The Wolf Man was Universal Studios’ 6th classic monster to hit the big screen (After Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Bride) and the only one to debut in the 1940s.
Technically, The Wolf Man (1941) was Universal’s 2nd attempt at launching a werewolf-centric project after 1935’s tremendously underrated but financially unsuccessful Werewolf of London. That film was markedly different than what would come 6 years later when George Waggner directed Lon Chaney Jr. to strangle folks in a foggy cemetery. First off, the makeup on Henry Hull’s creature was rather minimalist. The bushy full face of hair, long claws, and lifted arches of the foot are noticeably absent. The wolf wears a hat and coat (as the prime English canine gentleman he is) and appears to be slightly more aware of both his appearance and the perceived immorality of his blood lust. A bizarre flower, found high in Tibet, is the elixir as opposed to silver, a plot point not introduced into the official Wolf Man canon until House of Frankenstein but definitely implied in the climax of the film when Sir Talbot strikes the beast repeatedly with his wolf’s head cane. Most shocking of all, despite the fact that both monsters appear under the full moon, an actual shot of the full moon is nowhere to be found in The Wolf Man.
The Wolf Man likely succeeded where Werewolf of London failed because the name Lon Chaney was on the marquee, albeit with the suffix “Jr.” Because the film was so successful, the character of Lawrence Talbot would later appear in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the aforementioned House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Werewolf fiction would forever be shadowed by the rules and conventions it established. It built an entirely new mythology, inspired by Eastern European folklore but wholly its own. In fact, it had no literary source from which to draw inspiration at all. The first of the Universal Monsters with no pre-existing source material. Frankenstein was adapted from the original Gothic novel, the brainchild of English novelist Mary Shelley. Dracula was culled from Bram Stoker’s late 19th century novel of the same name and had been first filmed during the German Expressionist period as Nosferatu in 1922. Though without authorization from Bram’s widow I might add. The Invisible Man was first a Victorian novel by the great Science Fiction author H.G. Wells and The Mummy was little more than a remake of Dracula, monsters interchanged.
Today, The Wolf Man stands as the most well-known and beloved werewolf picture of all time and it certainly deserves its reputation. Lawrence Talbot, whom strangely enough has not a hint of an English accent though he supposedly grew up in England and has Claude “The Invisible Man” Rains as a father, is back home to visit when he sets his eyes on the lovely shop owner across the street (played by longtime Chaney collaborator and non-fan Evelyn Ankers). He finally talks her into a walk through the park and, after having his fortune told by an ominous Bela Lugosi , is attacked by a four-legged wolf creature. He beats it to death (It’s body reverting to its human form to reveal the fortune teller as the monster) and escapes. Later he discovers it was a werewolf that attacked him and now, when the full moon arrives, he too changes and begins to fatally maul people in the woods at night.
First, let’s address a few of the glaring issues with the movie. One, why was Lugosi a four-legged wolf and yet Lon is fully bipedal? Second, why does The Wolf Man strangle his victims as opposed to eviscerating them with his claws and fangs? Wait, I think I can answer that second question. This movie was post-motion picture code! We would have to wait 20 years until Oliver Reed became a bloodthirsty beast in Hammer’s 1961 classic The Curse of the Werewolf before we got to see any actual bloodshed on the wolf front. Then there’s of course the whole, “how the hell does Chaney not have a single hint of an English accent” thing I mentioned earlier.
Maria Ouspenskaya delivers an award-worthy performance as Maleva, the old Gypsy woman and mother of Bela, and Patric Knowles, Ralph Bellamy, and Warren William round out the cast most excellently.
As with all the classic Universal Horror films, it has an unmistakably Gothic atmosphere, filled with droopy trees, gaslight, cobble stone, mountains of fog, and a memorable score courtesy of Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, and Frank Skinner.
If you’ve never seen the original Wolf Man, do so now. Or you’re forever barred from labeling yourself a horror fan. With all the Twilights and Underworlds of the world, you might be so inclined to think you know werewolf flicks. This is where it all began. 4 out of 4 stars.