Werewolf of London (1935)

Werewolf of London was not the first time this popular monster appeared on film, but it was the first feature film.  It is also the earliest that can be seen as the 18-minute short from 1913, The Werewolf, was lost when all the copies were destroyed in a warehouse fire in the 1920s.  

This was also Universal's first attempt to bring the creature to the screen and, although it is not as well-known nor was it as popular as The Wolf Man, it was influential on the later film.  Between the two films we have the establishment of what would be popular werewolf lore, as in the original tales lycanthropy was something one was born or cursed with.  Werewolf of London introduces both the idea of the emergence of the wolf during the full moon and the ability of the curse to be transferred by a bite or scratch.  While The Wolf Man continued those traditions and added some others, it abandoned the McGuffin of the Wolf Lily, a flower that blooms only in the light of the full moon and helps keep the transformation at bay. 

Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), a botanist, has traveled to Tibet to get a sample of a rare flower.  While collecting it he is attacked and wounded by a wild man, but manages to collect his specimen and return to London, where he begins to experiment with the use of artificial moonlight in order to get it to bloom.  During a party at his garden he is visited by Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), a fellow botanist who also has an interest in the flower.  He also warns Glendon about what will happen to him due to the wound he received.

When Dr. Glendon starts to realize the change moonlight has upon him he tries to make sure his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) is safe.  However, due to years of loneliness, she is also falling under the spell of her former crush Paul Ames (Lester Matthews), much to Glendon's displeasure.  After the successful blooms of the flower are stolen Dr. Glendon attempts to keep himself isolated, but those attempts are in vain.  Soon Scotland Yard is on the case and, though they are reluctant to believe, they soon find themselves on the hunt for a supernatural menace.

Part of the reason why Werewolf of London didn't do as well as some of the previous Universal horror films is that it came out right after the Hays Code began enforcement.  It still got away with a bit more than movies after it would, but it was limited in some ways.  Despite that Jack Pierce managed some decent gory effects for the time, and the werewolf makeup on Hull seems like it is a dry run for what he did on Lon Chaney Jr.  For this movie he was purposely made to be more like a man being overcome by animal instincts, and it is hard to miss comparisons to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the way the two sides of Hull play out, although he's presented from the beginning as being arrogant and aloof rather than a traditional gentleman.

There are some aspects that I wish this went into more.  At one point we see a carnivorous plant, which is a well-made puppet, but other than eat a frog it doesn't figure in later.  I was hoping that it would come to play in the end battle between either the two different werewolves or when Glendon met his inevitable end, but it's there and gone.  There are also many comedic side characters that steel the show, such Spring Byington as Lisa's aunt Ettie Coombes and a pair of bickering landlords, Mrs. Whack (Ethel Griffies) and Mrs. Moncaster (Zeffie Tilbury).  They are the recipient of some of the best writing in the movie.

The transformation looks good - there is a clever shot of Glendon passing behind a number of columns as he changes - and Henry Hull is good in physical form as the werewolf.  As a character he is one-note, with almost everyone else standing head and shoulders above him.  I don't believe it is a problem with Hull's acting, but that the writers for this film spent so much time on the auxiliary characters that they forgot to make Glendon relatable or sympathetic in any way.  This was remedied in The Wolf Man by making Lawrence Talbot as much a victim as anyone else, but here Glendon seems to deserve what he gets.

This is still an underrated Universal Horror film to take a look at once done with all the other popular entries.  I had a nice chuckle when "Tibet" turned out to be the Vazquez Rocks, making this one of the earlier films to use that setting for an exotic location.  It was also influential enough to inspire Warren Zevon to make a song that will be stuck in my head for a week after I finish writing this.

Werewolf of London (1935)
Time: 75 minutes
Starring: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews
Director: Stuart Walker



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