Friday, March 23, 2012

Werewolf of London (1935)

The monster movie factory that was Universal Pictures dips their pen in the ink that is the horror genre once again, introducing movie audiences to its first feature film about the supernatural creatures that are werewolves. Not to be confused with the classic film starring Lon Chaney Jr. released six years later, Werewolf of London for the first time brings to life the creature that is half-man, half wolf in a tale about fear of one man losing control of himself due to the affliction attained from an attack from another mysterious werewolf and his desperate search for a cure. Universal’s monster movies tended to be made on the cheap, but produced by creative minds that did all they could to make up for the lack of funds. Many of these pictures lived on to be classics, donning lists of the finest of its genre despite their clear lack of finances. Werewolf of London would sadly not live up to the same standards as its fellow pictures, which included Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, later it would be overshadowed by the more popular Wolf Man film.

Werewolf of London is a horror/monster movie of an English scientist that is afflicted with being transformed into the half-man, half-wolf creature by light of the full moon, and his desperate attempt to cure himself of the horror before his beastly self kills the one he loves most. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), a well respected botanist, while searching in Tibet for a mysterious flower that only blooms in the moonlight is attacked by a bizarre creature. Upon his return to London he discovers signs of himself transforming into the devilish beast of a creature that is the werewolf, a transformation that occurs by light of the full moon. He learns more of the mysterious creature from fellow botanist Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), an expert on the subject, who reveals the healing qualities of the flower brought back from Tibet which temporarily cures the effects of the werewolf. The most horrific aspect of a werewolf is it sense to kill that which he loves most, in this case it would be Glendon’s lovely wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), whom he has neglected while in his studies. To Lisa’s confusion, Glendon does all he can to get himself as far away from Lisa for her own safety, unaware of her husband’s affliction. Mysteriously too, Glenson’s healing flowers are taken by who is revealed as Yogami, the original werewolf that had attacked Glenson in Tibet. After turning into the deadly beast, Glenson murders Yogami and sets his sights on Lisa, before his is mercifully gunned down by police, thanking the officials for stopping him from killing his wife.

Unlike the previously released monster features of Universal’s library of films, this one seems to lack that special touch of originality. It feels as if director Stuart Walker was not only inspired by other horror films, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Invisible Man, but rather he was outright stealing aspects from those films. This is what the precept when the picture was originally released just a few short years after those critical and box office successes. The first transformation scene as we watch Glendon becoming the werewolf mimics the same transformation seen with Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, using the same makeup and lighting effects that makes a normal human slowly turn into a creature with the aid of the times black and white film stock. It is still a wonderful effect, but it lacks the originality, making one harken back to the Frederic March movie rather than staying within the story being told here.

Walker has moments of creative cinematography, moving actors and camera in a way that feels different in a fresh sense, but not in a way that makes one feel as if this is a movie of superior quality. Moments of creative genius are seen as Walker has Hull transform before your eyes with use of a tracking shot that inserts a new stage of makeup every time Hull walks behind a small pillar. At other moments the actors and camera movie from sets to set, the camera passing through walls, flashes of greatness, but then reminds you that this is a movie being shot on a soundstage, therefore a drawback. It is a catch twenty-two that might have work had the rest of the film been as fluid and creative as those brief moments. Much of the picture, especially in the later stages of the story where quality is of the most importance, cinematography, the writing, the acting, and the editing all get staggered. It feels as if Walker is trying, but he just cannot fix the poor quality of the overall production. It makes for a sad film that perhaps could not have been made much better.

Hull in toned down makeup as the werewolf.

Walker was a small time producer/director for Universal that had chances to make great films, but never seemed to do so. His best likelihoods as making a lasting film was 1934’s Great Expectations, but most felt it lacked and would be remade years later, with the later productions being much better remembered. Walker used his star from Great Expectations to be featured in Werewolf of London, an actor that just recently returned to the movies after four years exclusively on the stage. Hull made his mark on the film when he first donned the Jack Pierce werewolf makeup, complaining of the time in the makeup chair and the amount it covered his face. The original makeup resembled that which we would see on Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man, but to Hull’s request the makeup was drawn back to show off more Hull’s facial features, also cutting back on time spent in the makeup chair. The final makeup still works in a way, and I’m sure worked as a first look at werewolves for any movie audience, but it does make for a more human than beast of a creature, though Hull’s acting as a werewolf is fine note of the film.

Swedish-born American actor Warner Oland would play the mysterious Dr. Yogami. Oland with his long eyes and facial hair gave a slight sense of Asian features, which favored his career being cast in the numerous Charlie Chan films of the 1930s. Oland’s acting is one of minimal skill in this picture, but he is casted mainly for his minor Asian look to give a sense of exotic mystery to the film. His name would be used in marketing for he was fairly well know from his Charlie Chan film, but would be cut in re-released after his death in 1938.

Valerie Hobson would play the damsel of distress as, Glendon’s loving, yet neglected wife Lisa. Hobson was being pushed by Universal at this time, playing back-to-back roles as love interests in horror movies, previously in Bride of Frankenstein, where she replace Mae Clarke. She would share more emotional acting in this role compared to the two dimensional acting in Bride of Frankenstein, perhaps being the best acting job in the feature, outside of Hull as a werewolf, not Glendon.

The film would be panned by most critics and audiences, claiming it was too similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is understandable, but was clearly an inferior picture to the Frederic March movie. The film would end up as just another feature in the library of Universal. It would be re-released years later, but that was after the success of The Wolf Man, a superiorly remembered werewolf motion picture. There are fans of Werewolf of London that enjoy the more creative aspects of the feature, or simply love old monster movies, and if that is what one is looking for, this makes a fine addition that person’s viewing pleasure.

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