Werewolf! Where wolf? There, wolf!
Welcome to the third H-Origins film this month and another of the classic Universal Monster films from the 30s and 40s. The Wolf Man (two words), sets a number of precedents and defines the werewolf sub-genre forever!
You have to appreciate the hype that went into old Hollywood trailers. “Night Monster, Prowling…Killing…Terrifying a Countryside with the Blood Lust of a Savage Beast!” The audience gets the basic gist of the story. That a man has turned into a monster, and he’s not sure if he will kill again. It’s another horror origins film (or H-Origins) on 31 Days of Horror.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
Returning to his ancestral home of Talbot Manor in Llanwelly, Wales, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is greeted by his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry has returned after the death of his brother John, having been out of the country for some years. Larry helps his father set up a new lens for his telescope, and then spies an attractive young woman in town at the local antique shop.
Larry goes to Conliffe Antiques and meets the owner’s daughter Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) who he hits on over and over again. He agrees to buy an interesting walking stick with a silver wolf handle. She introduces him to the lore of the werewolf in poem form, which is a common legend in these parts. Gypsies come into town and he asks her on a date to get their fortune told. She repeatedly says “no.” Returning home his father espies the walking stick and relates the same poem of the werewolf to Larry.
Eventually Gwen relents to go with Larry to see the gypsies even though she is engaged to the gamekeeper of the Talbot estate, Frank (Patric Knowles). She and Larry, and her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) visit the gypsy camp. Jenny’s fortune is read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi) when he suddenly sees a pentagram on her hand and sends her away. She runs away and is attacked by a beast, which Larry rescues her from, getting bitten in the process.
Constable Paul Montfort (Ralph Bellamy) investigates the attack, finding a dead Bela instead of a creature. Concerned, Larry visits with the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) the next day, who says he will become a wolf. He flees from the camp and begins to change–killing a grave digger after his transformation. Dr Lloyd (Warren William) and his father both assume he’s suffering a mental breakdown, and don’t believe his story of turning into a creature.
When he changes again the next night, he gets stuck in a bear trap set by Frank and the Constable. Maleva changes him back into a human helping him get free. He runs home where Gwen wants to help him, but after seeing the pentagram on her hand–a sign that she will be his next victim–he sends her away. Sir John is certain that he’s crazy and straps him to a chair. Larry begs for his father to take the cane, which has a silver handle that can kill the monster.
In the foggy woods, the werewolf returns terrorizing the hunting party out to snare it. Sir John has a sudden change of heart, knowing the truth. Gwen is attacked by the beast, but Sir John arrives and beats the creature with the silver handled cane, killing it. It slowly transforms back into his son Larry as Meleva administers a gypsy prayer over the body. Sir John is saddened, but Constable Montford believes that it was a wolf attack and that Larry came to the rescue of, and was killed instead.
“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” – Gwen Conliffe
The Wolf Man is a unique film in the pantheon of Universal monster movies. Of the six main monster franchises that Universal produced in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Invisible Man (1933) were based on existing stories and books. The Wolf Man, along with The Mummy (1932), and The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) were all original creations. And out of all these, The Wolf Man has probably defined the genre of werewolf stories more than the others combined.
Often in my 31 Days of Horror and Sci-Fi Saturdays writeups I will showcase a director or possibly an actor responsible for groundbreaking work on a particular film. For this film I want to spotlight the writer, Curt Siodmak. He was born the son Jewish parents, in Germany at the turn of the 20th Century and emigrated to the United States in 1937 to escape the horrors of the Nazi regime. His work includes many screenplays (both in Germany and America), including the three sequels to The Invisible Man, the first monster franchise crossover Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) and the often adapted novel “Donovan’s Brain.”
His treatment for The Wolf Man, while inspired by folk-tales and legends of Europe, was an entirely new story. Thus all of the elements that audiences associate with werewolves stem from this film. Prior to this there was one major film about werewolves: Werewolf of London (1935 – also released by Universal). A 1923 film, also called The Wolf Man (which IMDb lists as a “lost film”) featured the character changing his personality when he consumed alcohol–but no physical transformation. While the 1935 film features lycanthropy to an extent and a bite from an existing werewolf transforming the protagonist, the transformation into a werewolf is more man than beast, can be halted by an exotic flower, and the monster is slayed by normal bullets. Siodmak’s version, which reached a greater popularity, also features the elements of the gypsies (or sometimes a gypsy curse), the mark of the pentagram, death by silver bullets (or in this case, a silver handle of a cane), the poem quoted above, and the more wolfen/monstrous look fo the character. The full moon element, where the creature would not emerge except under the light of a full moon, was not introduced until the sequel in 1943. Werewolf of London had the character affected by any moonlight, including a “moon lamp” on his desk. Nearly every werewolf film since 1941 has made use of these elements, with more recent films using special effects to have the creature be more wolf-like and not just a man in a suit.
Psychologically, The Wolf Man deals with duality of man, which is similar to the adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both stories concern the evil side of man emerging to the detriment of relationships, but The Wolf Man is more about disease and involuntary transformations. The film opens with a definition of “lycanthropy” which states that it is a “disease of the mind in which human beings imagine they are wolf-men.” Larry knows his transformations are real, but questions Dr. Lloyd about the psychological aspects of the “curse.” His father believes that the physical act of changing into an animal is preposterous, but does believe that “most anything can happen to a man in his own mind.” Everyone else assumes that Larry is insane. His father mentions his “mental quagmire,” which leads Larry to again question the reality of the situation. Is he really transforming or just crazy and imagining the metamorphosis? In the end, Sir John comes to believe that his son is a werewolf, but not everyone else is convinced.
Siodmak’s story also veils itself in allegory. Not only can lycanthropy be seen as a metaphor for mental illness, there’s also a more timely reading given the release of the film. The Wolf Man premiered in Los Angeles two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, causing America to enter into World War II. Given Siodmak’s background, the werewolf in the story can also be seen to represent the spread of Nazism. An otherwise normal man turned into a creature of destruction, infecting others he bites, with the mark of his next victim being a five pointed star. While some may scoff at this reading, look at the nightmare sequence from An American Werewolf in London, where David imagines Nazi Werewolves invading his home. It’s not that far of a stretch.
While the film still holds up its H-Origins of werewolf mythology, Lon Chaney Jr.’s portrayal of Larry Talbot is a little tough to watch. He is a cocky, and strongly forward character, if not a little creepy. He sights Gwen (accidentally) at first through his father’s telescope, but then continues to use it to spy on her in her apartment. He then busts in on her, claiming he’s a psychic–knowing things about her like her style of earrings, only later telling her he spied on her. He won’t take “no” for an answer when asking her out, but all these things work in his favor as she falls for him even though she is engaged to another man. Jenny’s mom even complains to Gwen’s father about her loose ways, questioning why she went off with Larry and left Jenny alone with the gypsy, to eventually be killed.
The Wolf Man, celebrating its 80th anniversary next year, definitely leaves a mark on the world of horror cinema in creating an enduring monster that is still relevant today. Tomorrow I will be looking at another werewolf movie that prospers from this creation.
- Nothing in this film indicates the setting, other than an old world style village. The locations name of Llanwelly Village is identified in the beginning of the 1943 film Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man by Talbot himself.
- Jack Pierce actually designed the makeup worn by Lon Chaney for Werewolf of London, but it was rejected at that time. He saved the designs and used them here instead.
- Lon Chaney Jr., is the son of Lon Chaney, known as the Man of a Thousand Faces, who was famous for his horror roles in silent films including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.