Tom "Creature Features" Pinsonneault harkens to the power of the moonlight with his look at another Universal Monster classic: The Wolfman (1941)!
Review by: Tom "Creature Features" Pinsonneault
Creepy Classic Reviews Presents:
THE WOLFMAN (1941)
Directed And Produced By George Waggner
Written By Curt Siodmak
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Fay Helm, Maria Ouspenskaya, Bela Lugosi, Warren William, Patric Knowles
There have been many different versions of werewolves in film and literature over the years, but the one that seems to resonate the most in popular culture is Universal Studio's "The Wolfman", with Lon Chaney Jr.
Shortly after the smashing success of "Frankenstein", Universal was eager for new film projects for their new iconic horror superstar, Boris Karloff. The company purchased a screenplay entitled "The Wolfman" by French screen writer Robert Florey. The original treatment consisted of a young Bavarian boy kidnapped and raised by wolves after they had attacked and devoured his family. He somehow becomes a werewolf shortly after his rescue, turning into a snarling beast for the first time inside a church confesional. This was considered a bit too extreme at the time by studio execs, who were nervous about what type of reaction they might receive from the Catholic church. The project was put on hold for a few years until Universal released "Werewolf Of London" in 1935. Certain aspects of Florey's Wolfman script were used in this movie, but it was considered by audiences and critics far too similar to Paramount Studio's "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde", and flopped at the box office. As the 1940's began, Universal needed to pump some new life into their horror movie library. Despite Werewolf of London's failure six years previous, they decided to dust off Florey's original script, make a few changes, and try again. Unfortunately, Boris Karloff was well into his fifties at this point, and felt he was a bit too old to play the title role. Enter character actor Creighton Chaney, son of legendary silent film star Lon Chaney. (a man we will most assuredly be discussing in a future installment of Creepy Classic Reviews)...Creighton had been working very hard to get out from under his famous father's enormous shadow, and had acquired a great deal of success on his own, culminating in critical acclaim for his role as Lenny in "Of Mice And Men" (1939)...As his fame began to grow, Creighton reluctantly agreed to allow Universal to bill him as "Lon Chaney Jr.", and later on in his career simply "Lon Chaney". Junior had tried out for the role of Quasimodo in the remake of his father's ground-breaking film, "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" (1923), but lost out to Charles Laughton. Universal liked him, however, and offered him the role of what would eventually become his most famous; The Wolfman.
The plot is pretty straightforward; Larry Talbot (Chaney) returns home to Europe (in an unspecified country) after an eighteen year absense to reunite with his estranged father, astronomer John Talbot (Claude Rains) after his older brother's untimely death in a hunting accident. We learn that Larry was unhappy with the fact that his older brother was the heir apparent to the estate, but the two men decide to bury the hatchet and immediately get to work repairing their relationship. Later that morning, Larry helps Sir John assemble a new telescope for the estate's observatory. After his father departs, Larry continues to test the telescope, looking down over the nearby village. He notices a lovely young lady inside an antique shop, and decides to go into town and meet her. After a brief flirtation, Larry learns she is the shop owner's daughter, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). As the two playfully banter back and forth, Larry notices a collection of walking sticks. One in particular catches his eye; a silver wolf's head cane with a pentagram (five poined star) in a circle. Curious, Larry asks what that means, and Gwen explains that the pentagram is the sign of the werewolf, a man who changes into a beast when the moon is full, and how the pentagram always appears in the palm of the werewolf's next victim. When Larry scoffs at the notion, Gwen explains that the legend of the werewolf is very old, and recites a poem 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..."
Intrigued, Larry decides to purchase the walking stick, and tries unsuccessfully to get Gwen to go out with him. As she walks him out the door, they notice a gypsy caravan arriving in town and Larry again asks Gwen to join him that evening, perhaps getting their fortunes told by the gypsies. Gwen reluctantly agrees, provided her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) can come along. Later that evening, as the trio walk to the gypsy camp on the outskirts of town, Jenny notices some wolfbane blooming nearby, and playfully recites the same poem Gwen told to Larry earlier that day. It seems ALL the locals are apparently familiar with it. Arriving at the camp. Jenny excitedly asks to have her fortune told first. Larry and Gwen wander off into the woods, and Gwen explains that she is engaged to another man, although she gives the impression that she is not too comfortable with that engagement. Back at the camp, a gypsy man, Bela (Bela Lugosi) takes Jenny into a tent, and as he takes her palm, notices the sign of the pentagram in it. Reacting in horror, he tells her to run away, and she flees into the foggy night. As she runs, an eerie howl is heard in the distance, and she is soon set upon by what appears to be a large wolf. Hearing her screams, Larry and Gwen try and help her, and Larry manages to beat the wolf to death with the silver edge of his wolf's head cane, but not before being bit by the animal himself. Collapsing, he is taken by wagon back to his father's estate by Gwen and an old gypsy woman, Maleva (Maria Ouspenkaya). We quickly learn that Jenny was killed in the attack. Later that evening, an investigation gets underway, led by Larry's childhood friend Paul Montford (Ralph Bellamy) who is now the village Constable. Montford and his men discover Jenny's body, and the body of Bela the gypsy, who is also dead, his skull shattered and some wolf tracks in the soft ground. Nearby they find Larry's silver walking stick. Montford becomes suspicious and questions Larry, who claims to have killed a wolf, not a man. Montford's suspicion grows when Larry has no wounds to show, even though he insists the wolf bit him...Sir John theorizes that Bela was killed by accident, during the confusing melee in the darkened foggy night as he and Larry rushed to Jenny's aid. Temporaily satisfied with that explanation, and at the request of the Talbot family physician Dr Lloyd (Warren Williams), Constable Montford agrees to back off his investigation.
