The Wolf Man (1941)
“In many a distant village, there exists the Legend of the Werewolf or Wolf Man, a legend of a strange mortal man with the hair and fangs of an unearthly beast… his hideous howl, a dirge of death!”
The Wolf Man (1941)
Director: George Waggner
Cast: Claude Rains, Warren William, Lon Chaney Jr.
Synopsis: A practical man returns to his homeland, is attacked by a creature of folklore, and infected with a horrific disease his disciplined mind tells him can not possibly exist.
George Waggner’s The Wolf Man was a late entry in Universal’s rota of classic horror movies, arriving almost a decade after Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. In truth, it’s debatable whether Waggner’s movie really deserves the status of classic. It’s certainly more influential than 1935’s Werewolf of London, the studio’s first attempt at a werewolf movie, with much of its fabricated werewolf mythology (silver bullet, full moon, etc) subsequently becoming set in stone as far as moviemakers were concerned. The atmospheric ‘Even a man who is pure of heart…’ rhyme quoted on a number of occasions has also found its way into other movies in one form or another, which is a testimony to the strength of Curt Siodmak’s script. The problem that The Wolf Man has, though, is that it lacks a strong storyline and, in the doe-eyed Lon Chaney Jr (Bird of Paradise, High Noon), has a leading man who is badly out of his depth amongst a surprisingly high-quality cast.
The small town in which most of the action takes place will be familiar to most fans of vintage horror, featuring as it did in so many of Universal’s horror flicks from the era. It was a generic set, serving as various different villages across Europe. Here, it’s called upon to impersonate somewhere in deepest Wales, although the movie makes little effort to persuade us that we’re in the land of Sheep. Following the death of his brother in a hunting accident, prodigal son Larry Talbot (Chaney) is returning to the family’s ancestral home (with no hint of a native accent) for a reunion with a father with whom he’s had no contact for years. Mother Talbot is dead, walled-up somewhere in the mansion as punishment for her infidelity, presumably, judging from the disparity in appearance between the hulking son and his compact and elegant father (Claude Rains – Casablanca, The Lost World).
It’s not long before Larry is wooing local girl Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), despite his opening gambit of confessing that he’d been spying on her in her bedroom with his father’s telescope. Most girls would be creeped out by such a disclosure, but Gwen is unaccountably smitten and eventually agrees to accompany Larry on a visit to a gypsy camp to get their fortunes read. They’re chaperoned by Gwen’s friend, Jenny (Fay Helm), who is unlucky enough to become the victim of fortune teller’s son, Bela (Bela Lugosi – Murders in the Rue Morgue, White Zombie), who is cursed to become a werewolf whenever the moon is full. Larry beats the wolf to death with a silver-tipped cane, but not before he receives a bite which dooms him to suffer the same fate as the unfortunate Bela…
At just 70 minutes long, The Wolf Man is too brief to outstay its welcome, even though the pace flags at times thanks to far too much talking and not enough action. Thankfully, these lengthy verbal interludes contain enough moments of unintended humour to fend off any chance of boredom. Larry’s first transformation is something of a hoot as all we get to see is him sitting anxiously in a chair as he suffers an attack of hairy feet. Then, fully transformed and stalking a set filled with that strange movie fog that never rises more than six inches from the ground, we discover that sometime during or after the transformation, Larry took the time to change his clothes before going on the prowl (Henry Hull did the same thing in Werewolf of London, donning a coat and scarf before braving the chilly London night).
The Wolf Man does at least boast a top-drawer cast, indicating that Universal had not yet given up on the Horror genre as a money-spinner. In addition to Rains, Lugosi, and Ankers, we have Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday) as a police detective and former friend of Larry’s, Warren William (Satan Met a Lady, Strange Illusion) as his concerned doctor, and Patric Knowles (The Adventures of Robin Hood, How Green Was My Valley) as his rival in love. Maria Ouspenskaya also provides suitably creepy atmosphere as Bela’s fortune-telling mother. Sadly, the contribution from these names is negligible, with the film’s entire emotional burden resting squarely on Chaney’s shoulders. Although he was a limited actor, one thing Chaney was good at was portraying anguish and inner turmoil, and in that respect at least he delivers an acceptable performance. Unfortunately, almost every other aspect of his performance is lacking…
(Reviewed 21st January 2015)