Tales of shape-shifting are as old as civilization itself; perhaps because they tap into Darwin’s theory of evolution; providing a very concrete association between mankind’s present and that shadowy past as his so-called missing link. Throughout great literature, particularly within the realm of the fairy tale, this concept has manifested itself over and over again; Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Frog Princess, and, Puss in Boots; to name but a handful. But such stories are also grounded in religious debate – exploring the duality of goodness and evil in mankind, our eternal struggle to rise above those primordial instincts. During the Victorian age, freak shows dedicated to exploiting such human oddities were all the rage. Of particular interest were those mutants suffering from what appeared to be some sort of lycanthropy. Yet, despite this rich and varied history, today when the transformation of man into beast is conjured to mind, there really is only one creature that immediately comes to mind; George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941).
Universal, the studio that had established itself as Hollywood’s original house of horrors came to The Wolf Man via an intriguing screenplay by Curt Siodmak. It was not the studio’s first attempt at telling a man/beast tale. 1932’s Island of Lost Souls had provided Bela Lugosi and Charles Laughton the opportunity to play master and mate – the screenplay loosely based on H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Then in 1935, Henry Hull starred as the ill-fated sufferer in Werewolf of London; in hindsight a thoroughly compelling precursor and a harrowing, moody and ultimately satisfying foray, in retrospect, predicated far more on variations of Robert Lewis Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than ‘traditional’ European folklore. Ironically, the ‘traditions’ eventually and readily to become associated with The Wolf Man were not steeped in age-old legends, hushed rumors gleaned from folklore or even excised from great literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but rather sprung from Siodmak’s own fertile imagination.
Most of us have heard the lyrical poem, “Even a man who is pure of heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” We are also probably attuned to the understanding a wolf man can only be killed by a silver bullet or some such object made from the same metal. Or how about the concept of a transformation from man into beast, only possible with the appearance of a full moon? Yet these conventions did not exist before The Wolf Man. Universal was undeniably adept at creating its own mythology. But the studio had set aside an early treatment of what eventually became the basis for The Wolf Man, written by French émigré, Robert Florey; a proposed story about Christoph, a boy raised by wolves who murders his human parents, then experiences his own transformation into the beast while attempting to atone for his sins in a Catholic confessional. Fearful of censorship and denouncement by the Archdiocese, Universal shelved this gruesomely original story. After 1935’s Werewolf of London, the concept lay dormant until Siodmak latched on to it and began his own reinvention.
The Wolf Man was originally intended as a follow up for Boris Karloff, who had, by now, established himself as Universal’s resident ghoul. When Karloff proved unavailable, the project fell to relative unknown Lon Chaney Jr.; a rather tortured figure, whose pedigree could not have been more apropos. Chaney was, of course, the son of Lon Chaney Sr. – the oft’ billed man of a thousand faces; his career concocted from a motley assortment of self-destructive, evil and disfigured reprobates, roués and outright villains. Chaney Sr.’s legacy was undeniably in his son, Creighton Tull Chaney’s blood – the scourge of that acting bug his father sought to exorcise from him through forced contrition and frequently violent means. One can chose to regard Chaney Sr.’s motives remain debatable, either as flawed altruism (to spare his child the harsh realities of fame he knew all too well) or perhaps out of pure spite and jealousy to deny Creighton his place in the pantheon of horror immortality as his valiant successor.
When Chaney Sr. died of pneumonia, Creighton abandoned his father’s wishes for professional studies and followed in his father’s footsteps. It was hardly an effortless transition. The two men looked nothing alike and around Hollywood popular opinion dogged Chaney Jr., that he would never rival his father as the undisputed master of horror. Chaney’s early career bore out this criticism. He was cast as mere window-dressing in parts so tepid and inconsequential that to cumulatively lump them together as a ‘career’ would be kind in the extreme. But Chaney was to have a considerable breakthrough in Lewis Milestone’s stunning adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1939), playing the mentally challenged Lennie who inadvertently murders a young woman. The typecasting took and after Karloff bowed out of The Wolf Man, Universal turned to Chaney for their inspiration. His success as The Wolf Man would typecast Chaney for the rest of his career. He would, in fact, go on to play just about every other monster in the studio’s pantheon, mostly as second best in sequels like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). But The Wolf Man remained Chaney’s métier; the only classic monster played consistently by the same actor throughout a series of five movies.
