#7 in my ranking of the Classic Universal Monster movies.
The screenwriter of The Wolf Man, Curt Siodmak, had originally envisioned his take on the werewolf for Universal, perhaps akin to another horror film, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (released by RKO a year after Universal released The Wolf Man), was a psychological exploration of a man thinking that he was falling into madness. That got changed into a more literal monster mash at the behest of the producers and the director, George Waggner. Atmospheric scenery and some great monster effects help to paper over what is essentially a movie at war with itself, evening out to an unsolid but good reintroduction of the werewolf to the Universal Horror universe.
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns home to his father’s house in England after eighteen years in America where he completely lost his British accent. His father, Sir John (Claude Rains), welcomes him home, lamenting the death of Larry’s older brother (a twin? It doesn’t matter) while assuring him that Larry will always be at home in Llanwelly. A quick little bugaboo of mine regarding some stupid detail, but hearing Claude Rains say “Larry” all the time instead of the much more primly British sounding “Lawrence” is off-putting. Anyway, Larry helps set up a telescope in the mansion’s refurbished attic and creeps on the pretty Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), the daughter of the jewelry shop in the little town. He immediately runs over, creeps on her in person, and purchases a silver, dog-headed cane with a pentagram on it, accompanied by Gwen’s telling of the legend of the werewolf. Together with another local girl, Jenny (Fay Helm), they head towards the gypsies passing through to get their fortunes told. Bela (Bela Lugosi) warns of the werewolf, and Jenny is killed by a wild dog that Larry beats to death with his cane.
So begins the mystery of what is going on in the small Welsh town of Llanwelly, driven by the local constable Paul (Ralph Bellamy). This is the heart of the movie’s identity crisis. The story that Siodmak envisioned was Larry potentially going mad, either hallucinating things or becoming violent for no reason or he’s actually becoming a werewolf. This middle section works better without the full reveal of Larry being a werewolf, and it’s much more psychologically focused as he recovers the morning after nights where a wolf-like creature attacks villagers. Is he doing it? In a movie that’s not a straight monster movie, this can be an interesting question. In a movie where the monster is on the poster, it’s less interesting. I appreciate the effort, even if it is really just the remnant of an earlier version of the script that doesn’t gel with the more straight forward genre elements of a monster on the loose.
Through this middle act, Larry and Gwen develop a somewhat rote relationship that they can never consummate because Gwen is actually engaged to someone else. This points to some other elements that I assume were either from the original script that got scrubbed out in rewrites or were accidentally introduced, mostly through the casting of Chaney as the son of an Englishman, Rains. Larry is an outsider who comes into a small, rural community right before deaths stop happening. Aside from a single line of dialogue at a funeral, Larry’s outsider status isn’t really an issue. In addition, Larry being the long-lost son of a man who lost his eldest is saved mostly by Rains’ dedicated performance as Sir John. Otherwise, it feels like a half-considered idea that eventually bears some small fruit in the film’s climax.
That climax is all monster stuff with Larry becoming the eponymous wolf man and getting chased down by Paul and his group of volunteers from the village. The star is the makeup by Jack Pierce, which is very good, a solid extension of the work done he had accomplished in Werewolf of London. Larry looks scary as the monster, and he’s a real threat, having lost his humanity to the curse of the werewolf. That it all happens on that giant, fog-filled forest set (that Fritz Lang apparently got to use for Secret Beyond the Door) gives it a wonderfully atmospheric feel that the franchise as a whole hadn’t really embraced since Bride of Frankenstein.
I think it works equally as well as the psychological study of a man thinking he’s going mad as well as a straight monster movie. They clash, with elements of the former not really having been smoothed out to fit the latter, and I think that the movie could have been more with a greater focus on one or the other. However, the script by Siodmak handles the former well enough and Waggner handles the physical production well enough to support the latter. It’s not the upper tier of the whole franchise, but it’s an entertaining entry on its own.