Thursday, October 22, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Wolf Man (1941)

I had every intention of watching Kwaidan last night - even watched the first 8 or so minutes of the first tale, "The Black Hair," before I realized that the movie is two hours and forty one minutes long - great, when you have the time, but I had obligations and couldn't spare more than an hour and a half. So I set it aside for later this week and start digging around for something that fit my time constraints.

I was initially in an Italian mood and thought about re-watching Inferno (on Hulu). It disappointed me the first time I saw it, and I thought maybe it was time to re-assess. Unfortunately, it was a bit too long - same with Deep Red and Tenebre. I was starting to get a bit frustrated when my eye fell on my Universal Monsters collection. Hmm... there are a couple of movies I haven't watched from the collection, and those early Universal films are pretty short.

Which is how I ended up watching:

The Wolfman (1941)

The Wolfman was not my least favorite Universal monster - The Invisible Man occupied that particular bottom rung - but he wasn't my favorite either. In fact, werewolves in general were monsters that I tolerated, rather than enjoyed for most of my childhood. Their place investigating the "beast within" in my pop culture consumption had been supplanted by the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk was cool - even if it sucked to be Bruce Banner. Werewolves were hairy and murdery, not at all cool.

When I went through puberty, however, werewolves became easier to identify with - especially the classic movie werewolves, like Tony Rivers in I Was a Teenage Werewolf and, yes, Larry Talbot in The Wolfman. Having something you didn't understand take over your emotions, weird hair growth, the feeling like you were an alien in your own body - yeah, that resonated a bit more. The Hulk was still cool, but werewolves were more... I dunno, real I guess. Not in the sense that they really existed, but those who suffered lycanthropy certainly had problems that were more relevant to me than the Leader or being shot at by the Army.

The Medium
My wife got me the blu-ray Universal Monster collection last year and it's just a fantastic set. I highly recommend it. All of the movies are available now in separate releases, so you can pick and choose. Of course, if I had done that I'd just have the two Karloff Frankenstein movies and Creature From the Black Lagoon, so thank you, hon!

The Movie
Does every Universal monster movie take place in the same undetermined, early 19th century, European town? I imagine roughly half a dozen castles surrounding the place, each occupied by some family under a dark cloud, or abandoned because of 'those rumors.' A healthy supply of pitchforks and torches is, of course, kept on hand at all times.


Larry Talbot, played by the immense and sad-eyed Lon Chaney Jr, returns to his ancestral home after many years spent in America. His father, the current Lord Talbot, played by the always excellent Claude Rains, plans to groom him to take over the estate after the untimely death of his older brother. Despite an earlier estrangement Larry is keen to please, and help out where he can.

While working on his father's telescope the young Talbot sees a young woman through her bedroom window. This is the 1940's, so there's no nudity/inappropriate viewing (still a little creepy, though). He sets out to visit her in her father's Antique shop. The 1940's version of 'not taking no for an answer' might have been romantic then, but always makes me a little unnerved. She said no, dude. Go loom over someone else.

The woman sells him a cane with a silver wolfs-head handle and utters a scrap of poetry that is repeated several times in the film:

Even a man who is pure of heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.

Seriously, it's said a LOT during the course of the film. If you took a drink every time someone says it you might need an ambulance. (Later films change the final line to "And the full moon is bright," but the whole full moon affecting werewolves thing is not a part of this film.)

I'm amazed at how many things we take for granted about the werewolf myth were originally set forth in this film. The screenplay is by Curt Siodmak, who created much of the mythology out of whole cloth - being invulnerable to normal weapons, the weakness to silver, the poem, the pentagram over the heart/in a victim's palm. I don't know about you, but I grew up 'knowing' those were accepted, centuries old lore - never realizing they were made up for the movie!

 Larry promises to be back at 8 to pick her up to go see a gypsy fortune teller. She says no again, but when he does show up she agrees to go - at least she's smart enough to take along her friend/chaperone, Jenny. By this time Larry has also found out that her name is Gwen.

Unfortunately for Jenny - who insists on getting her fortune told first - the fortune teller is actually.... Bela Lugosi! They even call him Bela. That's bad news, sister. Lugosi actually does a fairly nice job with a limited role here - he's obviously tormented by his condition. Jenny gets a bad reading, of course, and Bela sees a pentagram in her palm. He tells her to flee, quickly, and she does.

Meanwhile, Gwen and Larry have wandered off into the fog-shrouded forest. I know Larry is supposed to be the good guy here, but he always seems to be trying to get Gwen off with him alone. That she's engaged and he doesn't seem to care is also a concern. Before anything happens between them they hear a woman scream. Larry charges off and finds a wolf savaging Jenny. He beats it to death with his silver-headed cane, but not before being bitten.

The next day the authorities find Jenny and a man's body nearby. It's Bela, his head caved in by... Larry's silver cane. And Larry's wound has mysteriously disappeared overnight. His insistence that he killed a wolf - not a man - despite the dark and confusion means his mental health is called into question. And then another man is killed by a wolf and the prints lead right to Larry's window. But really, that's the least of his problems. You see, the wolfbane is in bloom...

The Bottom Line
I enjoy The Wolfman a lot, but I get the feeling that there was a much larger story that was cut down. There are hints of a storyline about the father and son falling out, for instance, that are never really followed up on and which could have made the ending even more poignant. The whole 'darker side of human nature' angle is not really fleshed out. I really wanted to see "Nice Guy" Larry and his friends have to deal with a darkening and coarsening of his personality, but it's really just "I'm freaked out!" and then he's covered in hair and stalking people. There's not really enough time to believe in Gwen and Larry's romance, either.

The movie is very short - 70 minutes long - and the ending feels very abrupt. There's no transformation INTO a werewolf scene (though we do see some legs getting hairy). The big special effects sequence is the reversion from wolfman to human, which comes at the very end. Still, there's a lot of atmosphere in this film, and the pace means there's not a lot of filler (except for a Gypsy dance sequence). Lon Cheney Jr's hangdog expression really sells the pathos of his situation, though I find his character a bit stiff. In the end I prefer the more modern werewolves of films like The Howling and Dog Soldiers, but neither of them would exist without this one.

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