In just two weeks the much anticipated and much delayed remake of The Wolf Man comes howling into town. With that in mind, it strikes me that maybe we should go ahead and take another look at the original—and allow enough time for anyone so inclined to actually watch or rewatch the 1941 parent film.
George Waggner’s The Wolf Man was the third classic Universal horror I ever saw. Earlier the same summer I’d caught James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), but with a support group, which is to say I didn’t watch it alone. The Wolf Man, however, was the second feature—the first being Harold Young’s The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)—on the first broacast of Tampa’s Channel 13 “Shock Theater,” and I sat through them both alone. That wasn’t only a very manly thing to do at the age of nine, but watching two movies that started at 11:30 at night also marked the evening as the latest I’d ever stayed up. Very milestone stuff.
I don’t remember being terribly frightened by the films, but that was never much of an issue for me—at least once the ice was broken and I got past the basic fear of watching a “scary” movie. It had more to do with being transported into a fantasy world of imagination and a different time. (When you live in Lake Wales, Florida being transported to another world is pretty high on your agenda—even when you’re too young to know what an agenda is.) I can’t say that The Mummy’s Tomb made that much of an impact on me, but it wasn’t a bad opening act for my age. It did have a walking (or shuffing) mummy, a certain amount of atmosphere, a good musical score (mostly cobbled from other movies) and a fiery climax. When you’re nine that’s probably enough.
The Wolf Man, on the other hand, was simply wonderful—or so I thought then. I’m considerably more critical of it now, though I have a sentimental fondness for it. I also admire its atmosphere and musical score (a lot of which is also recycled) and its self-contained fairy tale feeling. The film also brims with several levels of subtext, which keeps it interesting even within its pretty signficant limitations. It’s also perhaps the most powerfully effective of all horror movies—for a pre-pubescent or pubescent boy. (Never having been a pre-pubescent or pubescent girl, I can’t say if it has a similar effect on the opposite sex.) If that sounds like I’m saying that it’s the perfect horror picture for 12-year-olds, I am. I also say that with no disrespect to the film, or to anyone past that age who finds it still resonates.
The storyline of The Wolf Man is hardly complex—at least in its final form, since much was changed from Curt Siodmak’s original screenplay. Essentially Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) comes home to Talbot Castle and his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), in Wales following the death of Larry’s older brother in a hunting accident. No sooner is Larry on his home (but foreign to him) turf than he falls for a pretty girl, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), whom he first spies—more than a little voyeuristically—through his father’s telescope. Realizing she lives over the family antique store, he pays a call as a customer looking for a pair of earrings he saw her try on in her bedroom. She won’t sell him the earrings, so instead he buys a walking stick with an odd solid silver hande—described by Gwen as “a very rare piece” that depicts the pentagram and the werewolf, explaining the werewolf sees the pentagram on the palm of his next victim’s hand.
Though Gwen doesn’t buy his claims that he knew about the earrings because he’s psychic, she’s sufficiently intrigued that she accompanies him to visit a newly arrived pair of gypsy fortune tellers, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) and her son, Bela (Bela Lugosi). She also takes her friend, Jenny (Fay Holm), as a kind of chaperone. As luck and compact scripting would have it, Bela is a werewolf, who sees the pentagram on the palm of Jenny’s hand, prompting him to send her away in the hopes of preventing the inevitable. When the inevitable happens after all, Larry attempts to rescue Jenny from what appears to be a wolf, which he bludgeons to death with his cane, being bitten by the supposed animal in the bargain. The problem is that when the authorities arrive there is no wolf—only dead Bela, minus his shoes.
From here the film charts a fairly straight course. The authorities think Larry accidentally killed Bela. Maleva knows the score, but Larry neither understands what’s happened, nor accepts the reality of it—at least until he transforms and goes out into the foggy night to kill a hapless gravedigger. Reason clashes with superstition—which no longer seems much like superstition—and, as Maleva might put it Larry comes to his “predestined end.” It’s a tight little story. In fact, that may be its greatest problem—it’s too tight.
