Written by Curt Siodmak
Directed by George Waggner
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers
US Release Dec. 12, 1941
RT 70 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
Until I recently re-watched The Wolf Man (1941), I would have told you it was the best of the Universal Monsters classics. Now I’m not so sure. I think I was confusing my memory of a great character with that of a great movie. Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performance as Larry Talbot gives us the most personal and sympathetic creature in Universal’s history and singlehandedly raises the movie itself to something more impactful than it ever should have been.
Chaney is the primary reason this wolf man become a legend when six years earlier, a werewolf of London did not. But there are others. Remember that earlier Universal monsters were based on literary works: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There was no road map for a werewolf. So it’s also Curt Siodmak’s original screenplay that not only made The Wolf Man special, but also established a fundamental mythology for the creature.
Also, the wolf man was a home-grown monster. The Hunchback and Phantom were from Paris, Dracula was from Transylvania, the Mummy was from Egypt. Yes, he returns to his ancestral home in Wales where the action takes place, but it is after spending much of his adult life in California. For all intents and purposes, the wolf man is an American monster. Larry Talbot speaks like an American and, except for his great wealth, is an everyman figure.
Finally, the wolf man was a monster that we could become. Yes, if Dracula bit you, you’d become a vampire, but you’d still be under his control. A werewolf is fiercely independent and must live with the consequences of its actions as a human during an average day. As Larry’s father, Sir John (Claude Rains) tells him, a werewolf is a psychological explanation for the dual personalities that live in all of us. It’s the physical expression of good and evil in every man’s soul, with evil taking the form of a wolf.
What of the movie itself? Its structure is pretty typical. The story has the same love triangle of nearly every other Universal horror. Here, after Larry has already taken the lovely Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) on a moonlight stroll, we learn that she’s engaged to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles). It’s always the odd man out, though. Gwen’s attraction to Larry is obvious and after an unseen quarrel with Frank, we don’t see much else of him.
The story also has the same crowd of non-believers, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that the supernatural exists. Here, it’s harder to believe because everyone in town knows werewolf lore and seems to be able to recite the poem:
Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.
Yet as Larry continues to bring it to their attention, and finally outright declares that it’s not a wolf, it’s a werewolf, and he is the werewolf, they’re more likely to believe he’s a victim of some kind of mass-hypnotism.
The Wolf Man has more flaws than I remembered. For example, if the werewolf that bites Larry takes the form of a real wolf, why does Larry walk upright (and wear clothes)? Speaking of clothes, before Larry first transforms, he makes a point of taking off his shirt to look at his arms, but afterwards, is wearing more than just his t-shirt. I’m pretty sure he was wearing different pants, too. It’s probably an exercise in futility to track the continuity mistakes in an early-1940s horror movie; alas, it’s what I do.
Thank goodness for Lon Chaney, Jr. His very countenance embodies a comment that another character makes about him in The Wolf Man, “There’s something very tragic about that man.” He’s not that happy a guy to start with, but during his ordeal, he becomes consumed with anxiety. He’d also sound a little paranoid if we didn’t know his claims were true, but he’s certainly desperate when he cries, “Why does everyone insist that I’m confused?”
The Wolf Man never got a sequel, per se, but Larry Talbot was the human presence around which several other Universal Monsters subsequently revolved. Lon Chaney, Jr. and this movie created a legacy of horror that affected almost every werewolf movie since then and continues today. Sitting through its brief 70-minute run time may not be the best experience you’ve ever had watching a horror movie, but it is one of the most significant.