Thursday, October 03, 2013

31 Werewolves | The Wolf Man

Universal's Werewolf of London didn't do nearly as well as their other monster movies in the early '30s, so they tried again in 1941 with The Wolf Man. Jack Pierce returned to create the werewolf's look and outdid his previous effort by a large margin. The London werewolf was good, but the Wolf Man's was iconic.

Frame for frame, The Wolf Man is simply a better movie than its predecessor. The script is doing something original instead of just tacking in a bunch of tropes from other successful monster movies. Instead of making the lead character yet another mad scientist, The Wolf Man offers Lon Chaney Jr. in the best performance of his career as the tragic and sympathetic Larry Talbot. He may be heir to a powerful English estate, but he's the second son and hasn't been bred to the role. Instead, he's studied engineering in the United States and comes across as a normal working joe who's thrust into an unfamiliar - and ultimately horrifying - situation. That gives the film tons of gravitas to build on, where Werewolf of London was a more simple fantasy.

The Wolf Man is more sophisticated in how it approaches its themes too. Werewolf of London borrowed heavily from Jekyll and Hyde, making its Dr. Glendon a severely repressed man who had to turn into a monster to cut loose and run wild. Larry Talbot isn't like that. He's a relaxed, affable fellow who - if his early interaction with Evelyn Ankers' character is any indication - could do with some additional social graces.

It's that American wildness that gets him into trouble though when he returns home after the death of his older brother. The people in the village never do trust him and even his father (Claude Rains, in my favorite ever role of his) has to make an adjustment. The Wolf Man shows this right away when Sir John tells Larry that he'd like to put away the dishonest formality that's kept them from getting to know each other. Talbot Village is characterized by old world manners and (as Sir John puts it later) black-and-white thinking.

What's strange is that The Wolf Man subtly endorses the villagers' simple-mindedness by making werewolfism a symbol for free-thinking. It's a weird message, but Sir John characterizes the ability to think deeply as a curse. Seeing shades of gray in the world is its own form of wildness and Sir John believes that it may be what's causing his son's mental breakdown. Getting ready to go to church, Sir John goes so far as to characterize faith as a useful defense against overthinking.

This odd theme makes a little more sense remembering that the film was made just before the U.S. entered World War II. Is it possible that the film is saying that the U.S. has been overthinking its role in the world and that sometimes we just have to pick a side and act? It's true that too much freedom - of thought and of action - can be crippling. Faced with too many choices, the chaos becomes overwhelming and we need rules and order to define limits so that we can act. Without that, society doesn't work.

If that's the point that The Wolf Man is making, it's surprisingly complex for a Hollywood monster movie, but that may be why it's such a classic.


Wings1295 said...

A classic that well deserves that title. Love it. Chaney is great, Rains is great. All well done.

Ken O said...

For years this was my favorite Universal Monster Movie. It's only been in the past 5 or 6 years that Creature from the Black Lagoon has overtaken it. Amazing, tragic film. This and Mice and Men really showed how talented Chaney was.

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I hadn't thought about any themes about the context of the war at the time, but I did catch hints of a science vs. supernatural story going on what with Larry's impassioned speech of being able to understand anything with tubes and wires before being put in a situation far from anything that can be explained.

Universal Monsters walk an interesting line between poignant and goofy. Like in the scene with Larry arguing with his father about what he has become is surprisingly effective until Jr. asks Sr. to explains his pentagram mark. His response is “Any animal could have made that mark.” Yes, any animal could have made a perfectly symmetrical star shape.

Michael May said...

Ken, I agree. I love The Wolf Man a lot, but Creature from the Black Lagoon is easily my favorite single Universal monster movie.

Erik, you're right too. There's some awkward stuff in The Wolf Man. I have a really hard time sitting still when Larry introduces himself to Gwen in the creepiest way possible.

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I love me some Gillman too. I believe he was my first exposure to the Universal monster line and the only monster of the series were I've seen all of the sequels. Though there were only three total, so its not so big an accomplishment.

Paxton said...

Agreed. This is my favorite Universal Monster movie and my favorite monster. Lon Chaney is the best and this is his best werewolf performance.


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