Director: George Waggner
Writer: Curt Siodmak
Cast: Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers, J.M. Kerrigan, Fay Helm, Forrester Harvey, and Lon Chaney
Composer: Charles Previn
Release Date: 12/12/1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Following the death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) travels from America to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales. After reconciling with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), Larry acquaints himself with the townsfolk and arranges to take Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers)—operator of a small antique shop—and her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to a nearby gypsy camp. While Jenny has her fortune told, a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi) transforms into a werewolf and attacks Larry. Disturbed by local superstition, Larry seeks advice from Bela’s mother, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who explains that the curse of the werewolf can be “cured” only by the blow of a silver weapon.
Though not as technically polished as Universal Studios’ inaugural werewolf film (i.e. Werewolf of London), The Wolf Man benefits from Claude Rains’ dignified manner acting as a complement to Lon Chaney’s happy-go-lucky routine. Though Rains lacked an imposing stature that would reinforce his onscreen kinship with Chaney, the natural chemistry underlying Larry’s interactions with Sir John are convincing enough to compensate for the physical limitations of an otherwise exceptional performer.
Upon returning to Wales, Larry wastes no time in charming the local villagers (and the audience) with his youthful spirit and optimistic outlook on life. By endearing himself to viewers in such a fashion, the Talbot heir will undoubtedly elicit sympathy throughout his nightmarish character transition that occurs at a later time. Larry’s eventual torment is accentuated most effectively by the misty surroundings of a dead forest, which, when combined with a tragic musical arrangement, embody those ominous forces responsible for channeling the savage instincts that, until awakened by the bite of a werewolf, had remained buried deep beneath the warm, kindly exterior of an unassuming young man.
Despite having been produced on a “B-grade” budget, The Wolf Man is an outstanding film save for one logical flaw: prior to Larry’s initial transformation, the gypsies pack their belongings and flee the area as if frenzied by the prospect of a werewolf attack—a reaction which makes little sense considering that Bela, the alpha werewolf, had presumably dwelt among the group for quite some time preceding Larry’s affliction.
As opposed to Count Dracula but similar in certain regards to Frankenstein’s creature, the Wolf Man is not a monster per se but rather a victim of circumstance who, much against his human inclinations, is prompted to commit heinous deeds by impulses of supernatural origin. The Wolf Man, like all movies contained in Universal Studios’ classic horror lineup, therefore exemplifies an unequivocal conflict between good and evil—the nuances of which are represented, perhaps for the first time in cinematic history, entirely through the inner struggle of a lone protagonist; not by a heroic figure working to defeat demonic or otherworldly forces (e.g. Dracula and The Mummy).
On one hand, the werewolf in this case symbolizes any primal or violent tendencies carried over from a less civilized stage of mankind’s evolution; in contrast, the Larry Talbot character serves to counter the beast within, thus resulting in a more layered villain than Dracula, Kharis, or any other monster whose malevolent qualities manifest in the absence of conscience or moral reasoning. It should also be noted that Sir John Talbot, Gwen Conliffe, and Maleva the Gypsy provide a retainer for Larry’s humanity, indicating that the demons of one man can never truly be conquered alone.
The quintessential werewolf movie, The Wolf Man combines an atmospheric and suspenseful mood with compelling character progression. Especially commendable is Chaney’s performance, which makes credible the concept of a feral beast consuming the soul of a once carefree individual.
Overall Quality: 10/10
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