I’ve been recently watching all of Universal Pictures classic horror and monster movies: Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), as well as the continuation of some of these stories like the macabre and utterly enjoyable The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). I’ve enjoyed all of them beyond my expectations. I am usually a person who likes musicals and romance and comedy, however I am intrigued by these movies and what each one has to say about the nature of humankind and evil.
But The Wolf Man, made in 1941, is possibly my favorite of all, with its excellent cast, good story and unique philosophical questions. The movie begins at a leisurely pace, with the arrival of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr., improbably cast as Claude Rains’ son) who has been in America for the past eighteen years and has returned to take his place at his ancestral home following the death of his brother. His scientific father, Sir John Talbot (Rains), and he have been estranged for years, but agree to put all that behind them.
That same day he sees a young woman working in a shop, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), and while trying to flirt with her in the shop, he buys a silver headed cane, with the silver head in the shape of a wolf’s head. She is the first person that day to quote to him the poem regarding the local folk tradition about werewolves. His father and Gwen’s friend also go on to quote it to him.
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
He finally talks Gwen into going out with him, although she brings along a friend named Jenny, and they go to have the gypsies tell their fortune. Of course, if they’d known who played the gypsies, they might have stayed home. Bela Lugosi (of Dracula fame – he played the character on both Broadway and in the 1931 movie) is Bela the gypsy and he travels with Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya). Bela takes one look at Jenny’s hand and sees the mark of a pentagram on her hand (the sign every werewolf sees on their next victim) and tells her to flee. The next thing Larry and Gwen know is that they hear Jenny screaming. Larry goes to protect her and finds her being attacked by a huge wolf. He fights the wolf, beating it over the head with his silver cane, and is bitten. When the local townsfolk arrive, they find Jenny dead, no wolf, Larry with blood all over him and Bela. No one can figure out how Larry ended up killing Bela and where the wolf is who killed Jenny. The town panics and some people blame Larry, since there was no trouble until he arrived.
And this is where the philosophical questions really get going. Larry is told by Maleva that Bela was a werewolf and that everyone who is bitten by a werewolf will become one, too. And to his horror, he does; he changes at night and goes out and kills a gravedigger. He wakes up horrified. The constable (Ralph Bellamy) and Sir John’s gamekeeper (Patric Knowles) are out hunting the wolf. Meanwhile, everyone is convinced that Larry is sick. Larry is convinced that he is a werewolf and keeps asking his father and the doctor (Warren William) questions. The doctor tells him that sometimes in a kind of groupthink or mass hypnotism, someone can believe almost anything and can manifest physical signs of his belief. He wants Larry to leave, but Sir John says that he is a Talbot and must stay and face it.
There are some intriguing questions left unanswered, mostly because some of the questions are left over from a previous vision of the screenplay. There was going to be doubt about whether Larry is really turning into a werewolf or not. However, the studio decided that audences would want to see the monster, so they changed the story slightly so that we know for sure that Larry is a werewolf. However, the original emphasis is still there. Is Larry really cursed or if he left, would he be able to break free? Is it all in his mind or not; is the werewolf just a physical manifestation of his mental state? This is never answered, but it is interesting to ponder.
One of the things my sister and I found interesting is how he is, by far, the most innocent monster we have seen yet. He had nothing to do with his own misfortune. He was trying to rescue a young woman and was bitten in the process. How innocent can you get? He’s not a vampire (the personification of evil, in a way), or a mummy killing people in his obsessive quest to be reunited with his love. He wasn’t created by another being and reacting to rejection by killing people, like Frankenstein’s monster. Larry Talbot is just an ordinary, decent guy.
But that is precisely the point of the movie. The writer of the screenplay, Curt Siodmark, had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 because he was Jewish and knew something about how ordinary people can be far more evil than we know. In the movie, it’s almost like an accident, misfortune, something he can’t control, a curse, but it is also symbolic of how there is evil latent in everyone.
The cast is superb: Lon Chaney Jr. makes an excellent monster and does a good job conveying his general ordinariness, fear and confusion. Claude Rains is wonderful in everything he is in and plays the scientific father who does not believe in werewolves but thinks his son needs to face his fears and that nearly anything is possible in the mind. Maria Ouspenskaya is a real standout, too. She plays Bela’s mother, a gypsy, who knows about werewolves and how it works and tries to help Larry and his father, though nobody listens properly to her. She was only 5’1, but she has more compelling presence than anyone I’ve ever seen. And of course, Bela Lugosi is excellent in his small role as Bela (why the same name?), the original werewolf in the story.
It’s not actually a very frightening movie, though utterly compelling. The werewolf does not look like a real werewolf, it’s more of an impressionistic take on wolves. The atmosphere is wonderful, blending, as most Universal monster movies do, both the past with the present in an atmosphere that is curiously out of time. The music is also great, and it occurred to me that most of the other monster movies I had watched, because they were made in the early thirties, had hardly any music (though the silence was used for great affect). Even if you don’t normally like monster movies, this is really an excellent film, very accessible and highly thought-provoking without being grotesque, gory, or particularly bone-chilling, but still creepy enough to give you a pleasant thrill.