It matters very little that George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) is perhaps most notable for assembling one of the greatest casts of any horror movie and then giving them nothing much to do. It’s still the movie that has become ingrained in pop culture as the essential werewolf movie. Lon Chaney Jr.‘s turn as Larry Talbot—the lycanthrope of the title—became the role that would always be the centerpiece of Chaney’s career. Jack Pierce’s werewolf makeup became the standard look for a werewolf. Atmospheric photography by Joseph A. Valentine, a great musical score (from Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner) and a brisk pace sealed the deal. The fact that most kids discover horror pictures around the age of puberty has kept the torch burning, because The Wolf Man is the perfect horror film for that age group. Nostalgia has done the rest, but the film is certainly not without merit. It’s a horror essential.
It seems Larry could possibly be the son of Welsh castle-holder Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Explaining that Larry ran away to America covers the reason for his accent easily enough, but it does little to explain why Larry is about a foot taller than his father. (Perhaps oversexed gardeners weren’t the exclusive province of D.H. Lawrence.) Oh, well, Larry has returned to Wales because his older brother has been killed in a hunting accident, meaning he needs to take over as next in line for the castle and the estate.
Larry is a good-natured, if somewhat oafish fellow (in other words, much like the actor), who does his best to be agreeable and fit in—especially with Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), whom he first spots while testing out his father’s telescope. It is, in fact, she who sells him the now famous walking stick with the pentagram and the wolf’s head on it. And the stick comes in pretty handy that night when he rushes in to save Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm) from what he thinks is an attacking wolf. He kills the beast with the stick, but, of course, it was actually the werewolf form of Bela the Gypsy (Bela Lugosi). He’s also been bitten and we all know what that means. And what follows is a predictable tragedy—as all werewolf stories have to be.
What makes the film retain its popularity is that it has a pretty broad kid appeal—especially for adolescent boys who not only identify (however subconsciously) with the body changes Larry goes through, but also with the character’s basic awkwardness. Larry Talbot is clearly out of his element just being in Wales, but being in Wales and embroiled in something he completely doesn’t understand is the clincher, because that’s an almost perfect description of adolescence. (It also works as a commentary on how Americans don’t know what they’re getting into in Europe—a hard-to-ignore parallel, since the film was written by Curt Siodmak, a refugee from Nazi Germany.) If the movie gets ahold of you at the right age, it has you for life—and nostalgia takes care of the rest.
Looked at dispassionately, it’s an atmospheric B movie that surrounds its limited star with an A list of talent that neither he nor the movie are really worthy of. Of course, since they’re all pros—including Bela Lugosi, who a few years earlier might have been the lead—they give their all and make it a pretty fun time. And from Universal at this point in Universal’s history, that’s about the most you can reasonably hope for. Certainly, if you’ve never seen the film, you should. And if you have, well, a little nostalgia isn’t a bad thing.