Monday, June 22, 2015

Wolf Man, The (1941)



Director: George Waggner

Universal prior to World War II had a stronghold of the monster horror film market in Hollywood. In their cast of successful monster staples was the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy, among others. During this period the studio had produced a picture featuring the human transformational creature known as a werewolf with little success, but it was 1941’s The Wolf Man that brought this beast into appropriate Universal monster movie mold that would leave a lasting impact on audience’s movie conscience. It is here that Lon Chaney Jr. would find himself forever etched in the annals of horror movie history for better or for worst.

Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf-Man in this publicity shot
The Wolf Man is a monster/horror/drama about a man that finds himself bitten by a mythical beast which turns himself into a cursed half man- half wolf that terrorizes his small town. After learning of his brother’s death Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his home town after many a prolonged absence to be with his father (Claude Rains). While attempting to gain the romantic interest of local shop girl, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), Larry finds himself bitten by a large, mysterious creature that was attacking one of her friends. Through local legend and the knowledge traveling gypsies Larry fears he has assumed the curse of the werewolf, transforming at night into a human/wolf creature that begins to terrorize the town. Larry attempts to overcome his condition, but one night as the werewolf he is killed by his father out of self-defense who stands in shock to see the motionless werewolf transform back into the form of his now dead son.

As a whole, the film is not so much entertaining as a singular piece as it is a cherished piece of monster movie history introducing the Wolf-Man as a staple of the Universal monster. By itself The Wolf Man is a relatively nice B-grade picture by substance with the ever so slightly higher quality you would come to expect from a Universal monster feature.

With this picture audiences receive a slight bit of romance mixed in with a fictitious occult mythology, an interesting gruesome monster, and a morsel of heart about a relationship between father and son. But what the feature really did was bring the audiences the beginning of the legacy that would be the Wolf-Man in the minds of movie audiences for decades to come.

Claude Rains charges Lon Chaney.
In actuality The Wolf Man lacks many of the great aspects that Universal horror films had been known to produce in the prior years. Directed by a stock studio director George Waggner whose credits were rather insignificant, the picture is kept cinematically simple. There are no creative leaps in this film. It even lacks a dramatic transformation scene that one might hope to have seen likening to that of the many adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What we get here are Chaney’s legs and feet growing hair through dissolves into what is ultimately hairy rubber feet. It feels a little like Universal was going through the motions through this production. That is not to say it cannot be enjoyed, because it is a solid monster feature if one is seeking out this style of movie for nostalgic purposes.

Lon Chaney Jr. stars as the Larry Talbot, the man stricken with this terrible curse that ultimately brings him to his demise. Chaney, son of the famed actor and make-up artist for whom he shares his name for business purposes, dons the make-up original envisioned for Henry Hull in the 1935 feature Werewolf of London. Hull had refused to wear this more extensive make-up due to its discomfort and that it hid nearly all of his face, resulting in a far less creature-like appearance. Having learned a few things from his father Chaney made slight alterations to the originally intended design to better suit it to himself. Despite the changes the make-up remained tremendously uncomfortable to wear and made resting between takes for Chaney none-existent.

To this point Chaney had been only a small time actor with his greatest performance being that of the tragic Lennie in the feature film adaptation of the novel Of Mice and Men. With his performance as Wolf-Man Chaney would continue the family legacy of being a monster actor began by his famously gifted father. This proved to be a blessing and a curse for Lon Chaney Jr. as he would act in many features as the canine beast, as well as other Universal monsters for years to come. However, he would become type-casted throughout his career, never taken seriously as an actor. Chaney would appear as the Wolf-Man is four more features in the 1940s carrying on standards set in this very motion picture.

Oupenskaya, classic supporting character actress in many monster movies
Many of Universal’s usual stable of horror movie actors make their appearances in the feature. Claude Rains, who appeared (or rather he didn’t appear) in The Invisible Man, would be the most notable of the supporting cast as a former Academy Award nominated actor. He appears as Larry Talbot’s father who ends up slaughtering the beast in the end to discover it was his own son. Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya appear as two gypsies prominent to the sharing of the werewolf legend. Lugosi was best known for his portrayal as Dracula while Ouspenskaya has appear in a great number of Universal features as the woman that divulges great amounts of information with her peculiar European accent.

Look at the romance in this feature. Look At It!!
The romantic interest of the feature is played by Evelyn Ankers who would become rather well known for her performances in Universal horror features. The 23 year-old blonde beauty would be eye candy for the male viewers as the feature attempts to bring somewhat of a female following with a romantic storyline that really goes nowhere after Larry becomes a werewolf. Her appearance and her set of powerful lungs with the ability to scream as she does would make her a valuable assets for Universal in there future horror pictures.

The Wolf Man both as a movie and a character would be a staple monster of Universal for years. The fact that Chaney was behind that make-up nearly every time would be a point of pride for the actor during his career, as all other creatures had many actors fulfilling their roles, including Chaney in many cases. In the coming decades when Universal would make a picture featuring a collection of their many monster creations it would not be complete without the Wolf-Man as one of the characters.

Mythos and style of the Wolf-Man character would come and go throughout the decades since the release of this film, the most prominent being the full moon triggering the transformation which appeared in later sequels, but not here. However, this original would be the foundation by which the franchise was build. Werewolf of London, although not as well received, may be perhaps a better motion picture as a whole, but The Wolf Man is the style by which the character of the creature would live on into ages. Many new incarnations have attempted to re-create the thrill audiences had when they first saw this feature decades ago, but it is this film, although campy, that remains burned in the minds of adorning audiences as the classic by which Universal stands with in their illustrious past of beloved monster films.

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