dir. George Waggner
1941

Lon Chaney, Jr. creates one of the most memorably tragic of all horror film creatures in “The Wolf Man”, the best of the Universal output since “Bride of Frankenstein” and the most visually arresting since… well, “Bride of Frankenstein”. It’s nowhere near as expressionist inspired as the James Whale films but makes glorious use of sound-stages and fog machines. It’s also, quite possibly, the most well told of all the Universal monster tales. The original “Frankenstein” film featured quite a few narrative shortcuts and it’s sequel, well, “Bride” didn’t give a shit about narrative structure. “The Wolf Man” manages to garner a lot of sympathy for it’s titular lead and has one of the most economical and efficient screenplays of the lot. Not to insinuate that it’s purely functional. It plays well with themes of faith versus science, logic verses the unknown, and all builds towards a climax that feels like Shakespeare via the lens of 1940’s horror. The film rests a great deal on the screenplay by Curt Siodmak, who singly created many of the werewolf tropes that now feel prosaic; such as that they can only be killed by silver and even that they are turned by the full moon. Unlike, say, “Dracula” or the “Frankenstein” films, Siodmak didn’t have a literary blueprint to work with here. Granted there were werewolf films before his 1941 work, in fact, there were even Universal produced werewolf films, such as “Werewolf from London” which came out in 1935 and is every bit as good as the Lon Chaney, Jr. film. But “The Wolf Man” is THE werewolf film. When you think of Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi is what comes to mind. When you think Wolf Man, no one thinks of Henry Hull.

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Larry Talbot is THE Wolf Man, and he carries a great deal of the film. An everyday man with a heart of gold, it’s interesting to note that there is nothing particularly special about Larry. He’s a nice guy, sure, and heir to the Talbot fortune but unlike the crazed Doctor Frankenstein or the expedition team in “The Mummy”, Larry never has any influence over the plot. What comes to him feels more like a twisted ploy of fate than a piece of cosmic comeuppance. He simply happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It helps to frame the story with a duality debate between the rational and the irrational. The film goes well out of it’s way to depict Larry as meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. “I can figure out most anything if you give me electric current, tubes and wires – something I can do with my hands” he screams, unable to fathom the unseen curse that has condemned him. When he finally does accept his alter-ego, it’s at the price of his conscience. Which, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, is the one thing that you could always count on in a Universal monster film. A certain level of pathos for the monster. This is where “The Wolf Man” truly shines. The film dedicates a great deal of it’s length to showing Larry’s mental breakdown. His pragmatic incredulity, at first, and the overwhelming guilt when he realizes what he’s done. Lon Chaney, Jr. delivers a great and conflicted performance. Like Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart, he’s an actor who just radiates a sincere and easy-to-relate-to charm. A naive face and a gentle voice, it’s hard not to feel crushed after witnessing the piss-poor hand that fate deals him. His eyes perfectly exhibit the dread that living with the curse of the werewolf brings. It’s even more remarkable to note that not only is Lon Chaney, Jr. phenomenal in “The Wolf Man”, but all 4 of it’s concurrent sequels*. He would later recall of the creature, “He was my baby.” It’s impossible to imagine a better Larry Talbot. A Wolf Man, perhaps, but no one could have played the disturbed Dr. Jekyll of the two with more authenticity.

*Note: To add an even more impressive piece of movie trivia, Lon Chaney, Jr. was also the only actor to ever portray all of the classic Universal monster types: the Wolf Man, the Frankenstein creature, the Mummy, and a Vampire. His performances were of varying quality, and while he definitely made for a better Frankenstein creature than Bela Lugosi he sure didn’t make for a better vampire!

