Stories of werewolves are hugely prevalent in cinema and folklore. They are a personal favourite of this writer and the legends have spawned such cult classics as An American Werewolf in London, Dog Soldiers, Ginger Snaps, and Wolfcop. There is something universally appealing/terrifying about the idea of a person cursed to become a beast at the next full moon. The inevitability of it all, and the ticking clock makes for some great tragic cinema. Universal pretty much created the template for the modern idea of a werewolf with Lon Chaney Jr. playing the doomed man.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Overview: Larry Talbot returns to his ancestral home following his brother’s death, and find himself embroiled in the legend of the werewolf.
Werewolf: Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, The Wolf Man is not based upon a particular work of fiction. It is inspired by urban legends and mythology about the man who turns into an animal and stalks the countryside. What is interesting is how much of what we know as werewolf lore is set up by this movie and Universal’s previous, less successful Werewolf of London. The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London are the reason we associate full moons with the transformation as well as wolfs bane, the deadliness of silver, and the fact that the ability is transferred through biting. These are the core ideas around the trope and its use for nearly a hundred years in cinema, and all of it comes from Universal horror.
Chaney: I’ve already written a lot about Lon Chaney Jr. and his portrayal of the Wolf Man as his character has already appeared in a Frankenstein movie and a Dracula movie. The fact that it is always Chaney that plays the Wolf Man, rather than there being a revolving door on actors, has cemented him as Lawrence Talbot. His hangdog expression and lumbering fear of what he will become has shaped the idea of how actors approach the role of being a reluctant werewolf.
I also feel that he is the character who seems to reoccur with the most screen time in the crossover movies, because unlike Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he is a heroic figure. He is cursed to be a monster and doesn’t relish the fact unlike the other monsters who joyfully do their worst.
Movie: The Wolf Man is definitely of its time. There are some laughably anachronistic idea and ridiculous dialogue. The fact that Talbot approaching Gwen and quite jauntily letting her know he’s been spying on her with a telescope is played as a meet cute and not the first act of a slasher movie is telling.
It does have that wonderful thing that these movies have where once the movie is over its over. There are very few epilogues or wrap up scenes. Once the monster whose name is on the marquee is dispatched then the movie ends. It is refreshing.
Overall: Buoyed up by the central performance of Chaney, The Wolf Man suffers from being too familiar. By now we’ve seen the story of a man bitten by a wolf who tries to control his feral impulses before succumbing to them a million times both good and bad. By being one of the first to do it, The Wolf Man would have been something wholly new and fresh in its day, but now it’s a tale as old as time.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures