Wolf Man, The Review

The Wolf Man came along rather late in the cycle of horror films produced by Universal Studios. Indeed, by the time it was released in 1941, the fashion for horror movies was rapidly fading with most of the great monsters soon to meet the terrible fate of B-Movie exploitation and an inevitable confrontation with Abbott and Costello. One does wonder why it took Universal so long to come up with another werewolf movie after 1935’s Werewolf of London. It could be the relatively disappointing box office receipts of that first excursion into lycanthropy that put the studio executives off or it could have been the more obvious problems of providing a convincing werewolf transformation scene. Whatever the reason, it was six years before Universal returned to give the werewolf legend the full-blooded treatment it deserved.

Audiences in 1941 may well have been unsure about the nature of the beast so the screenwriter, Carl Siodmak, thoughtfully provides a refresher course. “Werewolf ? What’s that ?” asks Larry Talbot (Chaney), back in a geographically dubious Wales to visit his ancestral home. Evelyn Ankers, in the thankless role of local antique dealer Gwen Conliffe provides the answer; “That’s a human being who at certain times of the year changes into a wolf,” and goes on to tell us that Little Red Riding Hood is really a werewolf story (which is an interesting debating point in itself but not one which the film follows up). Larry’s father Sir John (Rains) explains that the legend may well be an ancient explanation of the dual personality before reciting the same rhyme that Gwen has recalled:

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

This may sound like some kind of antiquated folklore but it was actually made up, along with quite a bit of the rest of the supposed werewolf lore, by Siodmak, a resourceful writer if ever there was one. The important point is that it sounds antiquated and sets up exactly the right tone for the subsequent story. Needless to say, it’s not long before Larry has been bitten by a gypsy werewolf imaginatively named Bela (Lugosi) and is turning into a wolf at the first glimmer of a full moon. This causes no end of problems in Larry’s attempts to woo Gwen, especially when Sir John discovers a new use for the silver tipped walking cane that Gwen has given to his son.

The potential of The Wolf Man is enormous. For one thing, it’s got one of the best casts ever assembled for a horror movie. Claude Rains is, as ever, the most stylish guy you could ever hope to see, even when lumbered with reams of exposition to plough his way through, and he gets most of the best lines such as “You policemen, always in such a hurry. As if dead men didn’t have all eternity.” It does seem something of a stretch that he could ever possibly have been involved in any biological process that produced something as intrinsically blue-collar American as Lon Chaney Jr, but Rains is so much fun in the part that you’re happy to ignore the unlikely relationships. Chaney Jr isn’t what you’d call the world’s most expressive actor – as a cursory viewing of The Ghost of Frankenstein or Son of Dracula will confirm – but he’s not bad here. After his triumph as Lenny in Of Mice And Men, Talbot was his best part and he makes the most of it. In support, Universal have come up trumps with the likes of Ralph Bellamy, fresh from His Girl Friday; Bela Lugosi, who gives quite an affecting little performance, and the marvellous Maria Ouspenskaya playing the portent-spouting prophetess of doom role that she patented during the 1940s. It is she who tells us much of the now legendary information about the monster; whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself he can be killed only with a silver bullet or a silver knife or, for the convenience of the plot, a stick with a silver handle; the pentagram is the sign of the wolf and can sometimes break the spell.

Most later werewolf films have, to one extent or another, followed the lore which was laid down in this film and The Werewolf of London. Much of this was cobbled together from different scraps of Eastern-European folklore and then filtered through other sources ranging from Guy Endore’s novel “The Werewolf of Paris” and various vampire myths, through Native American shape-shifting legends to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Stevenson’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. The advantages of contemporary special effects technology meant that later films looked a lot more convincing, something demonstrated to best effect in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’s An American Werewolf In London where the visual spectacle was provided by, respectively, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker. Tellingly, several key werewolf films have followed the lead of The Wolf Man by focusing as much on a central tragic love story as on the horror of the wolf’s rampages

In addition to romance however, there’s clearly a sexual subtext here, one which was amusingly explored in the surprisingly on-the-ball Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; when Larry Talbot complains that every night when the moon is full he turns into a wolf, Lou Costello sneers, “Yeah, you and twenty million other guys.” The werewolf tends to be associated with the elements and, by extension with a voracioius physical sexuality. In the witty semi-spoof The Howling, there’s little doubt that it’s the werewolves who are having the most orgasms. However, it’s obviously also a problem if you’re wanting to get off with normal people as opposed to ones who are hairy on the inside. Indeed most of Paul Naschy’s werewolf movies where he plays Waldermar Daninsky, made for a few pesetas in Spain, concentrate on the ways that turning into a wolf can first enhance but then ruin your sex life. The Wolf Man came along at a time when the Breen office was still assiduously removing any explicit reference to human (or even werewolf) sex in films, but the subtext is there quite plainly, not least in the jealous rivalry between Chaney and Bellamy.