There’s a feeling that the whole thing is too simple, too rushed. When the film seems to have just gotten good and started, it’s over. It’s tempting to blame this on the movie’s 70 minute running time (the new film is listed as being more than 30 minutes longer), but that’s hardly unusual for the era. Several of the acknowledged classic horror films of that time are even shorter and they don’t feel rushed. Nor is it the pacing of director George Waggner, whose first Lon Chaney Jr. horror outing made earlier that year, Man Made Monster, clocks in at a perfectly satisfying 59 minutes.
The problem seems to me to lie with a combination of the structure of the screenplay and an overstuffed cast. Siodmak’s screenplay is beautifully built up to the point of the first transformation of Larry into the Wolf Man, but after that it just doesn’t go much of anywhere, and some scenes—notably one in which the Wolf Man gets caught in a bear trap—are atmospheric, but seem like meandering tangents. But the cast situation may be even more of a problem. The Wolf Man assembled one of the best casts of any Universal horror—Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers—and then shuffles them in and out so much that you wonder why they bothered.
Some of the actors fare surprisingly well in this. Bela Lugosi has scarcely any screen time—only one real scene—but he at least manages to give a terrific performance, completely owning his little stretch of the film. Claude Rains is less well served, even though he gets top billing. He has some nicely plummy lines, but there’s not enough of them. Then there’s the bizarre notion that the diminutive Rains could be hulking Lon Chaney’s father. (This may be the result of a rewrite, since Larry was a visiting American and not a relative in the original script.) In fact, Rains spends his first scene with Chaney, eyeing the much taller actor as if trying to decide whether the late Mrs. Talbot had been indiscreet with the milkman. The others fare less well. The luckier ones—Warren William and Patric Knowles—get a moment or two where they come through. Ralph Bellamy, on the other hand, just seems to be in a bad mood over it all. Evelyn Ankers is saddled with a more than usually lame damsel in distress role. The whole film is largely given over to Chaney—and to a lesser extent Maria Ouspenskaya, whose Maleva remains easily her best-remembered role.
The Chaney factor is both the film’s biggest drawback and its greatest strength. He’s clearly out of his depth, but that’s strangely in his favor—both in terms of generating sympathy and in two aspects of the film’s subtext. This wasn’t Universal’s first attempt at a werewolf movie. Stuart Walker’s frankly superior Werewolf of London had been made in 1935, but failed to generate much excitement—something that was generally blamed on the unsympathetic character of its monster, Dr. Wilfrid Glendon (Henry Hull). In creating Larry Talbot, no such chances were being taken. Everything about Larry was geared toward making Larry sympathetic—including casting the awkward Lon Chaney.
Chaney’s persona and performance is exactly why The Wolf Man has such an appeal for younger viewers. He’s clumsy, bumptious and, even though he means well, he simply hasn’t got a clue. At a certain age—or even remembering being that age—it’s almost impossible not to identify with him. That the physical changes he’s going through can easily be read as an allegory of puberty makes this even more pronounced. He’s not merely out of place and uncomfortable, but his own body is betraying him and changing in ways he doesn’t understand. Moreover, he’s so incredibly and thoroughly American that he’s removed from the very world the film inhabits.
Whether or not Siodmak—or anyone involved—intended to make a statement on the topic of an American abroad, the results certainly do. I’m inclined to think that Siodmak did intend this—especially, since his original had the character as specifically American and not a returning, Americanized Brit. As such it’s an interesting and not unsympathetic portrait of Americans as genuinely nice, well-intentioned people, but with a penchant for getting in over their heads by barging into—even with the best motives—things they don’t completely understand. This, after all, is precisely how Larry gets bitten by the werewolf in the first place. He isn’t just a victim, he rushes into being one—and from completely selfless motives. That also works rather nicely in terms of the character as an awkward adolescent.
While all this works in the film’s favor—at least as reading the film as something more than a simple little horror movie—it’s hard to deny that Larry Talbot can get a little tiresome. This is something the film doesn’t help with its seemingly non-stop proliferation of shots of Larry looking baffled, terrified or confused. Rewatching The Wolf Man this morning, I realized that toward the end, I was close to being ready to throw something at the screen if I was treated to one more close-shot of troubled Larry.
