Werewolf of London (1935)
“Hideous Half Man, Half Beast Who Terrorized Millions!”
Director: Stuart Walker
Cast: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson
Synopsis: The juice of a rare Tibetan flower is the only thing that keeps Dr. Glendon from turning into a werewolf during a full moon.
Coming six years before Universal’s seminal werewolf movie The Wolf Man (1941), Stuart Walker’s Werewolf of London can be seen as a kind of prototype for the better known second movie inasmuch as it has not yet refined the mythology of the werewolf legend — a silver bullet is not yet the only way in which a werewolf can be killed, for example. It’s certainly not as good a movie as The Wolf Man, largely because of the fact that Henry Hull’s character is a relatively unsympathetic one compared to Lon Chaney Jr’s helpless everyman. Mind you, you’re not going to be at your best in a situation like his, are you, so perhaps Werewolf of London should receive a little praise for the realism of his character’s tart nature.
Hull plays Dr. Wilfred Glendon, a botanist who is attacked by a strange wolf man while tracking down the Maripasia, a flower so rare that it blooms only in a remote valley in Tibet in the light of a full moon. The reason why that wolf-like creature might be lurking around this particular flower never occurs to Glendon, even though he’d previously been warned off venturing into the valley in which it grows because of the demons that dwell there. Anyway, Glendon manages to drive the beast away, but only after suffering a wound to his forearm. But he’s too excited about finding the Maripasia to worry too much about a flesh wound and wastes no time in digging up the flower — the only one in existence, mind you — and transporting it back to his laboratory in London.
It turns out that the reason that Glendon has trekked all the way to Tibet for this particular plant is so that he can test out his innovative new lamp which replicates exactly the characteristics of natural moonlight. Yeah, I know — it seems like a long way to go to test a lamp. I mean, surely there must be other plants that flower by moonlight that are a little closer to home, and don’t live in a valley full of demons, and aren’t the last surviving member of their genus. Nevertheless, Glendon must have his reasons, and as soon as he arrives home he begins work on tricking the Maripasia into believing it’s basking in the light of a full moon.
At least, he would if his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) didn’t keep throwing parties which she expected him to attend. With customary ill-grace, Glendon tears himself away from his flower-fooling experiments long enough to mingle and press the flesh of their guests. One of these guests just happens to be Captain Paul Ames (Lester Matthews), an old flame of Lisa’s who makes no secret of the fact that the flame is still, in fact, burning brightly. It’s also pretty obvious that Glendon’s neglected wife isn’t particularly upset by Ames’ obvious desires — at least, not to the audience: the distracted Glendon would barely notice if they were both naked on the dinner table. A second guest is a Japanese botanist named Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) who’s the spitting image of Charlie Chan, but whose reasons for attending the party and making Glendon’s acquaintances will soon prove to be rather sinister. Yogami reveals that they met briefly in Tibet, where he was on a similar mission to Glendon and wonders whether the British scientist enjoyed more success than he. The flowers of the Maripasia, he reveals, provide a cure for lycanthropy, and when Glendon scoffs at such a condition Yogami informs him — rather tellingly — that he knows of two cases in London alone. See what writer John Colton has done there? Yeah, pat yourself on the back…
It’s not long after this meeting that Glendon first notices his hand growing unnaturally claw-like and furry in the glow of his lamp’s beam. It’s a development he finds naturally disturbing, especially when he discovers that pricking himself with the stem of the flower that Yogami claimed was a cure for lycanthropy almost instantly cures his condition. Whopping great alarm bells are now ringing in Glendon’s head, especially as the Maripasia presently has no flower, just a couple of buds that are stubbornly refusing to bloom. If that’s not bad enough, with the next full moon just around the corner — or should I say on the horizon — someone breaks into his lab and steals its two last remaining buds.
Walker handles Glendon’s first transformation into a werewolf in a rather clever fashion. Deciding against the usual clunky transposition employed by Hollywood horror directors of the 1930s and 40s — although he would for all subsequent transformations in the movie — he has Glendon’s appearance change incrementally as he walks behind a succession of concrete posts, so that he emerges from behind each one with a little more of the werewolf make-up applied. It’s an effective technique which is spoiled a little by the fact that Glendon the werewolf looks more like Oddbod Jr. out of Carry on Screaming than Joe Talbot from The Wolf Man. This unintentional comic look isn’t helped when, in a later episode, the werewolf dons coat and scarf before braving the London weather.
Despite this, Glendon’s werewolf proceeds to wreak havoc and create panic across the City. After unsuccessfully seeking out Lisa — he’s doomed to kill those whom he loves most while under the spell of the curse — he makes an abortive tempt to slaughter her tipsy aunt (Spring Byington) before settling on some random girl — a hooker, presumably. Awakening in the morning to the horror that he has committed, Glendon searches feverishly for a cure in the knowledge that the full moon will hold sway for another three nights.
Werewolf of London pretty much follows the typical formula for the werewolf movie, although with a scientist capable of manufacturing his own antidote — if only someone hadn’t swiped it. The movie never really makes us care much for either Glendon, who’s a bit of a dullard and a grump, or Lisa and Ames, the two most in danger from his lycanthropic urges, who, let’s face it, are well on the way to bumping uglies when Wolf Man Wilf first goes on the prowl. It’s wise to limit its running time to little more than an hour, but even then it feels the need to pad out that modest length with some ill-advised comic relief from a pair of boozy old Cock-er-nee landladies.
(Reviewed 16th September 2013)