The Wolf Man (1941)

By 1941 Universal had largely exhausted its horror franchises.  Dracula was pretty much done, while 1942 would see The Ghost of Frankenstein try to carry on that series, but as the decade opened things had changed quite a bit from the 1930s.  The Hays Code, for one, severely restricted what movies could do, and since horror traditionally relied on sex and violence the inability to really display either had a major impact.  Also, the public at large seemed to have tired of horror films. 

The Wolf Man was not only able to breathe new life into Universal's horror menagerie, but did so at a time when the studio was worried audiences would want to see anything except a horror film.  It made its Los Angeles debut on December 9, two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and made its national debut on December 12.  Despite opening in the shadow of a national tragedy and at the beginning of America's official involvement in World War II it turned out that it was just the type of entertainment that was needed at the time. 

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is returning to his native home after an 18-year absence in the United States.  His father (Claude Rains) is happy to see him, although it is on the occasion of his older brother John's funeral.  Now the heir to the estate Larry begins to settle in and learn once again about the village in which he grew up.  One of the people he is most anxious to learn about is Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who works in her father's antique shop.  

While Gwen is initially reluctant to meet with Larry - being engaged to a local man named Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles) - she agrees to go with him to visit a Gypsy couple (Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya) along with her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to get their fortunes read.  By this time Larry had his ears filled with local werewolf lore, but when Jenny is attacked by a wolf and he is bitten, Talbot at first thinks nothing of it.  However, he soon appears to be at the center of a number of other killings and attacks and fears the worst. 

The Wolf Man is famous for early and, for the time, complex transformation sequences as well as the makeup used on Chaney.  Typically a werewolf undergoes a complete change into animal form, and originally screenwriter Curt Siodmak had no intention of Talbot ever being seen as anything but a man since his lycanthropy was supposed to be kept as a mystery to the audience, leaving it open for the possibility that it was all in his head.  Universal insisted and both Siodmak and director George Waggner relented, and thus the iconic version of an actual "wolf man" became a reality.  It is somewhat strange because, in every other way, the dialogue given to everyone makes it sound as if they see Talbot as an actual wolf, and not a hairy guy in pajamas. 

The one challenge I have always had with this movie is Chaney's acting and, though it is still a bit overwrought in places, I didn't find it as distracting as I remembered.  His limited skills still stand out when put up against Claude Rains and even Evelyn Ankers, but the role seems right for him despite of it.  What does seem weird is him looking like Andre the Giant in comparison to Rains, who is supposed to be his father.  

This time around I enjoyed seeing the wonderful restoration that was done to the film, making the photography pop in a way it didn't in the past and showing how impressive the whole forest set was.  I also never realized what a great soundtrack The Wolf Man had, courtesy of Charles Previn and others, despite the fact that some of it was recycled from a previous Lon Chaney Jr. film.  The tragic nature of the story, with Talbot being an unwitting victim rather than a force of evil or a mad doctor, helps set this apart from many other horror films of the time. 

It was a major hit despite the times that surrounded it and Chaney got to reprise the role several times, including in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Still, as one of the later entries in Universal's menagerie or creatures, the Wolf Man never got the respect he deserved.  The Mummy never got a proper sequel with the same character, but it did inspire another three films, even if they were a bit sillier than the one with Boris Karloff.  The Wolf Man never technically got that much.  Instead, Universal started aiming its horror films and younger audiences, starting with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It is the first film to carry on Talbot's story, but first-bills the family of mad doctors that keep trying to perfect bringing corpses back to life.  The other movies that continued his story were House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, neither of which one would automatically assume to be Wolf Man movies, same as the Abbott and Costello film which largely revolved around the Talbot character as well.

Hammer was no better to the character, with The Curse of the Werewolf featuring Oliver Reed as a wolf man, but not the Wolf Man.  Despite being one of the most recognizable of Universal monsters, and being the only one consistently played by the same actor, the lack of any real sequel is a confounding vacancy when it comes to horror films, particularly since most werewolf lore we are familiar with is stuff that Siodmak made up for the script rather than true folklore.  It is strange that such a successful, influential character - and movie - was never treated with more respect by the studio that created it. 

The Wolf Man (1941)
Time: 70 minutes
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya
Director: George Waggner




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