If the classic movies covered so far constitute Phase I of the Universal cinematic monster-verse, The Wolf Man kicks off Phase 2. Made in 1941, this film gave Universal a new monster who would go on to unite several of their franchises during subsequent crossover pictures. In true Hollywood fashion, it also relied on at least three distinct horror legacies to bolster its street cred while launching something new.
Pedigree and legacy aside, The Wolf Man’s title character is also a monster unlike any of the characters yet seen in Dracula, The Mummy, or either of the Frankenstein movies. This opens up new opportunities for story-telling, and the movie explores the most obvious ones in ways that future movies would go on to rehash in increasingly less interesting ways.
Without further ado, let’s head to the moors and talk about some spoilers!
[SPOILERS, SUCH AS THEY ARE, FOLLOW]
The Wolf Man succeeds at one of its main goals: adding a new monster icon to Universal’s menagerie. Coming than 10 years after Dracula and Frankenstein, nine years after The Mummy, and six years after The Bride of Frankenstein, Larry Talbot / Wolf Man was the first lasting addition to the core Universal monster lineup in a while.
From a production and development standpoint, The Wolf Man contains many of the standard ingredients for a successful Universal monster movie.
- We get supporting roles played by regulars from the Universal horror stable, including Bela Lugosi himself as the creatively named fortune-teller Bela and the inimitable Claude Rains – Universal’s Invisible Man himself – as Larry Talbot’s father Sir John. (That the difference in physical stature between Rains and Lon Chaney, Jr., makes their father-son relationship seem implausible does not diminish the delight in seeing Rains on screen, even if it’s in a role that doesn’t demand much of him.)
- The look of the monster is great and would go on to be a standard reference point for similar creatures in the popular understanding.
- The visuals – especially in this case, the transformation effects – while obviously dated by today’s standards, are nonetheless effective and would go on to inspire others to even greater triumphs.
With all that said, the actual substance of The Wolf Man is a little less impressive than one would hope.
The best comparison point here is probably The Mummy, as that story, too, drew on a loose collection of influences rather than a single literary antecedent. While most of the male human characters in The Mummy were more or less useless, the movie at least found some drama whenever Im-ho-tep’s clear motivation was at odds with the heroine’s agency. The monster himself inspired some feeling on the part of the audience, even if many of the rest of the movie’s elements were less than impressive.
The Wolf Man is in many ways the opposite (although it does have background racism similar to The Mummy, albeit this time directed at the Romani instead of Egyptians). Many of the supporting characters are more interesting than the eponymous monster (in either wolf or man form), and Lon Chaney, Jr., is no Boris Karloff when it comes to rendering an interesting monster. The makeup and special effects are doing much of the work in this one, especially because the script doesn’t do Talbot many favors, either.
The core idea of werewolves that this movie is trying to explore is the tension between human reason and animal appetite. In this case, though, the catch is that Larry Talbot, Human, is still pretty much a creature of appetites. Sure, he’s picked up some practical skills with glasswork and telescopes, but the only thing we actually see him do with the telescope is spy on a pretty woman (Gwen Conliffe, played by Evelyn Ankers). His peeping Tom moment is followed up by brazenly hitting on Gwen in her family store, and in doing so making clear that he is spying on her. Indeed, the majority of the actions we see him take as a human prior to his werewolf-ification involve sexually pursuing Gwen.
Larry Talbot, Wolf, is less sexual and more randomly lethal. His acts of violence appear largely unmotivated, which make him less interesting than any of the previous Universal heavy hitters. If this were balanced out by better development of his human side, that would be one thing. Since the human side isn’t as well developed, swinging from horniness to confusion to fear tinged with guilt over the course of the movie with few sympathetic notes along the way, the tension is not as great as it could be, to the movie’s detriment.
If one is going to tell a werewolf story that is essentially a more canine version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one needs a better Jekyll than we get here. Additionally, one gets the sense that this particular story was already somewhat played out at the time of the movie’s release, since the movie-going public had seen one of the definitive versions of the Jekyll and Hyde story in the silent film starring John Barrymore some 20 years earlier in 1920. Other versions of Jekyll and Hyde came out in 1931 and in 1941, the latter being released roughly three months before The Wolf Man. Indeed, the number of film adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde before and after this movie is somewhat staggering.
Given how thoroughly trod that territory is and was, The Wolf Man does very little original from a dramatic standpoint. Yes, the transformation into a wolf man is a different physical form than the transformation into Mr. Hyde, but not different enough to create something original in the absence of a compelling human/Jekyll version of the character. Of course, it would be possible for an actor to elevate the material, but Lon Chaney, Jr., sadly does not have the chops needed to make the human version of Larry Talbot work.
All of which is a shame, as werewolf stories done well can go into some fascinating places. I’ll be covering an example of that soon with a post on Ginger Snaps. In the meantime, we can still be grateful to The Wolf Man for keeping the Universal monster movies alive, even with its shortcomings.