The Wolf Man, 1941.
Directed by George Waggner.
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers and Bela Lugosi.
After the death of his brother, Larry Talbot returns to his home town to reconcile with his estranged father. After a vicious encounter with a wolf, Larry soon finds himself undergoing a strange and monstrous transformation whenever the moon is full.
It’s October 1st, which means it’s time for another torturous month-long look at all things horror that I like to call (because after 5 years, I still haven’t come up with a better name) October Horrors. We’ve got a busy month ahead of us, so let’s kick off with an old school classic.
Werewolves have been a staple of horror stories and films for decades. The act of humans transforming into monsters serving as a striking metaphor for unleashing the animal lurking deep within our souls, waiting to emerge and wreak havoc while also chasing away any postman unlucky enough to darken our door. When it comes to cinematic depictions of lycanthropy, there is no shortage of films to sink your claws into. Some are good, others not so good, while others are Wes Craven’s Cursed. But, if you’re going to start somewhere, the best place would be with the granddaddy of them all, the classic Universal horror The Wolf Man.
Lon Chaney Jr. makes for a compelling lead in his dual performance as Larry Talbot and his titular alter ego. Effectively using his good-natured and kindly personality to lend his eventual transformation into a monster an air of tragedy. Chaney makes for a likeable leading man, but there are certain aspects of his character that are a little eyebrow-raising. Such as how he begins his romantic courtship with Evelyn Ankers by peeping into her bedroom with a telescope. Then, later on, he suddenly appears on a dark foggy night to take her on a date, after she had already refused him earlier. I know it’s unfair to apply modern sensibilities to older films, but I couldn’t help but find it all a bit weird, particularly as the film portrays what is essentially stalking as charming.
While Chaney makes for a fine (if occasionally questionable lead), my favourite performance of the film was Claude Rains as Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot. While it might be unbelievable for Rains (who was only 7 years older than his co-star) to be Chaney’s father, his restrained dignity and commanding presence in performing the role overcome this odd quirk of casting, eventually to the point that you come to believe him as Chaney’s father. The main reason, in my view, why Rain’s steals the film is due to his distinctive, rich voice, its commanding yet soothing tones, giving him a warm fatherly air while still managing to lend his words and authoritative worldly quality. That and the man fights the Wolf Man one on one and, despite a few close calls, still comes out on top. Now that is pretty cool.
Packed with scenes of spooky foggy woods (so much fog) that, while obviously a set, still retain a creepy atmosphere amplified by the black and white cinematography. Quite simply, The Wolf Man is, arguably, the epitome of a classic old fashioned horror film. The pacing is tight, the film moving the story along quickly even if it does fall into the trap that befell many older horror films of the era. That being that it spends way too long setting things up (Chaney doesn’t transform until 40 minutes into this 70-minute film) before rushing to wrap things up at the end. However, the direction is exciting enough to keep you engaged despite the rushed nature of the execution.
While its “dog bites man, man turns into dog” story is simplistic, the film does add touches to keep things interesting. Such as a scene where characters debate whether lycanthropy is, instead of a supernatural curse, merely an extreme mental illness. Can you imagine the size of the therapy bills for that condition? While the film doesn’t dwell on this issue heavily, the suggestion that Larry is going through something akin to a mental breakdown could have, if focused on more, made for a far more interesting film.
The make-up effects by legendary artist (and miserable git) Jack Pierce is another classic design of the Universal horror cycle. Chaney being rendered unrecognisable via the application of various hairy prosthetics to his face and hands. While perhaps not as impressive as his work on Frankenstein, Pierce’s work on The Wolf Man is still a strong display of his talents. The image of Chaney’s transformed state, like Karloff’s monster, becoming an iconic image of classic cinematic horror. Although, I’ve always wondered why The Wolf Man always seems to have a shirt on. Seriously, in every scene, you see him, regardless if he wasn’t wearing one before he transformed, he always has a shirt on. Maybe there’s a werewolf tailor in town.
While it has a few iffy outdated attitudes towards romance and some minor pacing issues, the spooky foggy visuals, iconic make-up effects, and strong performances ensure that The Wolf Man’s place as a horror classic is well deserved. Check it out. And if you really want to have fun, pair it with Frankenstein and enjoy yourself a double bill of classic horror.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★