Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Wolf Man (1941) (6th Monster Movie Review of 8)

     “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” That’s the movies famous line, and our motion picture for today is “The Wolf Man” from 1941. This monster is so famous, he’s often regarded as one of the three most legendary movie monsters of all time alongside Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. Even though this film is very tame by today’s standards, it’s arguably the most frightening, eerie and suspenseful of the Universal monster catalog, and one of my favorites.

    Our story unfolds like this, Larry Talbot has returned to his home town in Wales to meet with his father and offer his support after the passing of this brother. While exploring an antique shop, he falls in love with a village woman named Gwen, who compels him to stay for a while, and gives him a mysterious silver cane with the silver head of a wolf on the end. One night while the two are having a romantic walk through the woods, Larry fights off a sudden wolf attack and gets injured. Soon Larry finds himself losing his mind, and every night he transforms into a furious monster with an extreme impulse to kill. He seeks the aid of a gypsy woman who confirms that Larry is suffering from the curse of a werewolf. Now Larry fights to battle the beast within before he kills any of his family, friends or the love of his life.    

      I love how different this conflict is from the other Universal monsters, unlike Dracula or The Mummy, The Wolf Man isn’t an evil villain, instead he’s a tragic victim with an animal inside him that he can't control. I think that's why werewolves are so appealing, there freighting monsters, but there’s so much tragedy that goes into their back story. Unlike Zombies or Vampires, werewolves revert back to their human form, then the human side has to live with the terrible knowledge that they've taken innocent lives and that they’ll continue to kill with no way to control the beast within. I also like that this movie addresses the difference between a regular werewolf and the wolf man. In the beginning, we see Larry fight a werewolf which looks like a regular wolf on four legs, but when Larry transforms, he maintains his human body, just with a harry wolf appearance, that’s why he’s named The Wolf Man.

      Lon Chaney Jr. is our star and is fantastic in both roles. As Larry Talbot, he really plays to our sympathy and conveys an emotional performance full turmoil and nervous energy. As The Wolf Man, he displays a terrifying body movement, impressive stunts, and still manages to convey a lot, even through his impressive monster makeup. Lon Chaney Jr. became a very popular monster star and played in several other Universal horror movies, in a sense he followed in the footsteps of his father Lon Chaney senior, who was one the biggest horror star of the silent area of films in the 1920’s. In fact, he’s the only actor to continue to play his iconic monster throughout all the sequels and spinoffs that followed.

      The best thing about this movie is its scary scenery and haunting atmosphere. The foggy streets and creepy woods are great spectacles which really highlight the experience. The musical score is also fantastic, at times it’s quiet and subtle, which adds to the chilling atmosphere, and other times the music is exciting and classy. My favorite scene in the film and personally my favorite moment of the entire Universal monster movie collection is this one scene in which Larry rests against a tree and falls into some kind of strange hypnotic dream. It’s just a really cool montage of scary images, eerie music and it just makes the movie feel so much more haunting. None of the other monster movies featured scenes as awesome as this. One thing that may annoy some people is that we don’t see as many popular conventions that you’d usually see in a werewolf movie. For example, there isn’t a single shot of the full moon throughout the whole movie. There isn’t even a single transformation scene in the film, although there is a moment when we start to see his feet change into wolf feet.  

      The supporting cast is probably the greatest supporting cast to be featured in any of the Universal monster movies. Usually the supporting cast consist of average performers who’s names aren’t that well known, but this movie is full of stars, most of which already played classic Universal monsters. For example, Bela Lugosi, who originally played Dracula in the 1931 classic plays a gypsy in this film named Bela. This gypsy is the one responsible for passing the curse of the werewolf to Larry in the first place, and it’s interesting to note that Bela Lugosi also transformed into a wolf back in “Dracula”, making this one heck of an eerie coincidence. Also Claude Rains who previously played The Invisible Man in the 1933 classic and would later play The Phantom of the opera in the 1943 classic now plays Sir John Talbot, Larry’s father. Then there’s the gypsy woman who’s one of the most memorable characters from the series, and speaks the most classic lines of dialog in the film.

     Gwen Conliffe is our lead heroin and played by Evelyn Ankers, who basically made a carrier as a reoccurring star in several Universal Horror movies. She has a terrific screen presence and just works perfectly in a horror setting. While she isn’t that different from the other female leads, she still gets more involved than most of the others, and Evelyn just supplies a really genuine performance that isn’t as hammy as most of the other actresses. Sense she’s established as the wolf mans girl friend, you’d think this film would end with her getting carried away by the beast just like all the others, right. Well, this films actually very clever by making the climax an intense and eerie cat and mouse chase as Gwen gets lost in the woods looking for Larry Talbot, while The Wolf man is hunting her down ready to slay her, and Larry’s father John is also hunting down the wolf man, in an effort to free his son from his curse. It’s an exciting finally, with the most heart breaking ending of all the Universal monster films.

     Like I said earlier, Lon Chaney Jr. reprised is signature role of the wolf man in four more movies, however there were never any stand alone sequels, he only appeared in crossovers with other popular monsters. The first was “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” in 1943, and while it lacked the subtle eerie feel of the first film, it was still pretty entertaining, as were all the other crossover movies. Over the years there have been countless other werewolf movies, and countless Halloween specials featuring the Wolf Man as a main character. The one I personally remember watching the most as a child was “Alvin and the Chipmunks meet the Wolf Man”. In 2010, there was a remake of “The Wolfman”, which really wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t a great movie by any means but as far as remakes are concerned it at least captured the same look and feel of the original, with creepy scenery, an exciting montage of frightening clips and some great music.

       To this day, the 1941 motion picture “The Wolf Man” still holds up as an exciting and fun horror film. It never comes off as slow or boring, the atmosphere is great, the performances are strong, and the imagery still sticks with me after all these years. The whole story is just told very well, and it’s one black and white movie that I still recommend to this day.

                       I give the 1941 motion picture “The Wolf Man” 4 stars.

NEXT TIME: Well be looking at a much classier monster that comes from the theater.  


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