Later the next night, Larry goes into town and watches as Bela's casket is placed at the local church. Maleva, the elderly gypsy woman, comes by to preform a pagan ritual to send Bela's spirit off. Larry watches from the shadows, and after she leaves he becomes distraught, blaming himself for Bela's death...The next day, Larry goes to see Gwen, and as they are talking she is visited by her fiance, Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles ) who happens to care for all the animals on the Talbot estate.. Frank was apparently out taking his dog for a walk, and the small animal reacts in fear at Larry's presense, barking and growling incessantly...later that evening, Larry finds himself drawn back to the gypsy camp. There, Maleva sees him and invites him into her tent. She tells Larry that Bela was a werewolf, and that these beasts can only be killed by silver bullts or knives, or by being beaten by a silver club...Larry reacts in disbelief, thinking the old woman is insane. Maleva knows Larry has been bitten, and gives him a charm to wear over his heart, explaining that this might "break the curse"...Larry agrees, and as he is leaving Maleva orders the gypsies to leave the area. On his way out, Larry runs into Gwen and offers to take her home. She notices the charm, and the fact that it's a pentagram. Larry tells Gwen the old gypsy woman thinks he's a werewolf, and then gives HER the charm to wear for protection.
Larry returns home, and as the moon rises later that evening, he does indeed transform into a werewolf, and begins to prowl the countryside. He attacks and kills a local gravedigger, and his ferocious howls are heard by the townspeople. The next morning, Larry awakens back home, barefoot, seemingly without any memory of the previous night, with the muddy footprints of a wolf leading up to his window and inside his room. As he nervously tries to clean the footprints at the windowsill, he notices Constable Montford in the distance following the tracks back to the Talbot estate. Dressing, and going downstairs, Sir John tells him that a wolf is apparently prowling the forest outside the village. Larry begins to realize with growing horror that he may indeed be a werewolf. After a trip to church later that morning, Larry notices the frightened towns people, and upon returning home confesses to being a werewolf in front of Sir John, Dr. Lloyd, Constable Montford, and Frank Andrews. None of them believe him, especially after Dr. Lloyd suggests that Larry may be mentally unstable. Unfortunately, Sir John refuses to let Larry be committed, and later that same evening, The Wolfman prowls again. This night however, he is caught in a bear trap laid out by the local hunters, and passes out from the pain...as the hunters close in on him, he is discovered by Maleva, who utters a spell temporarily reverting Larry back to human form, where he is able to slip easily out of the bear trap. As the hunter's arrive, Larry cleverly pretends to be out hunting for the wolf himself...Making his escape, Larry flees to Gwen's house, informing her that he has to run away, admitting that he killed Bela and the gravedigger. Gwen tells him she isnt afraid, reminding him that she still has the gypsy charm. As she holds it up to him, Larry sees the sign of the pentagram in her palm, and realizes she will be his next victim...Larry runs away, back to the estate. There he tries to convince his father that he is a werewolf, and Sir John still refuses to believe. However, he decides to humor Larry and agrees to tie him up into a large wooden chair. He hopes this will prove that all the talk of werewolves is in Larry's mind. He informs Larry he has to go join the men in that evening's wolf hunt, and Larry begs him to take the silver cane with him. Sir John reluctantly agrees...As the moon rises, we learn that ropes alone are not enough to hold the Wolfman, who is soon prowling the fog filled night once again. He easily seems to evade the hunters, who's bullets are useless against him. He spots Gwen who has followed Larry to the estate, and he begins to stalk her. The Wolfman attacks, and Gwen passes out. As The Wolfman closes in for the kill, Sir John appears out of the fog and repeatedly strikes the Wolfman with the silver tipped cane, killing him. Maleva arrives, and as she says a prayer over the Wolfman's body, he slowly returns to human form, revealing to a grief-stricken Sir John his now dead son....Frank, Constable Montford, and the rest of the hunters arrive, and as Gwen regains conciousness, she hears Montford theorize that the wolf attacked Gwen, and Larry must have come to her rescue...
As classic horror movies go, this is easily one of the best. Great acting by all involved, especially Chaney Jr., who gives us a Larry Talbot who at first comes off as charming and engaging, but soon after deteriorates into an angst filled bundle of nerves. I also really enjoyed Evelyn Ankers performance here as well. I've seen her in many movies, and one of the things that always strikes me about her, besides her apparent beauty, is her voice which has a distinct, somewhat musical sound to it. Reminds me a bit of Judy Garland. I have no idea if Ms. Ankers was a singer, but i wouldn't be surprised if she was. ( If anyone knows for sure, please shoot me a PM)...After the performances however, the next obvious cool thing about this movie is the make-up and set designs. Make-up was once again handled by legendary Universal "go-to guy" Jack Pierce. Jack's design for The Wolfman utilized small appliances, suggesting a wolf's snout. This allowed Chaney to use his eyes and facial expressions to great effect, creating a unique and frightening visage which is remembered to this day. The sets are nothing short of magnificent, whether they be a sprawling castle, European village, or fog-filled marsh. I know these scenes were shot on Universal's back lot, but i have never been able to find any info on who exactly designed them (again; if someone knows, please let ME know).Curt Siodmak's script is very well-paced and introduced many of the concepts regarding werewolves into Hollywood history still being used today, such as their vulnerability to silver, the mark of the pentagram, and forced shape-shifting under a full moon. This, along with a moody, emotional score by composers Frank Skinner, Hans Salter, and Charles Previn combine to shoot The Wolfman into the upper echelon of Universal's classic monsters, and establish this movie as a true creepy classic!
- Tom "Creature Features" Pinsonneault