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Another area in which “The Wolf Man” shines brighter than most of the Universal fare is with it’s supporting cast. We have Claude Rains who – to be fair – is fantastic in everything he’s in, and manages to make his performance here look akin to a walk in the park. He has a screen presence that just effortlessly draws attention to itself. Sir John Talbot, Larry’s proper and stiff-upper-lip father, is a character in the bland tradition of parlor room characters (a la “Dracula”) but Rains manages to infuse him a ferocious pride. He’ll be damned if any son of his is going to suffer from a sickness of the mind! Even if takes strapping poor Larry to a chair in a scene of makeshift psychotherapy. There is plenty of interesting fate/free will mumbo jumbo between them that serves the thesis of the film well. Early on we learn that Sir John stands at something of a crossroad between the level-headed Larry and the superstitious Maleva. While gazing through the lens of a telescope he muses, “All astronomers are amateurs. When it comes to the heavens, there’s only one professional.” Yet he seems utterly bewildered that Larry would buy into the Gypsy’s prognostication. There’s an arrogant conceit behind his piety that just won’t allow Sir John to accept that the fates could conspire against a member of the Talbot family. The look on his face at the end, after he has unwittingly slain his only remaining son is the stuff of tragedy. Above the other Universal films, “The Wolf Man” veers most into drama. There are great characters in all of the Universal canon but this is the only one that I would call a character study. It’s a battle of faith between father and son. It just happens to come through the guise of a werewolf picture. These two elements are balanced to a near perfect science. If there is any fault in the script it comes through the exposition, which is laid on as thick as the fog that spews from the fog machines. Some of it is inescapable, as the werewolf lore wasn’t as well known in 1941 as it is now, and there was a lot to accustom the audience to. However, an early moment when Sir John awkwardly recaps the death of Larry’s brother is as clumsy as if a Greek chorus had suddenly emerged to feed us the information by way of song.

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Bela Lugsoi also stars, as the Gypsy Bela, and is quite memorable in the role despite having less than five minutes of actual on-screen time. Going back, if you’ll allow me, to the trivia tidbit about Lon Chaney, Jr. Bela Lugosi has also played his fair share of the Universal crew: famously, a Vampire, disastrously, the Frankenstein creature, and unseen, the Wolf Man that preceded the ill-fated Larry Talbot. However, the brief glimpses of Bela’s werewolf are nothing more than an actual wolf, far from the wolf/man crossbreed that is depicted by Larry later in the film. You can’t blame the film crew for not wanting to dedicate hours and hours of makeup sessions for a few obscured blink-and-you’ll-miss-em shots, plus, it also makes the later full-bodied reveal of the iconic Wolf Man all the more effective. However, in context of the story it’s a jarring creature upgrade that will probably leave modern day viewers questioning. Even more impressive is Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva. Also staring in the decidedly lesser sequel, “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”, the chemistry between her and Larry is quite touching. There is a strong mother/son bond that is passed down from her guardianship over Bela. Evelyn Ankers stars as Gwen, love interest to Larry Talbot and fiance to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles who, God help him, tries). If it’s at all possible for an otherwise great film with a scant 70 minute run-time to have dead weight, it’s in the budding love triangle that is only occasionally remembered by the film itself. Ankers gives Gwen plenty of life and adds a lot of heart and weight to Larry’s morality battle. Personally, I think the character would have worked perfectly fine without the unnecessary romantic entanglement. It doesn’t help that there are long passages of the film that seem to forget, or neglect (or both) the fact that Gwen is engaged to Frank, as she frolics around with Larry seemingly without care.

