THE WOLF MAN(1941)
DIRECTED BY GEORGE WAGGNER
STARRING LON CHANEY, JR., CLAUDE RAINS, MARIA OUSPENSKAYA, EVELYN ANKERS, RALPH BELLAMY, BELA LUGOSI
NOT RATED (CONTAINS SOME PG-LEVEL MILD CREATURE HORROR VIOLENCE AND THEMATIC ELEMENTS).
OVERALL: 3 OUT OF 4 STARS
THE WOLF MAN was the second werewolf picture made at Universal Studios, following the less successful 1935 film, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, six years prior.It was the first major success of the Universal Monsters series not produced by either Carl Laemmle, Jr. or his father who preceded him in the silent era.What would become the Universal Monsters series was begun by Carl Laemmle, Sr. with the films THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), both starring horror and movie makeup icon, Lon Chaney in the title roles.
Chaney's son, Lon Chaney, Jr., likewise became a horror movie icon almost two decades later (one decade after the death of Lon Chany, Sr.), when he flung into the spotlight in the starring role of THE WOLF MAN, following in the footsteps of his father with heavy makeup in the role of a tragic monster.
Chaney stars as Larry Talbot, the reluctant new-made heir to his nobleman father's estate after the untimely death of his elder brother.To pay his respects, Larry returns to his ancestral home in Wales, and reunites with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Hollywood Golden Age icon, Claude Rains).Larry's suggested emotional and mental instability are at odds with his father's distinguished and withdrawn personality, but Sir Talbot makes an earnest effort to connect with his son and mend their relationship.While at his family's estate, Larry becomes acquainted with Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), with whom he is romantically interested, in spite of her engagement to the Talbot Estate groundskeeper.He convinces her to join him at the local carnival while a gypsy caravan is passing through, but she brings along her friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm).While walking in the woods after getting their fortunes told, Larry and Gwen become separated from Jenny, when they hear Jenny screaming.Finding her under attack by a wolf, Larry bludgeons the wolf to death with the silver-capped walking stick he purchased from Gwen's shop earlier that day, but it is too late for Jenny, and he is bitten by the beast before killing it.The next morning, near Jenny's body, bearing the ghastly wounds of an animal attack, the body of the gypsy palm-reader Bela (Bela Lugosi, best known for the titular role of DRACULA (1931)), with a deadly skull fracture.These circumstances are naturally very troubling to the confused Larry, while those around him struggle to justify the circumstances.Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the gypsy fortuneteller and mother of Bela, approaches Larry with a foreboding warning of the curse of the werewolf, and the bite on his chest which has taken on the shape of a pentagram.
"A WEREWOLF CAN ONLY BE KILLED BY A SILVER BULLET, OR A SILVER KNIFE, OR A STICK WITHE A SILVER HANDLE."
Unlike the now-common perception of the werewolf myth, THE WOLF MAN recites a poem multiple times which indicates the curse of the werewolf resulting in a transformation at the time "when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright," as opposed to the "every full moon," usually cited.Otherwise, THE WOLF MAN is arguably the most influential film on our modern interpretations of werewolves.It is one of the three major original Universal Monsters, the others being THE MUMMY (1932) and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), whereas the rest are adapted directly from literary sources.
The special effects and makeup are dated of course, utilizing simple time-elapsing dissolve transitions for the transformation scenes, but the film thrives as the most psychologically-interested of the classic Universal Monsters.Much is made of the "duality of man," and lycanthropy as a mental illness, and the difference between the cerebral and the physical.Larry Talbot is probably the most pathetic of the Universal Monsters (unless you bring in Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein), an awkward man who introduces himself to a girl by revealing that he can see her through her bedroom window from his father's telescope, but more sympathetic than you might expect, mostly thanks to Chaney's performance and innate likability.
YOU DIRTY BOY.
Although Lon Chaney, Jr. never appeared as the Wolf Man in a solo film sequel, he would be the only actor to play the character throughout the 1940s in the many crossover films that followed, including major parts in 1944's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and the 1948 comedy-classic ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.The poorly-received but surprisingly "mostly good" remake in 2010 (titled THE WOLFMAN, with out the space) made a significant effort to pay homage to THE WOLF MAN, including Academy Award-winning makeup by Rick Baker, which emulated Jack Pierce's original designs while bringing them into contemporary credibility.
Today, THE WOLF MAN may not possess the same power as it had in its day, but it still has moments of surprising freshness, and set the format not only for the werewolf myth in cinema, but also for the Jekyl/Hyde-style creature-feature.