#23 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
Without James Whale or a solid literary source, it seems like Carl Laemmle really didn’t know how to put together a winning monster movie. Using bits and pieces from previous, more successful, efforts Laemmle had produced, he brought in a small host of writers and director Stuart Walker to develop a lot of werewolf lore on the fly while steeping it in some of the dullest, thinnest, and least interesting character-based storytelling so far in this rough assembly of pictures one could call a franchise.
It begins in the deserts of California, I mean the mountains of Tibet (it’s not the movie’s fault it chose to use what would later become an easily identifiable outcropping, the Vasquez Rocks, but it is the movie’s fault for not clearing up any of the desert brush in any shots), where Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is looking for an elusive blue flower that reportedly only blooms in moonlight. After warnings from a Catholic priest roaming about, he finds the flower and is immediately attacked by a man-sized wolf creature (the identity of this creature is actually really unclear since it could be both Glendon’s assistant who is never seen again, in which case the logic of the whole thing doesn’t make sense, or another character later introduced). Anyway, Glendon survives after having been bitten by the creature and retrieved the flower.
We then get a whole lot of pseudo-Edwardian stuff around Glendon, his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), and her childhood friend and erstwhile fiancé Paul (Lester Matthews). This whole situation is weird starting with the fact that Wilfred and Lisa have a strained relationship from the beginning. He’s always off on his trips to search out rare plants. She’s always left alone. In fact, their first dialogue exchange includes supposedly playful dialogue about how they’re going to divorce. This is not a healthy relationship. That can be a solid place to build a tragedy of a man so wedded to his work that he loses sight of his love for his wife, and I think that’s what it was going for. However, because there’s never any tenderness between them ever and the film is so obsessed with the particulars of lycanthropy that nothing connects.
It’s this weird need to include a scientific explanation around the whole thing, and it makes it all feel like leftovers from the previous films. First is the vaguely Edwardian setting, similar to Dracula. Then there’s the science, similar to Frankenstein. Then there’s the singular scientist going mad and removing himself from his love, similar to both Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. He even goes to a remote English inn run by a shrill woman similar to Una O’Connor (actually Ethel Griffies) that feels like a first draft from of the beginning of The Invisible Man. However, none of these elements really gel, and a lot of that can be laid at the feet of the script’s thin take on both this Glendon character and Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland).
I’m not sure what Glendon wants beyond not being a werewolf, but the treatment of Yogami doesn’t really make much sense. A doctor from a Far East university, he is also a werewolf and needs the flower to prevent his own transformation. However, full moons seem to last for three straight days in this world, and the number of blooms on Glendon’s flower is only three. So, why does Yogami steal two of the three? Why not all three? He seems to feel guilt when he reads about the rampaging creature in England, but his taking of the blooms kind of caused it. It’s all a jumble.
Where this movie shines is in the creature effects. The makeup on Henry Hull when he transforms is actually quite good, giving it a strikingly animalistic appearance without losing Hull’s defining features so it still looks like him. There is also one particular transition that’s rather artfully done instead of relying on pure dissolves where Glendon is walking through a garden, center frame, with some things passing between the camera and him, hiding wipes that show the different progressions from one stage to the next. There’s also another transformation, at least the first stage, that seems to happen entirely in camera from Glendon’s regular face to having the first tuffs of hair (the rest is handled with dissolves). I think this first transition uses some kind of color filter on the original exposure that changes midshot, allowing the camera to pick up details of a particular color after the transition. It’s neat.
It’s also the only real bit of interest in the whole thing. There’s some kind of interest outside of the film with it being the source of a lot of what became accepted lore of what a werewolf is, but that doesn’t really help the film’s uninteresting characters and plodding story.
There’s no real surprise in discovering that Werewolf of London is largely ignored in the whole Wolf Man side of the Universal Horror franchise. It’s dull and not very interesting.
7 thoughts on “Werewolf of London”
Never saw this one, though I have a vague memory of the flower.
I need to go watch the Wolf Man again this weekend.
Wolf Man is much more better.
The Wolf Man is the Hulk of the Universal Monster Cinematic Universe. Only one solo movie to his name that fits with the rest, another that was ignored, and always plays second fiddle in other people’s movies after that.
Nobody ever seems to know what to do with the Wolf Man.
Werewolves have had a hard time in movies. Vampires have all the glory. There are darn few where you see Werewolves as ‘contented’ as Vamps are.
Maybe the Underworld movies come closest, since they were ripping of the World of Darkness RPG.
It’s interesting that the Hollywood changes to the werewolf have become de fact what a werewolf is. Gone are all of the religious implications, instead it’s just some kind of disease vector.
Throw in a hint of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (okay, more than a hint), and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of places for the werewolf idea to go. It’s a very boxed in idea if you take the lore created by Universal as a given.