Once again, Universal’s resident make-up guru, Jack Pierce created stunning appliances to transform Chaney’s rather soft facial features into his harsh and hairy alter ego, complete with rubber snout, cumbersome false teeth and grueling applications of spirit gum and singed yak hair. It is rumored Chaney spent nearly six hours in Pierce’s chair to put this make-up on and another three to painstakingly take it off. To complete the transformation, cinematographer Joseph Valentine employed a series of lap dissolves, Chaney lying perfectly still while Dawn repeatedly plied his techniques until the final transformation from man to beast was complete. Like the best of Universal’s classic frights, The Wolf Man is based on the principles of Aristotelian tragedy; our hero forced into villainy by uncontrollable circumstances dictating and brutalizing his fate.
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is the congenial younger son of a lord, Sir John (Claude Rains) who returns to his ancestral home, placed somewhere in Universal’s never-never-land of faux Europe, after the death of his elder brother. Larry is now the reluctant heir apparent to the family fortune. Never favored by his father before, Larry soon discovers Sir John has considerably softened toward him in the interim and now desires to reestablish their father/son relationship. Larry helps with the installation of a telescope in his father’s study – a holdover from a previous plot point jettisoned from the rewrite – the telescope now serving as the basis for Larry’s interest in local shopkeeper, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). Larry is tempted by the girl’s beauty and decides to make his introductions at her antique shop, electing to buy a walking stick whose silver-tip is in the shape of a wolf’s head. Gwen regales Larry with the tale of the werewolf – a man who morphs into a hairy beast when the full moon rises. Larry, of course, doesn’t believe a word of it. In the meantime, Frank Andrews (Patrick Knowles) is rather dismayed Gwen has taken more than a passing interest in the rather beefy Talbot. Frank had hoped to procure his own romance with the girl.
But when Gwen elects to go to a festival being given by a travelling band of gypsies in the nearby forest, she asks Larry to accompany her instead, along with her good friend, Jenny Williams (Fay Helm). While indulging in merriment and music at the gypsy camp Jenny attempts to have her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi) who sees a pentagram reflected in the palm of her hand. Bela knows what it all means and angrily orders Jenny to flee into the night and back to her home. Unhappy chance her hurried pace is not quick enough to escape the wolf man (curiously represented herein as a rather large dog). Jenny’s screams bring Larry and Gwen to her rescue. He manages to kill the beast with his silver-tipped cane but not before being bitten on the chest. The gypsy fortuneteller, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) forewarns Larry, having murdered the beast (actually Bela) will now succumb to a similar fate. It is Larry Talbot’s destiny he should stalk the earth forever as half man/half beast.
Larry, of course, does not believe any of this… at first. However, grief-stricken, he sneaks into the crypt later on to see for himself if the creature he killed in the foggy forest is, indeed, Bela. Discovering Bela’s body in the coffin, Larry is tormented by Maleva’s prophecy. Will it come true? He confides in Gwen, but finds himself struggling to come to terms with his affections. She is, of course, sympathetic, although kept in the dark. At the first full moon Larry is transformed into a wolf, stalking the grave yard and murdering one of its diggers. The mutilated remains are later discovered by Colonel Montford (Ralph Belamy) who traces the clues back to Talbot Hall and proceeds to question Larry about his whereabouts on the night of the murder. Having no basis to go on, Montford departs the estate. But Frank has grown increasingly suspicious of Larry. And why not? With Larry out of the way Frank would be free to pursue Gwen.
Larry attempts to find a cure for his condition. But Maleva assures him nothing will prevent the curse of the werewolf except Larry committing suicide. As he is unable - or at least unwilling - to take his own life, Larry continues to be secretive about the duality plaguing his heart, mind and soul – these uncontrollable impulses manifesting themselves in two more bloody attacks. Just as Maleva has forewarned, the werewolf seeks to murder that which he loves the most. Thus, Gwen becomes Larry’s target. While she is skulking about the foggy bog, Larry turns back into a wolf and attempts to strangle Gwen. Her screams bring Sir John and Col. Montford out of hiding. Sir John bludgeons the wolf man with Larry’s silver-tipped cane only to realize too late, in the penultimate moment, he has, in fact, murdered his own son; Maleva kneeling over the body to utter a prayer of peace for the release of Larry’s soul into heaven.
