A man returns to his family estate for his brother’s funeral only to be attacked by a wolf and possibly turned into a creature of legend.
I had only seen a few of the Universal Monster movies prior to this year, but I’ve enjoyed the films that I have seen. They come from the golden age of studio-produced films, and these were some of the crowning jewels of Universal Pictures during the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The Wolf Man is of course Universal’s take on the werewolf, and it’s approached with the same theatricality as all the other films. As far as modern horror films go, they aren’t all that scary- in fact I’d say most of them would be rated PG by today’s standards. That makes these films great family Halloween films or movies that middle-schoolers might still get a kick out of. They’re from a different era, and though many of the scenes may be melodramatic, maybe even laughable at times, the Universal Monster movies have an unbelievable amount of charm, and that goes for “The Wolf Man” especially.
“I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything.”
As this film’s runtime is just over an hour long, you could imagine that the plot is rather simple. But though the premise is simple, the execution is charmingly handled and it also raises some interesting moral dilemmas- something I wouldn’t have expected in a 1940s monster flick. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr, “Spider Baby or the Maddest Story Ever Told”) returns home to Talbot Castle for his brother’s funeral (he was killed in a hunting accident). It becomes evident that Larry and his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains, “Casablanca”), have been estranged for a matter of years. Though the circumstances that reunited the father and son were not ideal, their relationship seems to rekindle rather quickly. Staying on a few days after the funeral, Larry spies (quite literally- through a telescope) the lovely Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers, “The Ghost of Frankenstein”), and decides to ask her on a walk even though she makes it known right away that she is engaged. After quite a bit of insistence (maybe even harassment), Gwen agrees to walk with Larry through the woods, though she brings along her friend, Jenny (Fay Helm, “Phantom Lady”). After an encounter with a fortune telling gypsy, a wolf attacks Gwen, Larry, and Jenny, and though Larry is able to kill the wolf, he is also bitten.
I think one of the things I like most about this film is the way that Lon Chaney plays Talbot and the way the character himself is written. He’s a character that wants to believe in only rational things, so he continuously doubts whether or not he actually is a werewolf. The way Chaney expresses his uncertainty with his eyes and body language adds a layer of nervousness to Talbot’s character, and it really works wonders for the film. It really feels like were watching a man become unhinged by the surreal situation in which he’s thrown, despite how theatrical it feels. Another thing I really liked about the film was the moral dilemmas it brought up. When Talbot realizes that he might be to blame for the deaths of some of the people in town, he takes action. At first he tries to run away from the town to protect people, but when Gwen convinces him to stay, he tries again to find a different way of dealing with his problems; he talks to his father, and his father ties him to a chair. The fact that Talbot himself is disturbed by the changes happening to him and that he is taking action to prevent any more harm makes him a very sympathetic character.
Perhaps the most impressive (and also the most theatrical) bits of this film are the elaborate gothic sets. There are a dozen or so wonderfully constructed forest sets where fog constantly rolls through, creating a deliriously wondrous atmosphere apropos to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Talbot stalks through the fog creating a scene that still looks creepy today. The Romany’s camp is elegantly designed with intricately patterned tents and shadowy horse carts. The lighting is delightfully theatrical as it casts shadows and patterns through the fog, and overall the settings, no matter where they are look great. The costumes are also designed with an amazing amount of detail, though it is slightly funny that none of the clothes are sullied while they trounce through the mud. While the special effects are nothing spectacular- the transformation is a simple fading from non-hairy to hairy legs- the makeup is pretty great looking, and with Chaney beneath the makeup, he makes it work even better.
This is a wonderful little horror flick, one that has been a classic for almost eighty years, and will be for another eighty. Movies like this make me crave classic Hollywood films; they’re theatrical and large and they make me nostalgic for a time I’ve never known. While I wouldn’t by any means call this a scary film, it is a wonderful horror film that will live on for ages to come. I absolutely recommend this movie.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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