Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Stuart Walker
Starring: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews
There had been films dealing with lycanthropy before, but this is where werewolf cinema as we know it really began.
Six years before Lon Chaney Jr’s definitive turn as The Wolf Man entered the public consciousness, Universal Studios had a trial run and it’s easy to see what worked and what didn’t. At the very least it’s an interesting work in progress, one where the werewolf curse is more of a scientifically quantified infection, one that has slightly different effects than what we have since accepted as the norms.
It’s not great, but it’s an interesting curio.
While on an expedition in Tibet to find a rare flower that blossoms in the moonlight, noted botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked by a mysterious creature that leaps from the shadows. He fights it off, but is bitten in the attack and returns to London.
Once home band back mixing in high society once again, Glendon encounters the enigmatic Dr. Yogami, who warns him that he has now been infected with werewolfery and will turn into an animal at the first full moon. Worse, he will instinctively be compelled to kill whoever he loves the most, immediately placing his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) in mortal danger.
There is an antidote however, which just happens to be the flowers from the plant he brought back from Tibet, but as the full moon rises, the flowers go missing and Glendon begins to turn…
It’s fascinating to watch a prototype like this with modern eyes. Some of the tropes we now take for granted are present and correct for the first time here, but equally there’s plenty where ideas were refined for the better.
Primarily the idea of the werewolf as a tragic victim of the supernatural isn’t quite on point here. For starters, Henry Hull doesn’t elicit much sympathy, making it hard to sell any tragedy. He’s cold and fairly charmless, all clipped tones and stiff upper lip, a far cry from Chaney Jr’s loveable shaggy dog personality, meaning you tend not to have much empathy for the situation he’s in. He’s not unlikeable or anything, but he’s a cold fish before he becomes a wolf.
The most interesting thing about Werewolf Of London is how certain rules are still at the planning stages. There’s no curse, no gypsies or tragic victims passing on their lycanthropy to the next unfortunate. Glendon is a scientist and his affliction is treated scientifically, as a transmitted virus in his system that can be cured with the right antidote.
Oh and when he goes full wolf he can still talk and is aware enough to put in a hat and scarf before going out for a night of horribly mangling young women. It’s a really, really weird idea and one that rightly doesn’t rear its head much again, but making your Werewolf so human really defangs it somewhat.
Similarly, Hull’s refusal to wear Jack Pierce’s full make up to allow him to act more takes the edge off his wolf’s power again. It’s still decent makeup, but combined with the wrapping up for the cold and the chattiness at points, scary he is not. The full makeup would finally see the light of day on Chaney Jr’s face in 1941, and look what happened there. Saying that, the transformation scene delivered by a a tracking shot as he walks behind pillars becoming more bestial with each one is brilliantly effective.
There’s an interesting double act at play here with Glendon and his colleague/rival/fellow wolf Yogami, again offering something different from the usual wolf fare, while the London that becomes the hunting ground of werewolves is nicely realised and while not being particularly grand or expensive-looking, more than carries no small amount of atmosphere.
Werewolf Of London is an important film, but isn’t a great one. Instead, it’s one that is worth seeing, if not one to love.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy