"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." – Old Eastern European proverb (according to Universal Studios)
Ah, the wolfman – Lon Chaney Junior’s “baby” – the role he undertook from the beginning of the franchise and ran with, having earlier inherited the mantle of the Frankenstein monster in Ghost of Frankenstein and soon to inherit the role of Dracula (travelling under that old chestnut of Alucard) in Son of Dracula before also getting under the bandages of The Mummy in a trilogy of films that signalled the end of the Universal Monsters. (Until one last encore alongside Abbott and Costello).
To be fair, although Ghost of Frankenstein is a pretty good entry in the series and has an awesome scene of the Monster recharging itself in a lightning storm, and Son of Dracula is in fact a darker movie than it seems when you realise that nobody actually wins the day at the end of the film and the settings of the Louisiana swamps add a lot to the story and the atmosphere – the trouble is Chaney himself. He’s a one-note player, delivering his lines in a morose monotone. His frame is chubby rather than imposing, and his face far too leaden with jowls to be truly menacing. Sadly he just didn’t have the stature or the presence to fill the shoes vacated by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
He’s an actor more suited to westerns than horror, but then he had his father’s legacy for Universal to exploit. BUT – having said that, his earnest and innocent performance of Lenny in Of Mice and Men is hard to beat.
When I first heard about The Wolfman, I guess I might have only been about ten years old. I don’t think I saw the film for a few years to come, being dependent on one of the two TV channels we had back then to show it. But I remember being excited that there actually was a monster movie set in my native Wales, around the village of Llanwelly. I also remember excitedly checking an atlas to see how close to my home town Llanwelly really was – not realising at that tender age, that the village was as phoney as the old proverb that I’ve quoted above. It all came from the fertile imagination of scriptwriter Curt Siodmak.
Siodmak also practically wrote the “rules” that govern werewolves in movies and on TV to this day. Changing into a wolf at the full moon if you’re bitten by a werewolf? Yeh, that’s Siodmak. Death by silver bullet? (Or in this case being bludgeoned to death by something silver) – Siodmak again.
It’s these additions and enhancements to the lore of the werewolf that set The Wolfman apart from The Werewolf of London, which was Universal Studios’ first werewolf movie (actually the first werewolf movie anywhere, I believe) and totally unrelated to this one.
The film open with Laurence (Larry) Talbot (Chaney) returning home to the the Talbot estate in Wales after being away in America for eighteen years. It seems his older brother, heir to the estate, has died in a hunting accident and he is now the next in line. Greeting him is his abrupt and aloof father Sir John Talbot, who wastes no time in putting Larry to work fitting a new lens on a large astronomical telescope in the attic observatory they have in Talbot Castle.
Not that he’s a pervert, but Larry scans the nearby village and watches Gwen Conliffe (super screamer Evelyn Ankers) get changed, as he can see right in to her bedroom window. (Yeah – this dude’s already a wolf…)
Anyhow, he goes over to the Conliffe shop, an antiques joint, to make his advances, all of which are spurned in just about the most flirtatious way possible. While there he buys a walking stick with an impressive (and large) handle depicting a snarling wolf’s head and a pentagram – the sign of the werewolf. To illustrate the point, Gwen recites the old poem. They kind of/sort of/not quite arrange to meet that night, as a gypsy troupe of fortune tellers arrives in the village, consisting of Maleva -an elderly mother and her gruff son, Bela (Bela Lugosi).
As Larry, Gwen and a hanger on friend of Gwen’s go and have their fortunes told, they notice the wolfbane blooming in the full moonlight.
The nuisance hanger on has her fortune told first – or would have had her fortune told if she actually had a future beyond the next three minutes. Bela sees the pentagram in her hand. Werewolves see the sign on their next victims. He orders her to leave, which panicked, she does. She’s not quick enough, though – Wolf-Bela transforms into a wolf and gets her.
Larry goes to the rescue and kills the wolf with his stick. But when the mist clears, it’s Bela’s body laid out on the moors. But – Larry has been bitten and now carries the curse of the wolf. He’ll turn at the full moon. Oddly though, when Larry battles Wolf-Bela, he’s actually fighting a wolf (Or at least, Chaney’s own German Shepherd, called “Moose”). When Larry turns, he turns into a bipedal human-like creature with a lot of yak hair and a rubber nose glued to his face. It’s never explained why this one seems to be a totally different species to the Bela-Wolf. In my imagination, it’s because the longer you’re a werewolf, the more wolf-like you become every time. I’ve held on to that theory since my early teens and I’m still sticking to it forty years later.)
However, this doesn’t explain why, during his transformation he sits in a chair despairing of his suddenly hairy leg in his trousers and vest, but when he’s stalking around the moors, he’s not only wearing a shirt, but in his animal state, he’s actually taken the time to button it up neatly. (I was going to point out the impossibility of this in that wolves, like dogs, don’t have thumbs – but I’ve checked my Wolfman Sideshow collectibles figure and that shows thumbs, so there goes that argument.)
Throughout the film, The Wolfman kills but one person – a gravedigger who seemingly digs graves in the middle of the night (????) but the following night the villagers are ready for the wild beast.
Naturally, nobody believes Larry’s tall tale about being a wolf, so to cure him of his delusion, Sir John ties him to a chair facing a window so he can watch the hunt for the wolf. (Ya gotta be cruel to be kind.)
However, the bestial power of the lupine fiend are stronger than the ties that bind him to the chair and he’s scampering out in the woods again before you can bark at the moon, he’s about to attack Gwen.
Sir John brutally bludgeons him repeatedly with his own stick that Larry gave him earlier. Now this is a hell of a beating, and when the Wolfman reverts back to his human form, it’s really surprising that Larry is even recognisable, his head should have been caved in with the ferocity of his father’s attack.
The final words are Maleva’s and I love this dialogue:
“The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.Now you will have peace for eternity!"
The most morose werewolf in film history is at peace and would remain so until Universal decreed his resurrection the following year.
Check it out here.
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