(originally published on Saturday, April 16, 2011)
Most articles I've read on The Wolf Man begin with:
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.
And why not? It's a nice mood-setting piece quoted three times within about ten minutes early in the film, each time with derision, while we, the audience, know that it foreshadows darker events to come. But there's another line that's spoken three times (with some slight variations)by an old gypsy woman over the course of the film:
"The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over... my son. Now you will find peace."
The first quote encapsulates the plot of the film while the second embodies the heart. The film that screenwriter Curt Siodmak originally envisioned was more of a psychological thriller than a monster film and some of those elements seem to have survived. The truly moving scenes in the film are the ones of Lon Chaney Jr's Larry Talbot grappling desperately with the knowledge that he may somehow be responsible for the grisly murders that have coincided with his return to his hometown. Just as the gypsy suggests, the violence is inescapable and can only be ended by the film's tragic resolution.
The Wolf Man is not without its flaws. Why is this small English town populated by so many American accents? Why is Bela's werewolf a quadruped while Larry's is a biped? And just how the heck does Larry's hat stay on when that car is moving so fast? And the romance between Chaney and Evelyn Ankers seems a bit forced (possibly because they did not get along off screen), but that's forgivable; it helps move the plot in the direction it need to be in, and it's not quite as inexplicable as obligatory male / female pairings (a subject I'm sure to bring up again) in horror and sci-fi films that were to come. But like many of the old classics it endures in spite of those flaws. One characteristic I find charming of the old Universal horror canon, that some modern viewers might see as a flaw are the settings that don't really belong to any one time or place: towns that look like something out of Eastern Europe in the mid 19th Century, but might be visited by automobiles and the pretty young shopkeeper's daughter can don the latest Hollywood fashion. The Wolf Man is a prime example of this.
Worth noting are the fairy tale elements woven into this version of werewolf mythology: the idea that the werewolf would be marked with a pentagram and would also see the pentagram in the palms of its victims. (Maybe the solution is to learn to not look at people's hands.)
But it's also worth noting what's not in the film there are so many trappings we've naturally come to expect from our werewolf stories that we begin to assume that they'll be there. For a start there is absolutely no mention of the full moon, in fact the only line connecting moonlight with the transformation is from the poem mentioned above; what actually triggers it remains a mystery. Maybe not a requirement, but while I find the use of growling canine noises effective, a howl or two would be nice. But what surprises me the most is the iconic transformation scene designed by makeup artist Jack Pierce is not in the original film. It's usually the feet we're looking at that gradually become covered in hair and claws. There is one facial transformation, but it from wolf back to human in the film's tragic ending. The more famous transformation comes in Larry Talbot's next appearance in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man which we'll get to later.
There are a lot of good performances here, but I think my favorites are the gypsy mother and son played by Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi. Bela gets very little screen time, but he makes every moment count. (but then I must confess I've always been a bit partial to Lugosi.)
And by the way, kudos to Lon Chaney Jr. on being the only man who could claim to have played his monster in all of his film appearances. Dracula and Frankenstein's monsters were taken on by many actors in the Universal films and even the Gill Man was played by at least two men in each film, but the Wolf Man was always Chaney.
A sidenote: since I've got so many dvds filled with classic cartoons and I recently bought the Little Rascals box set, I decided to give each screening the full on Saturday matinee treatment. (All I'm missing are coming attractions and a newsreel.) So, my viewing of The Wolf Man was accompanied by Speedy Gonzales in Tortilla Flaps (1958) and the Our Gang comedy Small Talk (1929).
Thank you for joining me, children of the night.
Next week's film is:
The Raven (1935) starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff