1930s, 1940s, George Waggner, Horror, Review, Universal Monsters

The Wolf Man

#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.

Rating: 3/4

10 thoughts on “The Wolf Man”

  1. When it comes to werewolf movies and psychology, the ‘what do I do now?’ question is more interesting to me than ‘did I do it?’. An American Werewolf in London and The Howling are good examples of the latter. A man who is losing control and killing, but trying to fight against that is higher stakes than a murder mystery.

    I love the makeup effects in here, too. And I don’t dislike Lon Chaney’s performance, though some people are critical of him. Claude Rains is great again, I felt bad for Jenny so props to Fay Helm.

    This is a good one, it’s not trying to be arch or camp or tongue in cheek. (I pardon comedies for being comedies, but I really, strongly dislike comedy + horror….mostly because it’s very, very hard to pull off the balance).

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    1. The murder mystery part is the chief evidence of the original script’s intentions. It would work better if there was no literal transformation, I think. Push this in one direction or the other, and I think you have something really special. Existing in the middle ground, it’s something of a miracle that it works as well as it does.

      Chaney was not a particularly good actor. He was probably one of the poster children for why Hollywood should be wary of nepotism. He’s fine here, managing well enough, and he ends up giving a surprisingly good performance in the later Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but his Dracula is kind of awful, and most of the time he’s Lawrence Talbot in everything else, it’s obvious he’s just kind of drunk and trying to sound earnest.

      His Mummy is lifeless too. 😉

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      1. *former (not latter, my bad)

        Yeah…I can’t defend Lon Chaney Junior too much, but he’s ok here.

        And a murder mystery is fine, if that’s the story you want to tell…but it’s not really a monster movie and this IS called the Wolf Man, so I honestly think the changes were wise.

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      2. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this, seems like it had a good atmosphere, but Chaney does drag it down just a little bit.

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      3. Chaney would bother me less if there hadn’t been this big effort around making him British-American. It’s this big stretch of an explanation that drags some of the early scenes down. I was also going to complain about the age difference between Chaney and Rains, but Rains was actually 17 years older than Chaney. Chaney just lived hard and aged faster, it seems.

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  2. I dunno. I tire rather quickly of the “Am I a monster, or am I insane?” story which in my view has been done to death. I never find it as interesting as it potentially can be. It’s a lot like “is this real life, or is it a movie?” trope. Bah. Bah, I say.

    Completely losing your mind and becoming an actual monster I find a much more interesting idea. It takes helplessness to a new level; the monster’s human form is the ultimate victim. The man who commits crimes while mad still deserves to be brought to justice–but in this case the criminal is just using the body to move around.

    As for Lon Chaney, Jr, he could be okay in the right role, but those roles were very limited by his ability. He was the Ashton Kutcher of his day.

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    1. I also tend to tire of the “am I monster” thing, but mostly because they tend to end the same way: everything is real and we just watch everyone slowly realize that there really is something going on. The other way, that there’s nothing there and the central character is just outright insane, tends to go in sadder, quieter directions, and when dealing with genre, that’s not how people like to see these kinds of adventures to end. The wolf has to be real. There have to be real Nazi scientists in hiding. There has to be a real conspiracy. I think it’s part of why I like Hot Fuzz so much, the conspiracy is there but it’s just so mundane.

      The original Cat People danced this line better, I think.

      I think Lon Chaney had one good performance in him. In everything else, he was okay, at best.

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