When it comes to fanged and furry fury of a classic Universal werewolf movie, you’ll be more than forgiven for thinking immediately of Lon Chaney Jr.’s moping Lawrence Talbot and the hideous hair bag he transformed into whenever the moon was full. However, while he didn’t starting howling his way into popular culture until 1941 when The Wolf Man essentially cemented the werewolf mythos for generations to come, Universal had an earlier crack at the legend in 1935 with Werewolf Of London, a lycanthopic prototype that features an interesting, alternate take on on full moons, fangs and general feral goings on. While successfully conjuring thoughts of that song by Warren Zevon, it admittedly falls short of the latter, more iconic movie, but it’s intriguing to see what elements stayed and what got changed – usually by the light of the full moon.
Wilford Glendon, a wealthy English botanist, finds himself in Tibet hunting for an exceedingly rare plant that also selenotropic (i.e. only blooms in the light of the moon – thanks wikipedia). However, while out there, he has a run in with mysterious beast who attacks him and bites his arm (and that’s why we get holiday insurance, people) but in a debatable slice of silver lining, still manages to get back to England with a specimen to the eclectic plant which he adds to his diverse and strange garden.
Soon after arriving home and inventing a special lamp that simulates moonlight in order to get the flower to bloom, Wilford is approached by fellow botanist Dr. Yogami, who he claim he met in Tibet and has called by to offer some noticably shitty news. It seems that the fuzzy bugger who bit him while abroad was, in fact, a werewolf, which means that by the light of the full moon, Wilford is destined to sprout hair and claws and kill one person a night until a cure can be found.
This all would be bad enough if Wilford was an edgy, demanding, flinty bachelor, but taking into account that he’s actually an edgy, demanding, flinty married man who is horribly neglectful of his wife even before he got a werewolf hickey, matters have the potential to get a whole lot worse. Retreating into the endless parties thrown by a consistently wasted aunt, the long suffering Lisa Glendon has recently been finding solace by rekindling her friendship with the dashing Paul Ames, a former childhood sweetheart – something that doesn’t exactly help the mindset of the rapidly panicing Wilford. Sure enough, when the moon is full, the botanist grows claws, fangs and a fetching widows peak as he stalks the streets of London, prowling for victims. It seems his only chance at salvation is the cure that only a fully bloomed, lunar flower he nabbed from Tibet can bring, but it seems he’s not the only one looking to covet it’s healing properties…
While not exactly catching the public’s imagination quite like Universal’s first attempts at Dracula or Frankenstein, being as instantly iconic as The Wolf Man, or even being the greatest lycanthope movie set in London; Werewolf In London is still a noticably worthy member of the werewolf genre for multiple reasons.
For a start, it was the first wolf man movie filmed with sound – could you imagine watching a werewolf movie without hearing a trademark howl? – but also as a dry run at the far more famous The Wolf Man, it’s endearingly fascinating. While both contain a healthy chunk of mythology to go with its slathering title characters, the 1941 version goes all out with the whole shebang with gypsies, silver and a sense of mysticism that hangs over proceedings like an ominous, black shroud – in comparison, the earlier movie still includes this (although here it’s a Tibetan legend), but soon switches to a more scientific approach as it treats lycanthopy as more as an illness to be cured than a curse to be endured. The existence of a handy way for Wilford to escape his fate if only he can get a certain flower to bloom adds a sort of ticking clock aspect to the movie and the introduction of Dr. Yogami (who’s real identity is easier to predict than the flipping of a one-sided coin) also adds a slight thriller aspect too. Also, while the later movie embraced remote, family estates surrounded by misty moors, Werewolf Of London unsurprisingly keeps things urbanised as the transformed Wilford stalks alleyways and cobbled streets like a fur-faced Jack The Ripper. This also gives the feel of the titular werewolf being more of bestial Mr Hyde type, as he’s less of a rampaging, mindless beast and more of the animalistic nature of man simply brought closer to the surface. The werewolf presented here by Jack Pierce is far less elaborate than the one he entombed Chaney Jr. in and the creature even has the presence of mind to grap a hat and scarf on the way out as if to put together a makeshift disguise – what, turning into a actual beast man isn’t disguise enough?
However, the most telling difference between the two movies is that the human halves of the two monsters couldn’t be more different. Yes, both are men consumed by their personal demons before a frenzied bite brings on the subtext, but while poor Lawrence Talbot is a lost soul tormented with depression, Wilford Glendon is an abusive prick of a husband who pushes his wife aside in favour of his true first love – his work; although if I had an awesome, giant, tentacled plant in my lab that looked like the Sarlacc from Return Of The Jedi, I’d probably log in some overtime too…
While all these comparisons to The Wolf Man may seen reductive, I’ll freely admit that you simply couldn’t have made that iconic classic without the efforts of its slightly younger ancestor and there are quite a few moments where the movie shines like the moon itself.
The first full transformation, where Wilford passes by some pillars, changing more and more when the screen is briefly obscured, is not only impressively smooth as silk, but is arguably more effective than the dissolves used six years later. Also, having a savage, mythical creature possess a man of science and parade around a city that sees itself as a pinnacle of civilisation while clawing up random passers by is a delicious theme that’s well worth sinking your teeth into.
While not as revered as it’s more famous successor, Werewolf Of London proves to be, rather ironically considering the misery Wilford goes through, a fun change.