The familiar rogues gallery of Universal’s stable of classic creatures have always been tinged with a taste of the tragic – Frankenstein’s Monster is a stranger in a world he never made and the Gillman was only looking for a date – but surely the most put upon of all is Lawrence Talbot; the man better known by his street name: The Wolf Man.
While not the first mainstream Werewolf movie ever made (Universal’s Werewolf Of London pipped it to the post in 1935), George Waggner’s hirsute horror show is blatantly the most influential werewolf movie made until John Landis and Joe Dante unleashed their bone cracking, skin stretching, lupine game changers back in 1981, but it still holds up to this day as a legitimately great horror classic.
Lawrence Talbot has returned to his ancestral home on the Welsh moors due to the untimely death of his brother in a hunting accident but upon arrival his nervous nature kicks into overdrive. For a start, reconnecting with his estranged and emotionally distant father isn’t exactly easy, especially considering that Sir John Talbot openly regards his remaining son as weak willed and a profound disappointment, but Lawrence finds temporary relief in the form of Gwen, a beautiful woman from the town who shows interest in this sensitive man. After buying an ornate cane with a handle cast of solid silver, Lawrence witness a clan gypsies past through town and that’s pretty much when the wolf shit starts to hit the fan… One of the gypsies (cheekily played by Dracula himself Bela Lugosi) has the unfortunate affliction of becoming a wolf when night falls (gonna take more than a course of antibiotics to clear that shit up) and he attacks and kills one of Gwen’s friends after she’s visited a wizened fortune teller – who really should offer a full cash refund in light of her shock demise. Lawrence goes to help, beating the animal to death with his silver tipped cane, but is seriously wounded when the wolf bites him on the chest, however in the cold light of day, things are worryingly different; there is no body of a wolf, only the gypsy, which immediately throws Talbot’s story into question with the local authorities, plus his bite wound miraculously heals virtually overnight which stirs up panic and paranoia in the town and adds greatly to his already sizable emotional woes. Worst of all, the gypsy fortune teller confirms his fears that he himself is now infected with the werewolf curse and he is destined to cause death and pain to all that he loves (gypsies have the WORST bedside manner). Of course, being the stiff-assed butt-hat that his father is, Larry’s panicky and sweaty pleas are ignored in favour of Sir John insisting that his son simply needs to “pull himself together”, but soon bodies start turning up after being savaged to death and it seems that the luckless Talbot is indeed destined to kill someone that he loves; after all – “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….”
Essentially cementing the werewolf lore as we know it The Wolf Man is nevertheless suprising in the ways it handles quite modern themes such as people finding it hard to get help for depression and other mental health issues. Poor old Larry would be an unmitigated hot mess even if he WASN’T riddled with lycanthopy with the man virtually rendered emotionally crippled with crushing feelings of inadequacy, panic attacks and a devastating lack of confidence; all of which means the man is desperate to get help but is ashamed and unsure of how to go about it as it would be deemed “unmanly” to ask. Predictably not helping matters much is the fact that his father simply won’t accept that his son is in desperate straits and puts his family name and legacy above the needs of his one remaining son by putting yet more pressure on him while affecting a blunt, “man up” stance. I’m not suggesting that the filmmakers intended the act of turning into a slathering beast was meant to signify bipolar disorder and maybe I’m reading too much into it, but lycanthopy has proven time and time again to be a highly fertile landscape for metaphor (check out Ginger Snaps for werewolf=puberty) and it was far to poignant for me to ignore…
This obviously adds to the tragedy of the whole thing but it also puts out an interesting side effect that the actual act of transforming into a wolf monster is actually less affecting than watching Talbot dread it; he’s arguably more of a victim than the people he kills, tormented even further by the guilt to the point of breakage – you get the distinct feeling that sprouting hair and fangs and popping out from a quick meal of a grave digger’s jugular is actually somewhat of a release that Talbot is yearning for.
It’s all heady stuff for a monster movie made in 1941 but Lon Chaney Jr. sells the shit out of it in an impressively vanity-free performance that sees him frequently coated in rivers of sweat and engaging in full on panic attacks all over the place. In comparison, Claude Raines, who had previous been seen (or not seen as the case may be) in Universal’s previous The Invisible Man is a hissably negligent father figure, arguably more responsible for his son’s delicate frame that a wolf bite could ever be despite the fact that Lawrence and his father suspiciously look the same age (in actual fact, Raines was older by 17 years which says a lot for the permanent handdog expression that never leaves Chaney Jr’s face).
The sets and tone of the film are as absurdly atmospheric as you’d expect from a film from this period and there’s enough misty moors action here to fill three adaptations of The Hound Of The Baskervilles – but if there’s a problem with the film, it’s oddly with the Wolf Man himself. Don’t get me wrong, the fuzzy fucker looks magnificent with Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup easily defying the ravages of time just as easily as the flat head and neck bolts of Frankenstein’s Monster and Chaney Jr. plays him as robust as he does his human alter-ego, creeping across the moors in search of his wilting prey. The problem is that the Wolf Man just isn’t utilised as well as he could be and is held back a little too much, especially when compared to Hammer’s Curse Of The Werewolf which surfaced decades later with a barrel chested Oliver Reed loping across rooftops, dribbling blood.
But even though it’s perhaps too subtle with it’s monster antics, The Wolf Man still is a magnificent film that shows off it’s many layers nearly 80 years after it was made.
A howling success…