The Wolf Man was shot entirely on Universal’s back lot; Jack Otterson’s slightly redressed sets from Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame producing a very curious amalgam of 18th century Gothic Tyrolean Europe and then contemporary 20th century village chic; clothing, hairstyles, cars, technologies, etc. It is difficult to place what country we are in; the gypsies presumably Romanian; Sir John and Larry representing English gentry, Gwen and Jenny – a pair of Park Avenue princesses perplexingly transplanted into this reconstituted faux foreign landscape. The sense of foreboding spread throughout, is quite wonderful, a queer and all-pervasive spookiness; the misty marshes and twisted forest limbs creating a genuine and very palpable chill. The Wolf Man also benefits from an exquisite score by Hans J. Salter, Charles Previn and Frank Skinner; richly themed with melodic leitmotifs; in short, an A-list effort to elevate the dramatic ballast in the visuals.
And then, of course, there is the cast to consider. The Wolf Man is perhaps the most perfectly cast of all Universal’s horror classics. Lon Chaney Jr. imbues Larry Talbot with a genuine sense of dark, purposeful sympathy; the veneer between Chaney’s own childhood angst brought to bear on Larry’s apprehensive father/son relationship with Sir John. Claude Rains was, of course, a Universal favorite since 1933’s The Invisible Man, and would reappear as the masterful ghoul in the studio’s lavish remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1945). In The Wolf Man Rains is the mellifluous voice of sanity and reason; the benevolent patriarch who must sacrifice his only child to spare the world an unspeakable terror.
Evelyn Ankers was a Universal contract player perennially cast as the savvy, though never sassy, girl with a good head on her shoulders. Her role as Gwen really doesn’t strain her acting prowess, though it remains competently engaging. The other two standouts are Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya; the former forever associated with Universal’s blood-thirsty Count Dracula, the latter the pluperfect example of a golden-age Hollywood character actress. Ouspenskaya was also a much sought after acting coach. Her Maleva is a powerful, almost demonic presence; mentally raped by her angst-ridden understanding of the underworld she is powerless to convey until Larry’s tragic fate has been fulfilled. In the last analysis, The Wolf Man retains a rather morbid enthrallment for tales of the transmogrified; elevating the genre of horror from mere fright-fest into artistic and emotional intense high drama.
Yet another single disc parceled off from its Classic Monsters box set, Universal Home Video seems intent on giving us the same discs repackaged over and over again. It’s hard to be bitter, though, when The Wolf Man features one of the finest 1080p transfers of any vintage B&W movie currently on Blu-ray; thanks to a formidable restoration effort of the original nitrate elements. This is a reference quality mastering effort, free of virtually all but a few very minor age-related imperfections. The B&W image exhibits startling clarity, depth and detail. Contrast is bang on, mid-range tonality revealing minute details in hair, fabrics and skin. Close-ups of Lon Chaney Jr. in his wolf man makeup are startlingly realized. The image is exceptionally crisp and clean and film grain is accurately represented. The DTS mono is exquisite and will surely not disappoint, picking up subtler nuances in music cues and eliminating virtually all hiss during quiescent scenes. You are going to love – LOVE – this presentation.
Extras are plentiful, starting with Tom Weaver’s academic, but thoroughly engrossing audio commentary. Director John Landis delves into werewolf lore with, Monster by Moonlight; the half hour featurette that gives a solid overview of The Wolf Man franchise and enduring legacy. There’s also The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth, a brief glimpse into Curt Siodmak evolution of the screenplay. Add to this a forty minute retrospective on Lon Chaney Jr. entitled ‘Pure of Heart’, and a half hour featurette on the artistry of Jack Pierce. Once again, Universal fleshes out the extras with a litany of poster art, marketing stills and other on-set photos, plus trailers for all of their ‘wolf man’ franchise. All of these extras were originally produced for Universal’s monster franchise DVD box sets back in 1999. So don’t expect them to be in HD. The quality is average to just below, but the wealth of information they provide is both comprehensive and indispensable. Bottom line: highly recommended – provided you don’t already own the Universal Classic Monsters box set released last year.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)