returns, Werewolf of London), Eric Wilton (Batman and Robin 1949, The Invisible Man Returns, Dracula's Daughter, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931).
And for those among you who feel that 1940s horror flicks are just a little too exciting, there's also a fairly strong showing for this particular cast in the realms of socially acceptable entertainment. Those credits more befitting the members of civilized society are as follows: Warren William (Lawrence in Gold Digger 1933, Julius Caesar in Cleopatra, Dave the Dude in Lady for a Day, and Steve Archer in Imitation of Life), Ralph Bellamy (James Morse in Pretty Woman, Mike Barnett in the TV series Man Against Crime, and Bruce Baldwin in His Girl Friday), Patric Knowles (William Scarlett in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Lindsay Woolsey in Auntie Mame, and Perry Vickers in The Charge of the Light Brigade), Maria Ouspenskaya (Grandma in Love Affair, and Olga Kirowa in Waterloo Bridge), Evelyn Ankers (Naomi Drake in The Pearl of Death, and Kitty in Sherlock Holms and the Voice of Terror).
The special effects, for the time, would have been some of the best ever put to film. Maybe not as awe inspiring as The Invisible Man, but really good nonetheless. Of course, as old as it is, we're not going to see much blood, or even the murders as they occur in some cases, but that's standard for something this old. Where the movie shines is, of course, the werewolf makeup, which still looks fairly decent 70+ years after the fact. For the transformation/reversion scenes, they used the most obvious and sensible method available to them at the time, which were time lapse dissolves depicting a steady hair increase or decrease as a scene dictated. The "final form" is reasonably believable, and was created using yak hair that took around six hours to apply and three to remove, making Lon Chaney Jr. quite the trooper to put up with that kinda hassle for the sake of his art. The only other effect utilized is the superimposition of the pentagram on the palms of the werewolf's next victim, which look a little silly, but aren't particularly critical to the overall score of the movie. The shooting locations are particularly memorable, and exude atmosphere anytime there's a scene in the foggy marsh, of which there are several. The entire movie was shot on sets on the Universal back lot, and if there's any facet of classic cinema that can come close to rivaling our modern equivalents, it'd have to be the sets they created for the Universal classic monster films. I generally prefer on location shooting, but the Universal set designers were really masters of their craft, and often managed to create something more realistic than reality, in certain respects. The marsh, cemetery, antique shop, and even the streets and architecture of the buildings do an excellent job of creating a place that's utterly believable. The soundtrack is not only another feather in the movie's cap, but also gets a significant amount of screen time in relation to many other flicks from this era. Most horror films from the 30's didn't even have soundtracks, so for 1941, The Wolf Man is at least marginally ahead of its time on that front. Like everything else, the soundtrack is still very dated, but appropriate for its time and pairs well with the great sets to create excellent atmosphere. The music used for the attack and palm reading scenes is actually fairly tense and comes across rather well, while the rest utilizes strings and sorrowfully sets the tempo for the more memorable scenes the director is building toward. Overall, these moldy oldies still aren't my thing, but The Wolf Man is superb on a technical level, and measures up as well as any flick can possibly be expected to after 70 years, so check it out.