US (dir. George Waggner)
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr, Warren William, Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, J.M. Kerrigan, Fay Helm, Forrester Harvey, Jessie Arnold, Caroline Cooke, Harry Cording, Margaret Fealy, Gibson Gowland, Leyland Hodgson, Olaf Hytten, Kurt Katch, Connie Leon, Doris Lloyd, Martha Vickers, Ottola Nesmith, Eddie Polo, Tom Stevenson, Harry Stubbs, Eric Wilton, Ernie Stanton
Synopsis: A practical man returns to his homeland, is attacked by a creature of folklore, and imbued with a malady his disciplined mind tells him can not possibly exist.
Review: It’s funny that I ended my Universal Monsters month with “The Wolf Man” because it is coincidentally the one Universal Monsters film that features two other Universal Monsters stars: Bela Lugosi (“Dracula”) and Claude Rains (“The Invisible Man”). Lon Chaney Jr., who plays the role of Larry Talbot in this film, is the son of the Lon Chaney featured in such other monster movies as “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. So “The Wolf Man” is truly a film packed with monsters.
Let me just start off by saying that this was a better film than that fucking god-awful 2010 remake you might remember me criticizing so harshly. Actually, this movie is even better than I could have predicted based on my previous assumption that the universe could not permit another werewolf movie to suck as much as 2010’s “The Wolfman”. The story actually makes sense in the 1941 version! Come to think of it, there actually is a story here, unlike whatever it was they were trying to pass off as a story in the remake. There’s also the much welcomed presence of believable character relationships and character development, again something severely lacking in the remake. Best of all, despite perhaps one minor flaw which I’ll get to later, is the fact that this film has continuity. That’s right folks, scenes just don’t pop out of nowhere! Characters don’t just come and go! Dialogue has purpose and meaning! The audience can easily connect A to B here. There are no giant voids to speak of. “The Wolf Man” has a great flow, and it makes sense: something that most every mainstream film should be, unlike that wretched excuse for a remake.
Well before I get out of hand trashing the remake again, let me get back to reviewing the film. First off, the best thing about it is Lon Chaney Jr. He plays a charming, funny, likable sort of hero/villain character, everything that the new Larry Talbot from the remake was incapable of being. You get to feel sorry for the 1941 Larry Talbot because he actually has some sort of character to him. He’s a bit of persistent skirt-chaser, but it only makes him all the more cute. The telescope scene were he scopes out his love interest was a bit creepy, but hey, he eventually landed the (surprisingly not creeped out) girl in the end anyways. Although how he spies on her through a telescope while she is putting on earrings, and then goes to visit her, and then describes the earrings in detail and asks if he can buy those same earrings off of her only to do one of those “Hey, can you guess how I know you had those exact earrings I just specifically described?!” isn’t exactly the best set-up for a future romantic relationship. Plus it’s also confusing as hell… why would you go over to a potential lover and start describing something they wore only to say something like “Hey, can you guess how I know all this!?” You’ll end up confusing them more than charming them.
However, I enjoyed how there was some actual chemistry between the main character and the token Universal Monsters love interest. There was also some resistance on behalf of the love interest (Gwen) as she kept denying her potential suitor a date until she was “reluctantly” (sure…) coerced into going. Not only was this kind of chemistry lacking from the remake, but other Universal Monsters pictures such as “The Mummy” were entirely devoid of any sort of romantic chemistry between the male and female leads. And no, staring at each other for extended periods of time does not count as on-screen chemistry (*cough* “The Mummy” *cough*)
As mentioned, characters actually have some sort of a purpose in this film, and who I am mainly talking about here is the gypsy woman. In the remake, she gives a hint as to how the werewolf condition might be reversed but then later sums up her prognosis for curse reversal as “sorry, you’re fucked”. In this version, the gypsy woman is rife with valuable information And as the wife of a recently deceased wolf man, she also has an emotional involvement to boot. Again, characters are given some semblance of importance to both the plot of the film and the story too, unlike in the remake where characters are merely part of the decor. In this version, characters develop meaningful relationships and these relationships result in some sort of contribution to the flow of the movie (here’s where the writers of 2010’s “The Wolfman” failed). There also isn’t some completely contrived end fight where one werewolf battles another or there’s some lame, half-assed “twist” where the second werewolf is really the hero wolfman’s father just for the sake of there being a massive fight sequence in the end. This film spends more time developing the Larry Talbot character and documenting his transformation from man to wolf over the length of the film, so that by the time we get to the highly anticipated transformation scene, we care enough about our hero to feel sympathy for his tragic situation.
Here is where the only major flaw of this film pops up: the transformation, and to a lesser extent, what it is Larry Talbot transforms into. The first werewolf, Bela Lugosi’s gypsy fortune teller, Bela (pronounced Bahy-LER by virtually everyone in the film) is shown as an actual wolf. However, when Larry Talbot transforms into the wolf man, he is, quite literally, a wolf man (or man wolf) in that he stands on two legs and is all hairy and bushy browed and stuff.
I really can’t give an answer as to why they went from actual wolf to hairy man wolf guy, but I speculate that it most certainly has something to do with the fact that they obviously wanted people to see Lon Chaney Jr. as a transformed wolf man, however they show the other wolf man as a fully formed wolf to keep their “transformed” look a surprise until closer to the end of the film… or something like that.
There’s even an unexpected hint of feminism in this film, pretty rare for this era I would think, since it is really only the early 1940s. This feminism I speak of stems from Larry Talbot’s love interest, Gwen, particularly in a scene where she defends herself when going into the forest alone with Larry on a date at the gypsy camp. Even her father jumps into her defense. I don’t even think Kay from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” was even as liberal as Gwen, and she doesn’t even faint, ever! You go girl! And raise your hands if you get excited by fog machines turned up to 11 and pumping out unnatural amounts of fake fog, cause I sure do!
While “The Wolf Man” is a short feature film, it manages to pack a great story and sufficient characterization into its limited time frame. It also has replay value because it is truly an enjoyable film that is really a testament to the Universal Monsters series. Really a great film all-around, and I would highly suggest watching this over the remake.