[Header image courtesy Universal Pictures]
The Wolf Man
Written by Curt Siodmak
Directed by George Waggner
“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.”
If you didn’t know that poem already, you certainly will after watching The Wolf Man, seeing as how it’s repeated approximately 741 times throughout the film’s 70 minute run time.
Written by Curt Siodmak and directed by George Waggner, this classic 1941 Universal Pictures monster movie did its level best to create a complete mythos for the werewolf, poem included. And it succeeded. Elements of Wolf Man lore still color our depictions of the monster to this day, from Remus Lupin in Harry Potter to MTV’s Teen Wolf pack. Universal even attempted (and failed) to recapture the Wolf Man magic in its 2010 remake, The Wolfman.
But for such an influential film, it is surprisingly low key. It’s clear that everything was filmed on Universal’s sound stages, using mostly close up and mid-range shots with matte paintings to fill in the gaps. A grand total of perhaps forty people appear onscreen, counting extras. And even though the story is set in rural Wales, almost every speaking role has a decidedly American twang (except for the one villager who mangles the hell out of a Cockney accent).
Though their accents are less than accurate, the principal cast are mostly well known names, particularly in horror movie circles. Among them are Lon Chaney Jr., playing Larry Talbot/the titular Wolf Man. He would later go on to reprise the role several times. His father, Sir John Talbot, is portrayed by British acting icon Claude Rains (you may recognize him as Captain Renault from Casablanca). Evelyn Ankers, who was well known in the industry as a professional Screaming Damsel in Distress, plays love interest Gwen Conliffe. Finally, horror movie giant Bela Lugosi (literally the human incarnation of Dracula) appears as Bela, the lycanthropic gypsy.
The plot, like the sets, is straightforward. Larry Talbot’s older brother has died, making him heir presumptive to the Talbot estate. Now, Larry is returning to his family’s ancestral hall to stay with his father, Sir John, and learn how to be a proper member of the landed gentry. This includes getting to know the inhabitants of the local village, including Gwen Conliffe, the pretty daughter of the antiques store owner.
A band of highly stereotypical gypsies rolls into town on Larry’s first day. He escorts Gwen and her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to the encampment to have their fortunes told. At this point, the movie has already managed to squash a frankly impressive amount of werewolf lore into the audience’s brains, so it’s impossible for us to miss that the gypsy Bela is a werewolf himself. He attacks Jenny on her way home. In the process of trying to rescue her, Larry is bitten and thus his fate is sealed.
The rest of the film deals with Larry’s transition to monster-hood and the horrors he inflicts on the local townspeople. Again, fairly straightforward and easy to follow. We get the most subtlety and nuance in conversations between Larry, Sir John, and Dr. Lloyd (Warren William), as they discuss the nature of good and evil in men’s souls. Can someone be good or evil simply by nature? Or are they influenced into good or evil by the people around them? Can a man actually turn into a wolf? Or does he only think he is a wolf because everyone around him thinks he is?
The cast’s performances are solid, if a bit campy. (And really, what can you expect from a monster film BUT camp?) Chaney’s Larry is perhaps the weakest. He often comes off as awkward and stilted, particularly when he attempts to be romantic and instead ends up creepy. When he first meets Gwen, for example, he attempts to impress her by saying he saw her (in her room, alone) through his father’s telescope and just had to find out who she was. Because, of course, what woman doesn’t want a strange man eyeing her through a giant telescope without her knowledge or consent?
For me, the most compelling character was the gypsy matriarch Maleva (played by Maria Ouspenskaya), mother to Bela the Werewolf. Maleva has clearly seen some sh*t and takes no BS from anybody. Ouspenskaya maintains a quietly strong presence throughout her scenes, tinged with the aching sadness of someone who has borne more than their fair share of tragedy. But that doesn’t mean she can’t give you the chills just when the moment calls for it.
Outside of the film itself, the context in which it was born deserves some discussion. The Wolf Man premiered on December 9, 1941 (according to TCM), just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that flung the United States headlong into the Second World War. In the years prior to that, the US and most of Europe had looked on as Germany slid deeper and deeper into the throes of Nazism before erupting into violence against its neighbors.
This creates a particularly interesting context for the ethical dilemmas discussed by The Wolf Man. The werewolf is a person who has lost all humanity, who has been reduced to only base destructive urges. But the film repeatedly comes back to the same questions: is the person transformed by paranormal forces out of their control? Or has the person allowed themselves to be influenced by the paranoia of the crowd? That is to say, is the werewolf only real because we believe it is? And to what extent is the werewolf responsible for its own actions?
Here one phrase of Dr. Lloyd’s stands out in particular: “mass hypnosis”. It conjures images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Nazi rallies of Triumph of the Will. Americans had spent several years watching the German and Japanese armies invade other countries and were now faced with the reality that thousands of their men and women would be sent to battle those armies. So it isn’t hard to imagine that these questions of violence, guilt, and control over one’s own actions were in the forefront of the minds Wolf Man audiences.
In conclusion, The Wolf Man is an all round enjoyable watch — for its place in film history, for its place in American history, and, of course, that amazing early movie camp. I highly recommend adding it to your next monster movie marathon line up.
The Wolf Man is available to rent or buy on YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play video streaming. Be sure to include that extra space between “wolf” and “man” if you’re searching for the 1941 version. And don’t let Google give you any of that “Did you mean: The Wolfman” sass. You know what you want. You got this.