As I discussed in my review of Frankenstein - which you can read here - one of the things which makes the Universal horror movies so interesting is the extent of sympathy and audience empathy extended towards the monster. There's little doubt here that it's Larry Talbot who is the tragic hero of the film. The only other possible candidate is his father but he remains, despite Rains's memorable performance, a somewhat remote and unemotional figure. It is this identification extended towards the 'Other' that marks out the early to mid-period Universal films out from the later ones and the cheap rip-offs from Monogram and other studios cashing in on the trend. It's also, incidentally, the main reason why Stephen Sommers's affectionate but incoherent tribute Van Helsing doesn't work - we never for one moment care about the monsters in that film since the dice are all loaded in favour of the supposed hero.

George Waggner directs in a rather stodgy fashion but he does enough to keep you interested. There are a couple of very well directed scenes however and a positively eye-popping Freudian dream sequence which has to be seen to be disbelieved. He never really manages to convince you that you’re in Wales since the sets are a combination of present-day ‘Home and Garden’ and fog-shrouded mittel-European forests. It soon becomes clear that the references to Wales were dropped in at some initial script meeting and then quietly forgotten. There’s no doubt that, as so often in Universal’s films, it’s the make-up effects of Jack Pierce that make the film work as well as it does. In The Werewolf Of London, the make-up is minimal and ineffectual, but The Wolf Man contains a make-up that has justly become famous. Chaney’s achievement is to make it work with his body language to create a believably human monster and the atmospheric, almost noirish lighting also helps. Of course, the vexed question of what a ‘real’ werewolf would actually look like has never quite been solved. Although Rick Baker’s transformation effects in American Werewolf In London are brilliant, when we actually see the monster it looks a bit ludicrous. The werewolves in the recent Dog Soldiers look like, well, wolves, and the ones in the new film Van Helsing are just big wolves. The question remains, how do you create a werewolf that is at once both believably vulpine and convincingly human. However, The Wolf Man make-up works because of its relative simplicity. A similar explanation could be given for the success of the film. It’s short, snappy and packs quite a dramatic punch.

The Disc

The 2002 single-disc version of The Wolf Man has been re-released in the UK in a double pack with the earlier Werewolf Of London. Not bad value until you realise that you can get hold of the R1 “Wolf Man Legacy” set which is cheaper to get hold of and actually contains four films rather than two. However, if you’re restricted to region 2 then this should satisfy you for the time being. I haven’t seen the second disc containing the earlier film so cannot comment on the quality of that.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in glorious black and white. I’m going to admit here and now that I adore 4:3 monochrome and, broadly speaking, I prefer it to widescreen colour- you can’t argue with a format that was good enough for La Regle De Jeu, Citizen Kane, Stagecoach and Casablanca. Anyway, this is a pretty good transfer as long as you allow for the obvious lack of serious restoration work on the print. Contrast is impressive throughout and there is plenty of detail present. Some artifacting is very evident, however, in the foggy night exterior scenes.

The soundtrack is, thankfully, mono, reflecting the original presentation of the film. For a mercy, no surround sound vandalism has been inflicted by mixing-desk morons. Some crackling shows the age of the film and the music occasionally seems a little unpleasantly strident but overall this is a good solid mono track.

There are a number of interesting extra features. A full-length commentary from the very enthusiastic film historian Tom Weaver is a model of the form. Packed with interesting anecdotes and bits of trivia, this is a great way of spending an hour. His speech is fast and, like Rudy Behlmer on Frankenstein, he packs a hell of a lot into his time. Accompanying this is a 35 minute documentary named “Monster By Moonlight” which is presented by the egregious John Landis and goes through the Universal appearances of the Wolf Man, with special attention paid to Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man. Some nice interviews with Rick Baker enhance this examination of the legend but it’s short of archive material from the people involved in the film. The theatrical trailer is also included along with a selection of photographs and publicity from the time of the film’s release.

The film is divided into 18 chapter stops and English subtitles are included on the film and all the extra features.

The Wolf Man isn’t the best Universal horror movie but it’s entertaining and brief enough to just about fly under your critical defences. This DVD presents the film quite well and is worth considering if you can’t get hold of the better value R1 Legacy set.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 13:15:54

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