The Wolf Man (1941)
Written by Curt Siodmak
Directed by George Waggner
Universal tried their hand at a werewolf movie in 1935 with Werewolf of London. The film was moderately critically successful but didn’t garner the acclaim Dracula, Frankenstein, and others had just a few years prior. The premise was seen as a little too similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while the box office returns were poor. Universal didn’t see an immediate sequel in the property, so they went on with Dracula and Frankenstein sequels and a surprising number of follow-ups to The Invisible Man. When the 1940s came, it seemed like a time to revisit the werewolf, so we got The Wolf Man.
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) returns to his ancestral home in Wales. His brother has died recently, and Larry wants to make amends with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains). The man eventually meets Gwen, the daughter of a local antique shop. They flirt, and Larry discovers a cane with a silver wolf’s head. Gwen tells him of the legend of the werewolf and thinks it’s a laugh, and buys the object. That night, Gwen’s friend Jenny is attacked in the woods, and Larry, passing by, helps her but is bitten in the process. He’s told by a fortune teller in a traveling carnival that he has been marked by the werewolf and will change. Thus begins Larry’s nightmare, falling to sleep at night only to awaken knowing he’s done something horrible in his animal form.
As a kid, the Wolf Man was my favorite Universal monster. I just loved the transformation sequence and the general look of the creature. I was also a great fan of Dr. Jekyll and the Hulk; I basically loved the idea of monsters who transformed. However, as an adult, revisiting this movie, and after having seen the glorious work of James Whale, The Wolf Man is a real bore of Universal picture. It has a decade on the classics that started the franchise and fails in almost every regard. I became very bored, very quickly, and I think part of that may be how the Hays Code pretty much ruined horror on film for this period.
I think one of the most glaring problems is Lon Chaney as The Wolf Man. He is simply not a charismatic actor and not believable as Larry. Unlike other monsters, I can accept that the Wolf Man is not meant to revel in his evil but is tormented. This means you need someone who can play the everyman and evoke our sympathies later. The problem comes when Chaney is expected to show that inner turmoil, and he can’t sell it, in my opinion. The Wolf Man is ultimately a body horror film, and for those to work, the audience had to believe our protagonist is losing control of one of the few things we can cling to, bodily autonomy. Chaney just doesn’t here.
I also think there’s a lack of sophistication in how the horror is delivered on screen. If you go back and look at Tod Browning’s Dracula or Whale’s Frankenstein, the directors use shadows and lighting to build mood and evoke a creepy atmosphere. The Wolf Man just keeps showing foggy woods whenever it wants an eerie setting and feels clumsy in how the Wolf Man is revealed on camera. There’s never an attempt to tease the audience with the monster, maybe using a shadowy silhouette before the creature is fully revealed. There’s zero ambiguity which makes the whole affair so heavy-handed. And they wear the hell out of that damn poem.
The Wolf Man was apparently a hit with audiences, but it’s interesting to note the monster never received his own sequel. Instead, he was made a part of team-up movies starting with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, followed by House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Chaney’s last appearance as the creature would be Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein. While this particular image of the werewolf holds an iconic place in horror, subsequent werewolf movies have leaned more into the man becoming a complete animal rather than a hybrid. The full moon and aversion to silver would carry over into pictures outside of Universal’s, but the Larry Talbot werewolf would not endure as a narrative figure.
The Universal horror franchise would continue until around 1954 with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. By that time, characters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster had taken their bows in Abbot & Costello comedies. Horror films were now dominated by atomic era fear, giant insects, and the effects of radiation on humans. Universal tried but failed numerous times at reviving these characters and even recently attempted a cinematic universe (a la Marvel) only to have that go up in smoke. I don’t really know if these iconic versions of the monsters should be rebooted. I think simply rewatching the classics and enjoying them is enough.