The Wolf Man (1941)

Besides its lack of genuine scares, The Wolf Man has a major credibility problem.  Larry Talbot is an idiotic, opportunistic sleaze and not at all sympathetic.

The son of Sir John Talbot, a wealthy scientist, Larry left Talbot Castle 18 years ago only to return because his older brother was killed in a hunting accident.  No longer playing second fiddle, he stands to inherit the entire estate as the sole heir.  (Is he really that sorry to not have to share all that dough?)

After fixing his father’s telescope in the family attic, Larry turns creepy as he spots a beautiful woman in an open, upstairs window.  If this were an 80s horror film, she’d be practically naked.  But because this is 1941 we’re talking about, she’s fully dressed and ready to go to work in her father’s antique shop downstairs.

Larry immediately visits the place hoping to get a date.  He hits on Gwen, the woman from the window, so relentlessly you know he’s not big on consent.  She repeatedly turns him down.  (“What big eyes you have, Grandma,” is his idea of flirtation.)  That does not stop him from announcing he’ll be outside the shop door at 8 p.m. expecting her to be there.  The fact that she is actually waiting for him when he arrives is particularly strange most especially when we find out not too long afterward that she’s engaged to another man.  That does not stop Larry from pursuing her.

Much to his annoyance, Gwen brings along a friend to have their palms read by travelling fortune tellers. During one fateful session, the one played by Bela Lugosi freaks out, warns Jenny, the friend, to get the hell out of there before transforming himself into a werewolf (actually a dog, for some unexplained reason) and killing her.  Thanks to a nifty cane with a silver, wolf-shaped handle he had just bought in the antique store (purely to impress a seemingly unimpressed Gwen), Larry kills the wolf not realizing it’s Bela.

From this point on, Larry and Gwen become controversial figures in this village.  She gets “slut” shamed for merely walking and talking with him.  And after a gravedigger gets murdered one night, Larry is correctly viewed by some of the gossipy townspeople as the prime suspect.  When he arrives at church for the funeral, everyone stares at him, even his own father.  He doesn’t stick around for the service.

Before he kills Bela, Larry gets bit.  (You never actually see it happen as he wrestles with him in dog form.)  But the wound disappears, soon to be replaced by the mark of the werewolf.  New victims have a pentagram magically show up on the palms of their hands that can only be seen briefly by their future killers.  When it shows up on Gwen’s hand late in the film, Larry realizes he needs to leave before the full moon returns.

But none of this would be happening at all if he had listened to Maleva, Bela’s fortune telling mother, who is not at all upset, for some reason, that he killed her son.  She gives him a special necklace that he is supposed to wear at all times to prevent him from transforming.  But the stupid idiot gives it to Gwen believing it will protect her from him.  He still attacks her in the film’s finale.

Lon Chaney, Jr., the son of the legendary Lon Chaney, Sr., perhaps the first Method actor before such a term existed, does his best to make Larry Talbot a tortured everyman caught in a no-win situation.  But because he’s so domineering towards Gwen, a white man on the verge of inheriting extraordinary wealth from his father (now that he no longer has to compete with his brother) and a dolt about his own well-being, it’s extremely difficult to care about his preventable dilemma.

Even though the film only runs about 70 minutes, it takes about half the running time before we see Chaney in The Wolf Man get-up.  Below the waist, the make-up is terrific.  (The feet look the way they should.)  Above the waist?  Not so much.  He doesn’t really resemble a wolf.  Just a really hairy guy who needs a manicure.

And yet, the film is beautifully photographed in black and white (Blu-ray doesn’t just improve colour films), has a lovely production design for the most part (the castle and antique store interiors are particularly elegant) and features some tremendous camera work.  Note the crane shot in the attic scene when Sir John climbs the ladder to check out his telescope.  Very smooth, very cool.  Or the moment where he catches Larry just before he leaves the castle.  It’s perfectly framed showing the growing distance between father and son, and how the influence of Sir John still towers over his youngest child despite Larry’s considerable height and long absence from his life.  (In the telescope scene, note how Larry kneels down at one point, looking up at his father for approval after he fixes the device.)

Claude Rains is effortlessly good as Talbot Sr. but by God, why do they make him so skeptical of Larry’s werewolfism?  When the movie begins, there’s a graphic that notes that lycanthropy is “a disease of the mind”, according to science, Sir John’s area of expertise.  But according to legend (which is capitalized) and the people who live near Talbot Castle, sufferers do take on the physical characteristics of wolves and embark on killing sprees.  Why doesn’t anyone listen to them?

The local authorities don’t believe Larry when he says he killed a werewolf because they find Bela’s human body.  (When he tries showing his bite mark, it’s already healed.)  And when the gravedigger is offed, they’re convinced an animal did it, not a human, even though Larry’s tracks lead directly back to Talbot Castle.  They’re not smart enough to realize what the audience already knows.  Sir John himself is doubtful that Larry has been cursed by Bela’s bite, although he does agree to tie him to a chair in his bedroom, only to find himself face to face with his transformed son out in the nearby forest in the final act.  It shouldn’t take him this long to become a believer.

Evelyn Ankers has the rather thankless role of being Larry’s love interest which causes her nothing but grief.  First, because the guy won’t leave her alone.  Second, because the townspeople give her a hard time about it.  And third, and most absurdly, because she actually considers running away with him (she doesn’t break off her engagement) when he decides to leave town.  When did she go from being completely uninterested to completely besotted?  This is yet another one of those movies that claims with a straight face that if you wear a woman down long enough, she’ll eventually fall for you.  Nope.

The ending of The Wolf Man made it difficult for Universal to churn out traditional sequels like they did for Frankenstein.  So, instead, they resurrected the character for crossover films like House Of Dracula, House Of Frankenstein (neither of which are scary), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and the terribly unfunny Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and countless other franchise horror villains, death was never an obstacle when making shameless follow-ups.

Unlike its predecessor Werewolf Of London, the original Wolf Man has been mostly credited with creating the basic template for all the many imitators that have since followed (although there is some dispute about how much screenwriter Curt Siodmak actually invented rather than borrowed).  But historical importance aside, it’s not much of a scarefest.  Now over 75 years old and greatly hindered by the restrictions of the now thankfully discarded Hays Code, it can’t help but show its deteriorating age.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, June 24, 2017
4:27 p.m.

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Published in: on June 24, 2017 at 4:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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