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The film was directed by the prolific George Waggner, who in 1941 alone helmed three horror pictures, two of which starred Lon Chaney, Jr. (obviously, “The Wolf Man”, and “Man-Made Monster”, a B-movie in every sense of the word). Unlike James Whale or Karl Freund I wouldn’t call Waggner an auteur. He’s produced some very fine films visually, “The Wolf Man” representing the best of that company, but there isn’t a strong authoritative stamp that comes with any of them. You could pick out a Whale film from a handful of other classic horror movies just by the visual aesthetic alone. I find that it actually works as a benefit in this case. A stronger visual style would have been a detriment to the film, not an improvement. There are plenty of visually arresting images. I mean, once seen, who can forget the woods of Llanwelly with the fog rolling across as thick as pea soup, or so the saying goes. That the actors are mostly performing on an obvious sound-stage just aids in making the landscape more ethereal. As claustrophobic as woods can be. Like in the original “Frankenstein” film, the theatrical fakeness of it all adds a creepy and unreal beauty. However, a full-blown “Dr. Caligari” style bending of reality would have distracted too much from the story. Whereas “Bride of Frankenstein” was an assault of German expressionist based imagery, “The Wolf Man” exhibits it’s influence in spurts, then settles down for more conventional medium-long shot, back-and-forth between the characters. But “Bride” was an in-your-face camp-fest that called for film-making of the most flamboyant kind. Waggner’s film is one that is served best by letting the screenplay and characters carry the majority of the weight. Like I said above, there is plenty of visual splendor to be found, but mostly it comes through the art direction and makeup design, not the camera angles or unique cinematography. It’s a very confidently directed film. Confident because Waggner knows exactly when to show his hand and when to keep it folded discreetly in his pocket. It’s important to remember that often times restrain can be just as impressive as excess, sometimes more so.

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The design of the Wolf Man is another masterpiece from makeup legend Jack Pierce (“Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, “White Zombie”, ect…). The transition from man to Wolf Man isn’t as impressive here as it is in the later sequels, a victim of the budding technology. Whereas those films featured actual on-screen transformations, the original uses a lap-dissolve technique that, seen today, calls more attention to the application process than the metamorphosis. You can’t hold it against the film. I mean, the ten second morphing that we see on-screen took nearly ten hours (!) of off-screen effort to achieve. To dismiss all that hard-work and artistry due to the date of the technology is a shortsighted critique. Modern day moviegoers are much more trained to the SFX spectacular “American Werewolf In London” or “The Howling”, but it’s important to note the ground zero from which they came. However, the look of the creature hasn’t aged a day since it’s 1941 release. Recycled from an unused design that Pierce himself had constructed for “Werewolf from London” in 1935 (scrapped because in context of that story, the characters still needed to recognize the wolf man as having features from his human counterpart), Lon Chaney, Jr. had to suffer application processes that took the better part of a day. Sitting motionless as not to ruin the lap-dissolve transition. The tales that he would later recount (some surely exaggerated for effect) made it sound akin to a gulag. But what we’re left with is one of cinema’s most indelible images. Like the work of Ray Harryhausen or Sam Winston, Pierce’s creations have taken on an iconic mythology of their own. To compare them to even the most advanced special effects of today is unfair to today’s effects. Nothing can compete with the magic that comes with watching the Wolf Man scowl across the woods. Or the birth of the Frankenstein creature. It’s pure cinema magic. The stuff that dreams are made of. Or in this case, nightmares.

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Out of all of the second-run Universal films (beginning with 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein”) “The Wolf Man” is the best of the lot. In fact, I’d be willing to say that it was the best of the Universal films full-stop, excluding any of the James Whale helmed masterpieces that is. The film is a near perfect exercise in horror film-making. It’s a great well-crafted story that’s told well. Tight and compactly-knit with no excess of fat to be found anywhere. It’s wildly entertaining and features a deservedly star-making turn by the great Lon Chaney, Jr. When most horror films today rely on gore and cheap jump scares to garner a scream, this 1941 classic owes it’s success to good old fashioned acting and atmosphere. It also boasts an emotional resonance that still hasn’t lost any of it’s power. It’s what can happen when a film crew and a group of talented actors treat even the schlockiest of material with the utmost of respect. There isn’t a trace of camp or irony to be found. As with other, more mature horror films like “Jaws” or “The Exorcist”, the horror comes from the characters and the situations they find themselves in. We root for them, we struggle with them, and we grow terrified when we fear that they won’t succeed. Larry Talbot is great character in the tradition of conflicted characters. If you need further proof of his everlasting influence just look to the Incredible Hulk. There may be other werewolves but there will never be another Wolf Man.

Rating: A+ (MASTERPIECE)

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