Five years before The Wolf Man, Universal spearheaded Hollywood’s first attempt at bringing werewolves to the big screen, and I must confess I find Werewolf of London a bit more engaging than its successor. But it may be a bit unfair to say it’s the better werewolf story, as it has more in common with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Generally, we think of a werewolf as a human who is transformed into a wild beast acting on pure instinct, but in this story we’re warned that “the werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.” Indeed, the creature that Wilford Glendon transforms into is more calculating than the one Larry Talbot becomes, and there seem to be more rules involved with this lupine curse. This werewolf must kill each night he transforms or risk permanent change, and to make matters worse “the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best.”
There’s a lot of fine acting here: Henry Hull as Dr. Glendon is an already obsessed botanist whose work overshadows his marriage to his wife Lisa, played by Valerie Hobson, and his curse only serves to drive the wedge further between them. You get a sense that the two really love each other, but know deep inside they are doomed to drift apart. Warner Oland, who is best known for the Charlie Chan films, is quite memorable as Dr. Yogami, the mysterious lycanthropy expert. But again, it is the supporting cast of character actors that really shine in the film. Like a Frank Whale movie, there is a lot of humor to support the horror, and a lot of great little performances to deliver it. Particularly notable is Spring Byington as Lisa’s pot-stirring aunt, one of those types who shun the unfamiliar while simultaneously craving it. Also unforgettable: Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury as Mrs. Whack and Mrs. Moncaster, two old cockney landladies.
When I wrote about The Wolf Man, I mentioned the absence of full moon references. Here it is implicitly stated that the full moon triggers the transformation, but the concept that it takes silver to kill a werewolf is completely absent. Instead we get the mariphasa plant, a rare Tibetan flower that only blooms in moonlight that can be used as a temporary remedy for lycanthropy.
Make-up artist Jack Pierce wanted to use the werewolf effect he eventually used in The Wolf Man for this film, but Henry Hull balked at spending hours in the make-up chair, which is why we get a more minimalist werewolf here. The look of Lon Chaney Jr’s werewolf became iconic, so I wonder if things might have been different had we seen that look five years earlier. I don’t know how much of the werewolf mythos we owe to Hollywood, but perhaps mariphasa would be a bigger part of it if that hairy beast had emerged sooner. Hard to say, Wilford Glendon is far less sympathetic than Larry Talbot, and while I maintain Werewolf of London has the better story, it lacks that out-of-time quality that became such a staple of these horror classics.
This week’s supporting features:
Daffy Duck and Porky Pig in Tick Tock Tuckered (1944)
The Our Gang short Pups Is Pups (1930)
I’m taking a break next week, then I’ll return the following week with:
Tower of London (1939) starring Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price