Movies That Kick My Ass
No. 12: The Wolf Man
One of the reasons the old Universal horror films were so successful (the ones that were successful — I’m talking Bride of Frankenstein here, not Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy) is that they treated their main characters as tragic figures. Dr. Frankenstein was so seduced by his experiments in reanimation that he and his loved ones were nearly destroyed. The monster he created, at least when played by Boris Karloff in the James Whale Frankenstein films, is one of the great tragic figures of American film, a pitiful, childlike hulk who can’t understand why he’s always being chased by torch-wielding villagers. It’s a bit of a stretch, but if you squint a little, even Universal’s Dracula can be seen as a tragic figure — strip his motives from the first film bare and all the poor guy really wanted was to buy a new house and settle down with a nice girl. Give him a break. The Invisible Man isn’t such a tragic figure . . . I mean, he is, sure — in many ways, he’s a typical film noir hero, a man who gets in over his head and can’t find his way back — but in many other ways, he’s just a big jerk.
The most tragic of the Universal monsters, to my mind, is Larry Talbot, the poor sap who becomes the Wolf Man in George Waggner’s aptly titled 1941 film, The Wolf Man. Larry isn’t a mad scientist; unlike Frankenstein or Griffin (the Invisible Man), he doesn’t seek forbidden power, he hasn’t been driven insane by his work. He’s not an undead creature of the night or a misunderstood brute (well, maybe . . .). He’s an ordinary guy who finds himself cursed, through no fault of his own. Recently returned home to the Welsh village ruled by his nobleman father, he sees a wolf attacking a woman in the woods one night and comes to the rescue. He beats the wolf to death with his new silver-headed cane, but not before the wolf bites him on the chest. Larry soon discovers it was no ordinary wolf, and that he is now no ordinary man.
Larry’s transformation into a werewolf is not permanent, of course. Like the popular image of the werewolf, which this film established in the public consciousness more than anything else, Larry is himself most of the time. Only at night, “when the wolfbane blooms,” does he undergo his metamorphosis from man to wolf man. After the first few such transformations, Larry catches on and spends the rest of the film fully aware of his situation, dreading what he might do, who he might kill the next time. This makes Larry unique among the Universal monsters. His defining quality isn’t ambition or arrogance or madness — it’s fear. He is terrified by what he has become.
The Wolf Man is such a good movie because it brings out Larry’s fear so skillfully, and places it right at the center of the story. The werewolf Larry becomes is not frightening for some general reason, because he stalks the countryside killing indiscriminately, or because he leaps out of the shadows unexpectedly to tear some hapless supporting character to shreds. The killings in the film, as in all of the Universal horrors, are tame and bloodless, mostly stranglings. No, we are scared of the Wolf Man for the same reason Larry himself is: because he threatens those closest to Larry. Soon after moving to the village, Larry meets Gwen, the antique shop clerk who sells him his silver-headed cane, and he falls instantly in love. When Larry begs his father to tie him to a chair so he won’t be able to prowl the village after his transformation, it’s because he can’t bear the thought of murdering Gwen as the Wolf Man.
The film forges an unusually strong bond between the audience and its monster. Apart from the sharp and sympathetic characterization by screenwriter Curt Siodmak, credit for this goes to Lon Chaney Jr., who throws himself completely into the role of Larry Talbot. No one would ever confuse Chaney for Marlon Brando, or even for his father, the great silent film star who played the definitive screen versions of Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera. Despite his limitations as an actor, and despite looking like every bit of a big, dumb galoot, Lon Chaney Jr. gives a performance that is absolutely magnetic, and enormously sympathetic. It’s impossible to watch The Wolf Man without feeling sorry for the poor guy. It’s not a subtle performance, but Chaney’s sincerity and total commitment make it a great one.
