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: George Waggner
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy,Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi
“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.”
As iconic as Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster or The Mummy, it was a good ten years before the final member of Universal’s big four would finally make an appearance.
1935’s flawed but interesting Werewolf Of London would test the ground, but it’s more scientific approach and unappealing lead proved to be a misfire.
Instead, writer Curt Siodmak and producer/director George Waggner went back to European folk tales and gypsy curses, while casting a leading man who would squeeze every bit of empathy out of an audience at the tragedy that would befall him.
After the death of his older brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) returns from 18 years in America to Wales in an attempt to reconcile with his estranged father (Claude Rains). Upon visiting an antique shop in the village, he buys an antique cane with a silver wolf’s head on it to impress Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), the shop assistant. Later, the pair visit a traveling circus with her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) who is later attacked by a wolf which Larry the beats to death with his silver cane.
It was no ordinary wolf though, as the ghost fortune-teller Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) tells Larry that it was her own son Bela (Bela Lugosi) he had killed and now, since he was bitten by the supernatural creatures she lived, is doomed to become a werewolf himself…
Now this is how you do it.
The Wolf Man is a pitch-perfect horror film, steeped in atmosphere and dread, but with a very human story at the centre of it. As the luckless Larry, Lon Chaney Jr cuts the most sympathetic of figures and really draws us into his life. His relationship with his father is nicely played out, with both men clearly more distant than they would like, edgily trying to build bridges between each other in the aftermath of the other (clearly favourite) son’s death. Claude Rains complements Chaney brilliantly here too, offering a stiff, and seemingly cold foil to the younger man’s heart-on-sleeve hangdog schtick, though it’s a testament to how subtly convincing their repressed love for each other is that the tragic finale packs such an emotional punch.
Waggner creates a wonderfully vivid world for his prodigal son to return to, one that’s quaint and charming by day, but becomes an oppressive, dark and foreboding alien landscape by moonlight. The layered woodland set is full of trees that look possessed, with mist ever-present on the ground, while the gypsy encampment the perfect blend of captivating and intimidating.
Both Ouspenskaya and Lugosi add a fair bit of the Other to these scenes, bringing not just the old world to Larry’s modern life, but the horror that comes with it.
It’s impossible to understate the importance of what The Wolf Man brought to the genre of these kind of films, all those elements that we now take as cliché, so many of them started here. The five-pointed star being the mark of the wolfman and their vulnerability to silver are set in stone here, though the transformation happening at the full moon would only come in its first sequel.
Oh and that transformation? Into *that* Wolf Man? Well, it’s simply done and initially just focuses on his feet, wiping from stage to stage into what is a truly magnificent design by the great Jack Pierce. Originally designed for Henry Hull in Werewolf Of London, the entire look feels completely unnatural and is all the better for it. This is a feral animal we’re seeing, one that walks like a man, but is far, far from it.
Ultimately The Wolf Man is a film about conflicts, between fathers and sons, the old world versus the new and at its core, between man and the beast that lurks within us all. In the end though, it’s a riveting horror film that rightly became an instant classic and has lost none of its power to enthrall, even after all these years.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy