The Wolf Man (1941)

Can you believe I’ve never seen The Wolf Man? A major oversight to be sure, but one I’ve thankfully remedied. In general I was impressed, though it’s nowhere near Frankenstein or Dracula in terms of overall quality. I’d always felt bad for Lon Chaney Jr. and his subsequent typecasting but after finally seeing how he got his biggest break (not that he needed one, his dad was a huge silent film star) I don’t feel so bad. Except when playing to his natural shoe-shuffling oafiness, he didn’t show a whole lot depth in The Wolf Man. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy his performance; quite the contrary, I found his suffering as the unwitting victim of a terrible curse gripping and substantial. But he was clearly uncomfortable as the dashing rake in the early scenes and when he becomes frantic toward the end he’s a little too melodramatic even for the genre during that period. And considering he went on to make like a hundred movies and a jillion dollars afterward, yeah, I guess things weren’t so bad for old Lon.

The story: Chaney plays Larry Talbot, the genial, American-raised son of an English nobleman. He returns to his childhood home to claim his birthright as heir apparent to the family title after a hunting accident takes the life of his older brother. Somehow, while it’s clear we’re in 1941 England, The Great War is nowhere to be found. Too bad: an army of wolf men might have given England the edge against the Nazis.

A few minutes in Larry (literally) spies the lovely Gwen and proceeds to do his smarmy best to woo her even though she tells him she’s engaged. That night the two, along with Gwen’s obvious wolf-bait friend, Jenny, head to the nearby gypsy camp for some fortunetelling. Jenny gets her palm read by none other than Bela Lugosi (character name also Bela) while Larry corners Gwen in the spooky woods for hook-up attempt number two. She’s shockingly unfazed when he flat-out tells her he has been watching her, in her bedroom, through a telescope, so that probably bodes well for his chances of scoring. Bela the gypsy happens to bear the pentagram mark we’re told indicates werewolfery so things don’t go well for poor Jenny. Larry hears her screams and manages to beat the offending wolf to death with his nifty silver cane but he gets bitten for his trouble. Ruh roh.

Biggest letdown: It’s a pretty good movie so it’s hard to point to a real letdown but I did have some issues with the film’s logic, or lack thereof. I get the idea that Larry is suffering a psychological meltdown as he tries to grapple with the reality of his condition but still, a gypsy lady gives him a special charm that keeps the curse at bay AND HE GIVES IT AWAY. Not only that but later, when he figures out for sure he’s a werewolf, he doesn’t ask for it back. Seriously dude, any deaths after that are on you. And why didn’t Lugosi’s character wear one?

Why you should watch: Aside from being one of the most influential horror movies of all time, and aside from featuring three of the biggest horror icons of all time (Chaney, Lugosi and Claude Rains as Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot), The Wolf Man is fascinating to watch now because of where the genre has gone since. For example, Chaney’s wolf man remains fully clothed except for his shoes – the generally accepted shredded clothes/waking up naked thing didn’t come in until much later, as werewolves took on a more superhuman physical stature and on-screen nudity became more commonplace. It’s also interesting that even way back then silver was already part of the mythology, yet the moon was only vaguely tied to the transformation trigger. (To be fair, many of the surviving traits of modern werewolf lore were also present in an earlier Universal picture, Werewolf of London, but by all accounts The Wolf Man was the definitive catalyst for the genre.)

Memorable Moment: There are plenty of iconic shots of folks wandering through the foggy woods, but I’m gonna go with the middle phase of Cheney’s facial transformation, which is basically Chaney sporting a tremendous afro. Here’s hoping that bit made it to the recent remake (which I’ll be posting about tomorrow).

Classic imagery can't compete with...


Choice quote:

Sir John: “The scientific name for it is lycanthropia. It’s a vareity of schizophrenia.”
Larry: “That’s all Greek to me.”
Sir John: “Well, it is Greek.”

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4 Responses to “The Wolf Man (1941)”

  1. […] so recently spending time with the original Wolf Man, it’s hard to find much to love about the 2010 remake, The Wolfman (though in its […]

  2. Natalie Kaire Says:

    I missed the screening!? Well, I’ll look forward to seeing this on my own then. It sounds awesome. When I was in 10th grade, this kid who sat next to me in English class called this other guy in our grade “Wolfman.” I think it was because he had premature facial hair (as in a neard, or, a neckbeard). Anyway, the guy with the facial hair looked a lot like Wolfro! (pictured above). But Wolfro! appears to be scarier. This looks like a good one.

  3. […] The Wolf Man (1941) – Lon Chaney Jr. gets all fuzzy in England, I catch up on a movie I should have seen ages ago. […]

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