Chaney is aided by maybe the best supporting cast of any of the Universal horror films. Playing Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot, is the incomparable Claude Rains, eight years removed from his triumphant debut in The Invisible Man, still nearly a year away from his defining role as Captain Renault in Casablanca. Rains plays Sir John as an admirable and capable man. He isn’t a buffoonish nobleman of the type we saw in the Frankenstein films, nor is he a corrupt or inept authority figure. He is an intelligent and perceptive man, genuinely concerned about the people of his town and the welfare of his son. When Larry tells him about his werewolf transformations, Sir John is skeptical. In one of the film’s best scenes, he tells his son, firmly but not without sympathy, that he does not believe a man can physically transform into a wolf, but “most anything can happen to a man inside of his own mind.” Sir John doubts his son’s claims right up to the very end, when he stands in the woods over Larry’s dead body, having just beaten the Wolf Man to death with his son’s silver-headed cane. Never does Rains wink or camp-up his performance in the least; despite the absurdity of the material, he plays it totally straight.
The other stand-out in the cast is Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the gypsy woman who knows all about werewolves — her son Bela is the one who attacks Larry — and informs Larry of his fate. Ouspenskaya was an accomplished actress who had twice been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She excels as Maleva because she seems so utterly real in the part. Watch the film as many times as you want, you’ll never catch her acting. It’s as if the producers discovered Maleva as we see her and contrived the rest of the film to happen around her. Maleva also undermines the usual gypsy stereotypes. She isn’t a shifty, dishonest traveling merchant, or a pagan conjurer of black magic; she’s a strong and dignified woman who can see the horrors to come well before anyone else.
Chaney’s famous Wolf Man make-up was created and applied by Jack Pierce, who also created the look of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and the look of Universal’s previous werewolf film, the unjustly overlooked Werewolf of London. It’s never explained why Larry transforms into a wolf man — hairy, fanged, bestial, but still retaining a largely human form — while Bela, the werewolf who attacked him, transformed fully into a wolf. It’s also never explained how the Wolf Man, regardless of how Larry was dressed before his transformation, is always shown prowling around in the same dark slacks and meticulously buttoned shirt. Despite those inconsistencies, it’s a classic and rightly celebrated look, one duplicated by movie werewolves for decades.
Also duplicated in later work was the mythology presented in the film. Unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, this film is not based on a novel, and it incorporates almost no actual werewolf mythology. The pentacle marking the wolf’s next victim, the link to wolfbane, even the notion that one becomes a werewolf by surviving an attack by another werewolf, were all invented by screenwriter Curt Siodmak. It was Siodmak also who wrote the film’s oft-repeated rhyme, “Even a man who is pure in heart / and says his prayers by night / may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms / and the autumn moon is bright.” The little poem is so perfect, many viewers naturally assume that it is drawn from some European folklore. Siodmak liked it so much, he put it in the mouth of nearly every character in the film at one point in the story or another. The rhyme is repeated so often, it becomes a joke — after hearing it for about the fifth time, Larry laughs and responds, “You know that one too, eh?”
Sadly, but mercifully, Larry finds peace at the end of The Wolf Man. Kneeling over his body, Maleva absolves Larry of the crimes of the Wolf Man, and tells him he will now have peace for all eternity. As it turned out, “eternity” lasted only two years or so: Lon Chaney Jr. was back as Larry Talbot in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. Unlike Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man never got a sequel all to himself. Every reappearance of the character in the Universal series was in one of the “monster rally” films, alongside the other members of the Universal horror stable. The Wolf Man was, though, the only Universal monster to be played by the same actor in every film. Lon Chaney Jr., who also took his turn as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, was the only Wolf Man. That’s a good thing. Someone else may have been able to wear the make-up, but no one other than Chaney could ever have brought such life to Larry Talbot.
LOOOOOOK HERE: On October 20, which is this coming Saturday, at 5 P.M., the Smithsburg Library, under the management of the lovely and well-read Ashley, will be showing a horror movie triple feature of Horror of Dracula, Frankenstein, and this film I've just reviewed, The Wolf Man. It's free, but seating is limited, so call the library at (301) 824-7722 to reserve your seats, since they can only cram so many people in there. A great Hammer with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and two of the greatest Universal horror films ever made. What's your excuse for not coming? You live in Sri Lanka or something? Five days is plenty of time to make it here. Get on a plane.