Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Wolf Man (1941)

Despite my love for the horror movie genre, I have managed to go my entire life without seeing any classic monster movies.  That's right, I have never seen Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man, or even any Mummy movies or The Creature From the Black Lagoon.  Last year, I reviewed The Wolfman with Benicio del Toro, so I thought I would break my classic monster movie drought with the original, The Wolf Man.

I would like to take the time to point out the movie poster above.  Exactly what is supposed to be going on there?  A giant dog's head is levitating over a remarkably turquoise field, ignoring the floating unconscious woman near the bottom of the hill, while silhouettes of cricket players wait in the background with sinister intent?  Think about it...the movie is called The Wolf Man.  How hard could it have been to make a promotional poster that was more enticing than that?
Here you go.  It's a start.

The Wolf Man is the story of Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.).  Lawrence returns home after many years when he learns of his brother's death.  Lawrence and his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) have never really seen eye-to-eye, but age has mellowed the pair and they are suddenly buddies.  Why is this mentioned in the story, then?  I guess to make Lawrence's ignorance about the town that his family oversees (what's that about, anyway?) more plausible; although, didn't he live there as a child?  Whatever.  Lawrence, being kind of a weird guy, "accidentally" notices a pretty young lady in town when he points a telescope into her bedroom; what are the odds?  He tracks her down at her place of work (classy!) and decides to buy a walking stick from her by way of introduction.  The stick comes with a hefty silver handle in the shape of a wolf's head.  The clerk/romantic interest, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), explains that the handle represents a werewolf.
She should be afraid of him for stalking, even without the werewolf-ing
Apparently, this was not part of the popular lexicon in 1941, so she explains it as a person who transforms into a wolf at certain times of year.  To back up her story, she recites this poem:
Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright
If that doesn't make much sense to you right now, don't worry.  It will be repeated at least four more times in the film, just in case you missed anything.  On the bright side, it appears that lycanthropy is like a seasonal allergy; apparently, it doesn't happen outside of the autumn, when wolfsbane blooms.  Interestingly, moonlight or the full moon do not play a part in triggering a werewolf's transformation (in this movie).  As you may have guessed already, poor peeping Lawrence winds up on the wrong end of a werewolf bite.  He manages to kill the beast by caving its skull in with his walking stick's silver handle, but he's the only one who saw the lycanthrope as a wolf; by the time everyone else arrived, the wolf had transformed back into a human.  So, what's a nice (if stalker-ish) guy to do when he's been bitten by a werewolf?  There aren't many options, especially when you consider that Lawrence was too old to join his high school basketball team.
A missed opportunity

I have seen a lot of movies over the years, but I have stuck to mostly high-profile pictures from this time period.  What does that mean?  To put it nicely, the movies I watch that are circa-1940 usually look pretty good.  The Wolf Man suffers from a number of production problems.  The first is their sets.  I don't know what passes for "woods" in that area, but I don't know if there are more than three trees on the screen at any time in this movie.  And I have no idea how there could be so much fog in those woods at all times.  Maybe the three trees were made of dry ice?  I feel bad picking on the Wolf Man costume, since the movie is seventy years old, but Chaney looked like he was wearing a loose teddy bear costume, and that's when you can catch a glimpse of him.  I was surprised by how rarely he is shown clearly on screen.
There are zero scenes that show the Wolf Man makeup this clearly.

This is what you get instead.
That disappointed me; I was looking forward to enjoying classic horror movie makeup, and you don't really get any iconic images from this movie.  I have no problem with the way they show Lawrence's transformation into a Wolf Man; they superimposed image after image of his body in varying degrees of wolfiness to convey the idea, and it worked quite well for the time period.  I just wish there was one iconic shot of Chaney in his make-up.

The acting is surprisingly high quality, given the low production values.  Claude Rains is classy, as always, as the senior Talbot.  His part is not especially large, despite having first-billed status, but he turns in a solid performance.  Ralph Bellamy was also pretty good, although his character is involved in a huge plot hole at the end of the film.  Bela Lugosi played...well...
He played a werewolf gypsy.  It was a character piece and it didn't require much work from Lugosi, but he overacted to an entertaining degree in his limited screen time.  Similarly, Maria Ouspenskaya was fun as a gypsy that kinda sorta wanted to help, but apparently thought vague warnings would suffice.  Evelyn Ankers was pretty enough as a damsel in distress, but her character didn't have much depth (or logic, or personality, or...).  While this isn't the first film I have seen Lon Chaney Jr. in (that would be High Noon), this is the first starring vehicle of his I have seen.  Frankly, I wasn't impressed.  Chaney doesn't have the chops to pull off the tortured soul of his character; instead, we are treated to a performance that mistakes nervous anxiety for pain.  It doesn't help that Chaney comes off as downright creepy early in the film, either.  Unfortunately, since we never catch a clear glimpse of him fully wolfed out, so I can't argue that he was great in his iconic role.
I was disappointed, too, Lon.

The Wolf Man was directed by George Waggner and, for the most part, he did a decent job with the story.  Aside from Chaney, the actors appeared to be handled well enough, and the gypsies were entertaining, in an over-dramatic sort of way.  It's pretty basic to assume that Waggner would have shown more of the Wolf Man character on screen if he could stand the scrutiny, so I'm not going to hold him accountable for my disappointment in that area.  He deserves credit for the horrible inconsistencies in the film, though.  For starters, why does Bela turn into a big wolf, but Lawrence Talbot transforms into a teddy bear?  More importantly, Ralph Bellamy's character, the local policeman, notices a slew of clues at the scene of Bela's death; when faced with a nearly identical crime scene later in the film, he ignores every single recurring clue that he noticed at the first scene.  I get it, the film was wrapping up (it was a concise 70 minutes), but that was unbelievable.

I didn't particularly like The Wolf Man.  I didn't have huge expectations for the film, but I still managed to be underwhelmed.  I will admit that the supporting cast was surprisingly good, and it was interesting to see the werewolf lore that was started (and, in some cases, ended) in this film.  Still, it didn't stand the test of time for me.


  1. If you're interested in other Universal horror classics check out the Claud Raines' vehicle "The Invisible Man" or my personal favorite "Creature From the Black Lagoon."

  2. I'm definitely interested in some other classics. Is Creature actually good, or is it just kind of funny now?

  3. Personally I thought Creature was very well done. The sequels quickly descended into MST3K territory, but the first one was good.