Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: The Wolf Man (1941)
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….
This poem is the center of Universal’s The Wolf Man that adds on to the supernatural and superstitious feel. If Dracula questioned the existence of the unknown and Frankenstein had us venture into it, The Wolf Man is more of a reflection of superstition and beliefs which I feel is a big part of this one. The story centers around Larry Talbort (Lon Chaney Jr.) who returns to his home in Wales to spend some quality time with his estranged father. The first half is developed really well as we get an idea of who Larry is. A common everyday man that isn’t too concerned about basic fear of something silly like a villager’s poem or black magic. He just views it as a common fear that keeps everyone at bay. Its long till he gets attacked by a wolf but gets injured in the struggle. Even after killing the beast, he starts to become aware that perhaps the things others fear the most is not that far from being real as he finds out the wolf that bit him was a werewolf and soon enough, he too becomes one.
The selling point of this movie is not Jack Pierce’s make up or even the eerie atmosphere. This time its the character of Larry Talbort and Lon Chaney Jr’s performance. Lon really makes you feel sympathetic off the bat. He is visiting his father after hearing his brother died, he wants to have a relationship with his dad that he probably hasn’t seen in years and on top of that he starts to get romantically involved with an antique shop owner who just happens to be one of his next victims later in the movie. You can feel the struggle between man and beast here and really wish he gets a happy ending. Lon Chaney Jr. does a great job emoting that fear we all have of the creature inside us and how we wish the horrors and fears we hear about weren’t real. This is what sets Wolf Man apart from the other Universal Monsters. Sure we sympathize with the Frankenstein monster for how it wants to be loved and accepted. Here, we feel sorry because its a man trying to avoid becoming a monster even if he is good of heart. I’d say that is much more scarier in comparison.
The rest of the movie holds up really well. There’s a certain charm and eerie feeling with the forest sets even if they do look studio shot and full of fake fog. Something about it really adds on to the chill. Maria Ouspenskaya plays a gypsy fortuneteller who comes off as both sincere and frightening. She knows what Larry is going through and can only express sympathy while
seeing him being tortured. This would start the long running cliche of the resourceful old woman that knows all and sees all. But here, its used well enough to bring light to what a werewolf is and the modern mythos. In fact, its strange this wasn’t the first movie about werewolf-ism seeing Universal tried it before with Werewolf of London where a botanist tries to find a rare flower to cure his inner monster. However, what differs is that Werewolf of London was more of a Jekyll and Hide stylized story than rather one close to humble tradition. While the Wolf Man itself doesn’t run about on all fours, it does get the beastly personality nailed. The sniveling snarl, the clutching claws and the way he looks about the place like a territorial dog is sure enough to increase some intensity.
While the Wolf Man is well shot and has great performances, there’s a few nitpicks I do have with it. The make-up job is impressive (after all, it is Jack Pierce) but some reason the nose reminds me a bit more of a pig design and less canine. Again, there are some wolfish features in the fangs and hair but I find it weird that the only thing I seem to be bothered by is the design in the nose but its minor. For those hoping for a full transformation scene might be disappointed. There is a bit where we see his legs transform through a series of fades and a bit in the final ten minutes when we see Larry go from wolf to human. The later incarnations would feature the infamous cross-dissolve transformation while this one doesn’t as much.
But overall, its a classic struggle between man and monster this is truly iconic. I can’t think of any really problems I had with it other than the mentioned. Its rich in atmosphere and has a plot that neither drags or feels too fast. Its just one of those movies you can sit back during lunch and just really get into easily. I should address that The Wolf Man never had a direct sequel or even a franchise and probably that is for the best. It ends on a spot so tight that is no way it can be open to continue the story. You could probably count Frankenstein meets The Wolf Man as it does have some continuity in the first half but I wouldn’t count it seeing it does crossover with the Frankenstein saga. But as it stands, its a good movie hands down.
Now I am aware that there is a remake that was done back in 2010. I wanted to somehow talk about this one but I never had the full advantage to really sit down and revisit it in time. I won’t go too in-depth about my thoughts on it seeing I might review it next year. So this is just from what I can remember and some vivid memory. Its my current opinion but it might change.In the early times of the 2000’s, there were talks and plans to bring back the Universal Monsters in different ways. This was done before with The Mummy and Van Helsing but didn’t seem to take off that big despite being box-office hits. The Wolfman remake would prove to be a bigger challenge as it somehow went from one writer to the next, one director after another, one reshoot here and there and sure enough the result didn’t come off as successful as the studio hoped. It failed to bring back its budget and was savagely labeled by critics as being mediocre or poor. Even the president of Universal Studios went as far to say it was “one of the worst movies we ever made.”
While I understand The Wolfman had problems, I wouldn’t go as far to say its that bad. I remember enjoying it when I first saw it in theaters thought the idea it was being screened on actual film might have had something to do with it giving a nice grindhouse feel with small scratches and cigarette burns. I just think with the hampered and troubled production that more was focused on the chaos being produced and less on how the final product came. Personally, I think it gets too much of a bad rep and overall feel its a decent movie. It was directed by Joe Johnston who is well known for making action/adventure comic book stylized movies like Captain America, The Rocketeer, Jumanji and many more. I fell Joe’s direction lends better to the action scenes when the Wolfman is on the loose in the city or fighting another creature. He knows the beats to a fight and how to bring on a good adrenaline rush. That is when the movie is stronger to me. But when it tries to add some character development, it starts to get rocky as certain motives are made unclear like the town’s hate for the Talbots or even Larry’s feelings toward his own folks..
Speaking of which, Benicio del Toro does a good job playing a menacing Larry Talbort but what is missing is the sympathy. I can easily see him being a villainous version of the Wolfman if the direction was in the right place with it. When he’s trying to be sympathetic, it doesn’t come off as convincing. We want him as the wolf more than the human as we don’t see much torture at play with his character. Anthony Hopkins is a delight as his father because its Anthony Hopkins. No matter what he will be, Hopkins always his this crazy charm in his performance that is hard not to like. The make up effects by Rick Baker is a notable highlight seeing he was a big fan of the original Wolf Man and its clear his design was meant to pay homage to Jack Pierce’s original look. Its a shame he wasn’t able to do a practical version of the transformation scenes much like what he did for An American Werewolf In London but at least the Oscar he got for this film and it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
The Blu Ray and DVD offer an extended version that is surprisingly better than the theatrical cut. I actually recommend checking this version out as it adds pace to the movie and even adds some character depth that was missing. The most notable is a cameo by Max Von Sydow who meets with Lawrence earlier in the movie and explores most of the questionable supernatural elements that relfects the message of the original on questioning superstitious beliefs. There’s also a lot more violence and more time is spent knowing who the Talbots are before the first transformation. In short, this cut is a better movie which fixes some problems but it still doesn’t trump the lasting power the original had. While I still think the remake is a decent flick and I do recommend checking it out, there is only one Wolf Man and his name is Lon Chaney Jr.
Posted on October 3, 2014, in Horror-Wood 2014 and tagged 1941, Benicio Del Toro, Horror, Jack Pierce, Joe Johnston, Lon Chaney Jr., Original, remake, Rick Baker, The Wolf Man, The Wolfman, Universal Monsters, werewolf. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.