Saturday, September 1, 2012

#747. The Wolf Man (1941)

Directed By: George Waggner

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Warren William

Tag line: "His hideous howl a dirge of death!"

Trivia: Despite Universal's apprehensions over the public's appetite for horror movies following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the film became one of the studio's top grossers in 1942

"Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; 
May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright".

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) has just returned home to his family’s estate in Wales, where he is reunited with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains). 

While out walking one evening with antiques dealer Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), Talbot comes across a young lady (Fay Helm) being savagely mauled by a wolf. He intervenes and kills the creature, but not before it bites him on the chest. 

Yet the story doesn’t end there, for according to a local gypsy named Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the wolf Larry destroyed was, in reality, her son Bela (Bela Lugosi), who had transformed into a werewolf. And because the creature bit him, Talbot, too, is now cursed, and will spend the rest of his moonlit nights roaming the countryside as a wolf. 

Naturally, Talbot doesn’t believe such nonsense, but quickly changes his tune the very next evening, when he transforms into a werewolf and goes on the prowl in search of human blood.

Along with Chaney’s compassionate turn as the tortured victim of a werewolf’s bite, The Wolf Man features a number of fine actors in key roles. Claude Rains, who had played a Universal “monster” of his own in 1933’s The Invisible Man, is solid as Sir John Talbot, while the werewolf that bit Larry (when in mortal form, anyway) was none other than Dracula himself, Mr. Bela Lugosi. 

Yet the supporting character that makes the biggest impression in The Wolf Man is the gypsy, Maleva, as portrayed by Maria Ouspenskaya. Maleva is the only one who knows what’s happening, and does what she can to help Talbot and - eventually - Sir John. Ms. Ouspenskaya would reprise the role two years later, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and it’s a pity she didn’t get to play the part more often.

Though it focuses more on character development than actual horror (Talbot’s “transformations”, the work of make-up artist extraordinaire Jack Pierce, are magnificent though usually brief, and the scenes depicting his attacks are restrained), The Wolf Man has its share of chilling moments. By utilizing darkness and shadows so effectively throughout, director George Waggner and his team ensure that we not only sympathize with Larry Talbot, but fear him as well. 

In the pantheon of Universal Studios’ classic monsters, the wolf man was a bit of a late arrival; by the time Chaney's beast hit the screen in December of 1941, we had already met Frankenstein, his Bride, and the Son!

Yet this tardiness did nothing to diminish the character’s reputation, and thanks to the wonderful work of its cast, The Wolf Man would take its rightful place as one of the cinema’s most cherished monster films.


Robert M. Lindsey said...

On of my favorites of the Univeral cannon.

Unknown said...

This is my favorite of the old Universal Monsters. I thought Lon, Jr. really made Larry the most sympathetic of all the "monsters".

Brilliant review. As are all the ones I've read. Found you through Twitter and have been wasting far too much of my time reading the various reviews here. Keep up the good work.

DVD Infatuation said...

Thanks for the comments:

@Robert: It's definitely up there for me as well (FRANKENSTEIN is probably #1, but I love them all)

@Cary: Lon Chaney Jr. is a BIG reason why this movie has remained timeless. His turn as Larry Talbot was a highlight, not just of the film, but of Universal's entire horror canon.

And thank you for the kind words! They're greatly appreciated. Thanks also for taking the time to check out the blog. Have a great day!

Unknown said...

The Wolf Man is my favorite Universal Monster. I remember seeing it for the first time as a kid and it scared the hell out of me. Lon Chaney Jr. will always be The Wolf Man/Larry Talbot. I'm 26 years old and I still think this movie is creepy. The musical score and atmosphere are great. Not to mention Jack Pierce's make up and the rest of the cast. Have you seen the 2010 remake? If so I would love to get your thoughts on it. Personally I didn't care for it. I really liked Rick Baker's make up and the gothic setting but that's about it. Although I did like the scene where Lawrence transforms in the asylum in front of all the students and the doctor. That was great! Sorry for the long winded comment Dave. I like all the classic monster movies. As a young person I feel I'm one of the few around my age that likes these old monster movies. Or any movie that's black and white for that matter. Thankfully my parents exposed me to these great movies as a kid and I am truly grateful. Thanks Dave