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Posts Tagged ‘The Wolf Man’

Most people, if shown a movie, could probably take a pretty good stab at guessing when it was produced. Even without the obvious clues – well-known dialogue, famous stars – there are all manner of subtle little technical and stylistic things that can tip one off to the time a film was made. Most of the time the evolution of cinema as a visual art form seems quite gradual, with only tiny incremental changes – but then, to stick with the evolutionary analogy, there are occasional moments of punctuated equilibrium, when things change quickly and drastically: the arrival of sound, and then colour; the introduction of a format like cinemascope; the arrival of the modern blockbuster around the time of a revolution in special effects technology; the rise of CGI.

All of these are obviously huge changes, but sometimes you look back at an old film – or, strictly speaking, a couple of old films – and you are struck by the fact even during those apparently static periods of slow and gradual change, progress was still taking place.

By the time that George Waggner directed The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal Picture’s initial cycle of monster and horror movies had been underway from a decade: as well as the initial versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the studio had also made The Invisible Man and various follow-ups like The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. They’d also had a go at a werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, without much success (consensus is that it was a bit too similar to a recently-released Jekyll and Hyde movie).

This second take on the theme of lycanthropy is done more in the style of Frankenstein and Dracula, by which I mean it occurs in what feels almost like the borderland between the real world and something out of a fairy tale. This sense is only heightened by the decision to set it in Wales – presumably as distant, exotic and romantic a land as central Europe, as far as most Universal executives were concerned. Certainly, in terms of authentic Welshness, the film is about one percent convincing.

There’s something very odd about the near-total refusal of American horror movies in the first half of the 1940s to engage with real world events of the period, but there we go: it’s practically a genre convention at this point not to mention the war then raging. Certainly nobody mentions it in and around the country estate of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), where much of the film takes place. Tragedy has recently struck the family with the death of his eldest son and heir, occasioning the return from America (naturally) of his estranged younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.). (The age gap between Rains and Chaney is, if we’re going to be exact, about seventeen years, or, to put it another way, not quite big enough to convince). Larry initially seems like an amiable, well-meaning guy, which is what the plot requires, although events soon take a rather odd turn.

Sir John’s pride and joy is a big telescope, which he appears to use to spy on the local village as much as for astronomical research, and Larry avails himself of this too: and soon he is peering at the most beautiful girl in the village (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom. What can I say – autres temps, autres moeurs. Soon he is beetling down to the village to chat her up properly, apparently not having clocked that it’s a bad idea to admit to ogling someone through a long lens when asking them out.

Still, it’s Wales, and they do things differently there. Having bought a cane with a silver wolf on its pommel (yes, all kinds of plot is brazenly being laid in here) from young Gwen’s shop, Larry ends up taking her and her friend Jenny to the local gypsy camp for what must constitute some very cheap and not very thrilling thrills. The other two go off for an evening walk while Jenny gets her palm read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, all Bela can read in her palm is a pentagram, which translates as ‘imminent death’.

Yes, Bela Lugosi is a werewolf in this one, though he is let off having to put on the makeup: he turns into an actual wolf. Bela attacks Jenny and Larry has a go at saving her, bashing Bela on the head with his silver cane and getting nipped in the process. Needless to say this kind of incident causes a stir, even in Wales. The natives get ugly and dark imprecations are muttered, blaming Larry for the whole thing.

Needless to say Larry has problems of his own, as Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) fills him in on the details of being a werewolf. (The age gap between Lugosi and Ouspenskaya is only six years, which I suppose makes the Rains-Chaney gap seem a bit more reasonable.) Soon Larry finds his toes getting hairier and hairier, and he is gripped by savage primal urges…

(In an odd deviation from what you might expect, the film never provides the full man-into-monster transformation sequence, beyond a shot of Chaney’s bare feet gradually turning into something more like paws. There’s also obviously something rum about the fact that it seems like the very first thing the wolf man does after changing into a savage, inhuman beast is put his shirt back on – I mean, there were obviously very good reasons for not wanting to have to make up Chaney’s arms and shoulders, it’s just a weird bit of continuity.)

What’s obviously missing from all of this is any real mention of the full moon as the trigger for the wolf man’s appearances, and what’s unexpectedly present is a sort-of association between werewolves and Satanism (the pentagram which both Bela and Talbot are marked with, and see on their victims). So we are still in a kind of half-way house between the folkloric werewolf (very much akin to a vampire) and the Hollywood breed, which this film did the most to inaugurate.

Still, the film’s innovations came to be ‘how werewolves are’, in terms of popular culture, in the same way that the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein likewise define their subjects. Not bad going, considering that Lon Chaney Jr isn’t quite in the same league as Karloff or Lugosi (I always find him to be a stolid, doughy sort of performer), and the wolf man make-up also leaves something to be desired: if the film was called The Boar Man it would probably be better, but I can understand that was never going to fly.

Here we come to an odd thing: for while The Wolf Man is appreciably not up to the same standard as the first Universal monster movies and lacks some of their iconic power, it is – by almost any rubric – an appreciably slicker, more competent, more modern production. Tod Browning’s film in particular betrays its stage origins in countless ways; this is much more genuinely cinematic, and more entertaining as a result. We’re talking increments rather than a quantum leap – both films retain the ‘rude mechanical’ comedy relief characters, in this film a policeman called Twiddle – but the use of a much more modern visual grammar is immediately apparent.

Are we stumbling towards the suggestion that The Wolf Man is in some sense a triumph of style over substance? I’m not sure I would honestly go that far, not least because I would call it a decent example of a foundational horror movie rather than a particularly great film in its own right. But it’s true that the way in which the story is told complements the premise in a way that wasn’t always the case with the earlier films, and this goes a long way towards making up for the fact that the premise itself is only a pretty good one on this occasion. An engaging bit of horror history, anyway.

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