“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night, can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms… and the autumn moon is bright.”
THE WOLF MAN – It was six years after Bride of Frankenstein before Universal created a new monster classic. They had been thriving in the silly sequels of their initial successful fright franchises, but in 1941 they finally opted to try a new story. The Wolf Man was the first original Universal Classic created completely out of thin air. Well, thin air and a little help from legend and lore. This was the one I watched the most, and while it remains my favorite in a very nostalgic sense it is clear the dip in quality from the Whale productions of the Frankenstein pictures and The Invisible Man. That being said, I don’t believe The Wolf Man or those involved ever set out to make a grandiose picture on the level of the Whale thrillers. This film and this character had a more everyman feel, something less celestial and more human at its core than the bloodthirsty undeads or the mad scientists of the past.
The film tells the story of a doomed man, Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr. in a career-defining role. As the film opens, Talbot is returning to the country home of his prestigious father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains, making a return to the canon) , and it is made clear their relationship has been strained of late. Nevertheless, the prodigal son has returned, and Larry enjoys being back home; he fixes his father’s telescope and just so happens to spot a local beauty, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) in town. He presses for a date and Gwen agrees, but she brings a friend along for the ride.
The trio head out to a gypsy camp site to have their fortunes read, and this is where things turn. The gypsy fortune teller, Bela, played by who else but Lugosi himself, urges them to flee the camp site as the moon is rising. But it is too late; Bela, who has transformed into a werewolf, attacks Gwen’s friend and as Larry tries to save her from certain death he too is attacked and bitten. We all know the story from here, as Larry transforms into a werewolf at night and attacks unsuspecting victims along the countryside. The story is straightforward, though any number of metaphors could fit into the narrative. I have seen anything from allegories of schizophrenia to comparisons Nazism. Some, as you can see, are natural comparisons, others quite the stretch.
All mood, atmosphere, and makeup effects, The Wolf Man doesn’t carry the sort of prestige of its predecessors, but it is a great deal of fun and a nice suspense thriller that must have been quite a dark and brooding experience coming out mere days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. What is the real star of the film, aside from the great Lon Chaney Jr., is the makeup work by Jack Pierce, the legend behind all of the transcendent Universal creatures. The process of Chaney’s transformation on screen took anywhere from ten to fifteen hours to set up and execute, and the result is impressive given the time period.
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak may not be a household name, but many of the legends surrounding werewolves came from his script here. Silver bullets, full moons, all of these small details of the now familiar monsters came from Siodnak’s creation on the page. Director George Waggner was an outsider to the Universal Monster Club (or Monster Squad for those 80s horror kids), having directed only The Wolf Man. However, he had an eye for mood and certain chills, and no matter how slight it may seem up next to those earlier Universal films, The Wolf Man is good fun and a wonderful transition from old guard to new thrills.