Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween.
We’re almost at the end of the month and I’ve saved my best two choices for review for the last two nights, but in the meantime, I’ve noted my pointed reviewing of the two main faces of Universal Studios early horror classics, without addressing the third big face to that dynasty (though arguably the third big face is The Monster’s Bride and, much as I hate to dismiss it, but she did only appear in one film).
That particular face is particularly hairy. And grumpy. But it is undoubtedly one of the more original entries into the Universal horror cannon.
Granted, it’s not entirely original. I mean, it’s not as though Universal invented the lycanthrope. Or even less so the idea that The Wolf Man was Universal’s first werewolf picture (Warren Zevon knows damn well what the first werewolf picture Universal Studios made is).
But much like Nosferatu invented our image of the modern vampire, The Wolf Man basically takes the werewolf and changes him around for the rest of pop culture to remember. The werewolf is not just a wolf that’s a man. He is in constant fear of the pentagram. He is vulnerable to silver, the gypsy is the mortal enemy of the werewolf, yadda yadda yadda. And you got one name to thank about all of that…
Curt Siodmak’s screenplay proves to not only be a creative source of nightmare fuel for generations afterward, but it also provides a surprisingly decent story to entertain someone for a movie that is only intent on defining and exhibiting the terrifying habits of a man who can totally turn into a werewolf.
That story is of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr. – who I named one of my kittens after), a man who returns to his Welsh hometown, upon hearing of the death of his older brother. Living under his father’s resentment (his father being played by Claude Raines), Larry begins investigating both into the matter of his brother’s death as well as the possibility of making himself more and more at home in the town, now that he is the next heir to the Talbot estate.
Of course, his stay becomes significantly less welcome upon the fact of his attack by a werewolf and slowly but surely Talbot begins witnessing upon himself symptoms of lycanthropy that doom him immediately.
It’s really not much more pedestrian than that, but it’s a very great work not only because of how much Siodmak takes out of himself to detail a background land that he isn’t as obligated to do this time around, but also from Chaney’s performance. Chaney Jr., for lack of a better explanation, was a haunted man for his entire life. He lived under the shadow of his father (whom I consider a better actor) and the grip of his own alcoholism, which would hurt his lifestyle and his career significantly. But his real-life tragedy gives extra sympathy to the character of Larry Talbot, who is not at all a bad guy and, like Chaney Jr. did, has to deal with the shadow of both his father and his brother. But, that’s just what Chaney Jr.’s history and the script give the actor to work with – Lon emphasizes these elements tenfold by mulling in misery without being annoying or something out of a Robert Smith lyric. He is just a guy like us, totally relatable, but the way he’s down on his luck is what really makes us realize well, our own problems aren’t a total match to his. And Chaney’s mask-like face, inherited from his father, has a sort of clay-like sadness consistent to it that showcases well, even when Chaney has the biggest smile. It’s sad because we’re sad for Talbot.
I think that’s why Chaney Jr. has constantly been the only man to portray The Wolf Man in its original run. Any break in familiarity would have totally killed the sympathy and the audience would have known it’s not the same guy we once fell for.
But hey, that’s not the only saving grace, it’s just what makes Chaney Jr. stand out in a full-on cast of competent performances, including Raines – who never has bored me once, no matter how small his role is. For a pedestrian project, the effort put into this work makes it stand out as one of the greatest productions Universal Studios had put out at the time.
The larger strength in the movie is the introduction of legendary Jack Pierce’s design for the Wolf Man, originally intended for yet scrapped during production of Werewolf of London. Pierce, in his innovation during the 1930s and 40s horror hierarchy of Universal Studios, created iconic pieces for most of the monsters we now remember in nostalgic and classic movie reverence, The Wolf Man being now exception. These days, most werewolf pictures tend to reject the human aspect of the monster, but the Wolf Man is still unique in many ways for its balance of man and monster, a mythological uncontrollable force dwelling in the hearts of most people, now brought out to our faces. It’s a frightening and yet fascinating study come to life visually solely by Pierce’s work.
For all intents and purposes, Universal Studios owes much of its legend to Lon Chaney Jr., Jack Pierce, and Curt Siodmak together.
Moving on, the final aspect of The Wolf Man that makes it so rewatchable is the dream-like atmosphere of the sets, namely when they are at the fair or at the moors. George Waggner’s direction and Joseph Valentine’s cinematography has a very small haze for every outdoor scene, accented by the sets hint of German Expressionist basis. Add in a little fog and BAM! The shots end up absolutely hypnotizing and it makes The Wolf Man more of a visual treat than it is given credit for. I especially enjoy shots like the wide of Sir Talbot (Rains) at the observatory or the shop of Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers)’s father. But the shots in the woods during the Wolf Man’s rampage are excellent.
I can’t talk down even the exotic design of the gypsy’s cart.
Once again, this was a movie invented only to turn a man into a wolf and then have him succumb to fate. That’s it. It didn’t have to become anything more than that to fulfill its purpose. But The Wolf Man stands one of the truly glimmering films of the 1940s because it took a simple storytelling exercise into a display of everyone on their A-game and became a pretty brilliant hurrah for Universal Studios, standing in the end as amongst Nosferatu, Frankenstein and (begrudingly I state) Dracula as among the most influential horror legacies on the silver screen.
Just, y’know, have it avoid that silver screen.
Cause he’s a werewolf and the screen is silver?!
Fuck you all, I’m hilarious.