There is yet another subtext—and perhaps the most unsettling one—to the film, and this is one that Siodmak did admit to deliberately including in the screenplay. The whole business of the werewolf being marked with a telltale five pointed star—Bela has one on his forehead, Larry has one on his chest—is a direct reference to persons, specifically Jews, being tattooed in Nazi concentration camps. It’s also hardly incidental that the werewolf sees the damning mark of a star on the hand of his next victim. Buried it may be, but this is the only reference to real-life horrors of this kind in any horror film of the era.
In the end, however, The Wolf Man is a seriously flawed classic. It doesn’t flow well and it doesn’t completely satisfy, no matter how intriguing it is under the surface. Some of this is obviously the result of changes that were made during the actual production. In Siodmak’s original, the viewer was never meant to see Larry as a werewolf, except in subjective shots, so we were never to know whether the lycanthropy was real or imagined by the character. (The idea is not wholly original, since it’s quite possible to read Guy Endore’s complex 1935 novel Werewolf of Paris in a similar light.) This probably accounts for the curious fact that Larry is shown tussling with a wolf and not a werewolf.
Other things are merely odd—or even sloppy. No matter how Larry is dressed when he transforms into the Wolf Man, he’s always wearing the same dark convict-suit-looking togs whenever he’s on the prowl. Even granting that Henry Hull’s werewolf in Werewolf of London paused don a muffler and cap in order to be less conspicuous, this is more of a stretch. First of all, Hull’s werewolf is less beast than, as the screenplay describes him, “neither man, nor wolf, but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both,” but more, I’d pay good money to see either of them fasten buttons with those claw hands. Then there’s the hysterically funny moment when the transformed Larry very daintily pulls up his pantlegs—presumably to keep the cuffs from getting went—before venturing out on his first murderous prowl. Who knew werewolves were so fastidious?
However, let’s not forget that the film is a handsome production on nearly every level.The fog-shrouded woods are a splendid set and are shot in such a way as to make them look far more expansive than the could possibly have been. Talbot castle may be a pretty obvious model (the cigarette smoke wafting out of the chimney doesn’t help), but the interiors are impressive—and either Waggner or art director Jack Otterson took a page from James Whale’s playbook and staged scenes against impressive windows with moody backings of leaves behind them. Plus, the score is remarkably good—and even when it’s borrowed from existing ones, it’s used so effectively that it doesn’t matter.
Beyond that, so much of the film—like the poem, “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,” and Maleva’s mournful, “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”—has become an indelible part of horror movie culture. So, too—for better or worse—has Chaney’s Wolf Man. There are better werewolves, but it’s the image of Chaney in this particular makeup that comes to mind when the term is mentioned. The film doesn’t have to be great, it’s too iconic to matter.
There is every chance that Joe Johnston and company may have made a better film with the upcoming The Wolfman. The trailer suggests a handsome production and a nicely acted one, even if Anthony Hopkins’ Sir John Talbot seems to have little or no connection to the Claude Rains version. That may not necessarily be a bad thing when you consider how little Rains has to do inthe original. (I have a hunch—which I’ll keep to myself—how the role has be re-imagined.) Benicio Del Toro, who is one of the film’s producer, has claimed the original as his favorite film and that’s a good sign right there. I’m also more than comfortable with Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving in the cast, and I would be OK with Geraldine Chaplin as Maleva if she hadn’t already played a Maleva knock-off in Uwe Boll’s unintentional laff-riot BloodRayne (2005).
It’s interesting that the new film has opted for a period setting (Victorian, it seems) while the original—though it looks like a period piece now—was a contemporary story. I’m not against it, but I’m not sure I understand the choice. I’ll be curious to see what was retained and what was excised—not to mention what’s been added. At this point, I’m not even sure whose musical score is on the film. First, it was Danny Elfman (his name is still on the trailers). Then it wasn’t, then it was…and now, I guess we’ll see and hear in two weeks. One thing seems certain—even if The Wolfman is a failure, it won’t be the kind of debacle that Van Helsing (2004) was. At bottom, however, I think the real question is whether or not The Wolfman can ever be as beloved a film as the original. Get back to me on that in about 70 years.