Quick Hit: A real human protagonist, a real selection of atmospheric shots, and a winning score highlight my favorite of the Universal monsters.
Nice to have you back sports fans! Moving on in our Classic Monster Movies Month, we’re moving onto 1941’s The Wolf Man. It’s my favorite of all the Classics, for a number of reasons, all that I’ll get into shortly. But first, “Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”. What an amazing quotation, that really does sound like it came out of gypsy folklore.
That leads me into my first point about the film – werewolves were a fairly new concept in horror, just like in The Mummy, there was no real literary equivalent of the story. The Talbots and their seemingly cursed family show up again and again in this werewolf canon, and usually the script is great. That’s because the Wolf Man, despite often being called “whiny” by some people, is one of the most tragic characters in the history of horror. He doesn’t do anything besides try and be a hero, and then ends up being cursed for it. The way that Lon Chaney Jr. portrays Larry Talbot is that of a man who had everything going for him that just ended up on the wrong end of the luck stick. What’s crazy is that this film could have been completely different. The original script had Talbot never being completely sure whether or not he was actually transforming, leaving it totally up to the audience whether or not the Wolf Man was real or just a figment of Talbot’s imagination.
The script, accordingly, is allowed a lot more nuance, and the characters are a bit broader. First, we have Larry himself, but we also have a woman who is much more progressive than most women were allowed to be in 1941. We have the science of astronomy mentioned, and we have the classic townsfolk against the rich folk subplot. There’s really a lot going on, much of it grounded in the beautiful gypsy language that is used to “play off” the werewolf scenes. Along with the fact that the language and dialogue itself is good, a lot of the ideas surrounding werewolf lore came from this movie, or at least proliferated with them. The spreading of the curse by a werewolf’s bite, the turning at the time of the full moon, and the dual nature of man as a parallel to the werewolf story all came here. Silver being that which could kill a werewolf, thought mentioned first in a story from the 19th century, was really spread here as the weapon that could kill it – hence the cane.
The effects here, while probably not as good as the ones in The Invisible Man, are really good here. Different levels of shots were used to create the effects of Talbot’s legs and final face transformation, and the level of detail to the make-up is astounding. As previously mentioned in the The Mummy, Jack Pierce did the make-up again, and it was a painstaking six hours for Chaney Jr. to endure each day.
I think another cool thing about the movie is the sets. You have the Talbot Castle, which allows for some fun shots inside. There’s also all the scenes in the forest, which have all this fog that somehow stays close to the ground. It’s beautiful and haunting, with none of the overtness that accompanies this scenes today.
But my favorite thing is the cast. Lon Chaney Jr. is terrific in his portrayal, but Bela Lugosi is also in this – playing the gypsy who is the first werewolf we see. Claude Raines plays the elder Talbot. So that means we have the leads from Dracula and the Invisible Man both on this set with The Wolf Man. That’s a ton of acting and horror royalty!
All in all, some may find this boring compared to our werewolf movies today that are filled with bloodshed, violent transformations, and gore beyond belief. And while I love those (one of them may be appearing on a special post at the end of the month), I think The Wolf Man is deserving of an “A+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"