So it’s an inescapable fact that I’m watching many of these movies well after their initial release, and sometimes that passage of time is affecting my reaction in some unforeseen and unexpected ways. This was definitely the case with The Wolf Man.
The Wolf Man is one of the titans of the horror films from Hollywood’s Golden Era; but surprisingly, it was released nearly a decade after the others (like Dracula and Frankenstein), at a time when monster horror films were getting a little passe. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, too, it seems to be a wholly original film; there was no 19th Century Gothic Horror novel upon which this was based. In fact, a lot of the common conceptions we have about werewolves were invented for this film – the fact that werewolves can only be killed with silver, or that being bitten by a werewolf turns you into one yourself.
That’s exactly the fate that befalls our tragic hero, Larry Talbot (Lon Cheney Jr.), the prodigal son of an upper class English lord. He’s just come home after about 20 years to help his father manage the estate, and quickly gets his head turned by pretty Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), who works in a local antique shop. She’s engaged, but lets Talbot take her out one evening – with her best buddy Jenny as a chaperone – to get their fortunes told at the gypsy camp that’s just set up out of town. Gwen and Larry slip off for a more intimate chat while Jenny goes first – incidentally, the gypsy who reads her palm is Bela Lugosi, in a small cameo role – but they are surprised when Jenny soon runs screaming past them, with a wolf in pursuit. Larry heroically comes to her rescue, clubbing the wolf to death with a silver-headed cane Gwen’s just sold him. But he gets a nasty bite in the process, and Gwen has to help him home. Even stranger, when police return to the scene, they find Jenny’s body – but instead of a dead wolf, they find the body of one of the gypsies. More strange deaths happen over the next week or so, and Larry Talbot starts feeling very unlike himself…
So some bits of this film felt a little cheesy. Every night scene seems bathed in dense fog and eerie mood lighting. The “gypsy camp” is pure fairytale nonsense, and the actress Maria Ouspenskaya’s role as “gypsy wise woman” Malvela seems to be more of a convenient exposition and plot device than she is a person; whenever we need to learn something about werewolf lore, or whenever Gwen needs to get somewhere in a hurry, along comes Malvela on her pony cart, spouting arcane folk sayings.
Still, I had to wonder if the reason why those elements felt so cheesy is because those are precisely the elements that got picked up in the film’s later sequels, like The Wolf Man Meets Frankenstein and other B-movie drive-in fare. That’s one of the big disadvantages I have in watching this today, I think; I am more familiar with all of those cornball films than I was with this original, and am familiar with them as cornball films, things that get shown on late night public access cable and introduced by someone named “Mistress Fangora” or something. The later films all copied the same kind of murky fog and spooky music, but with lesser-quality acting and performances, so even though the quality of the script is a bit better here, my head still goes to “this is hokey”. And the script definitely is trying to be better than that; so much so that Alex (who watched too) and I ended up having a lengthy discussion about why the whole thing felt like it was trying to be a morality play. I’ve also since realized that the film was trying to do a little bit of “is Larry really a werewolf or is this all in his head” as well; that was the original idea, anyway, and there are some definite parts of the script that point to that “is he or isn’t he” question. Granted, the fact that you see Larry transform into the werewolf kind of undercuts that, but never mind.
There’s one bit that did not age well at all; Larry’s initial meeting with Gwen comes after he’s been playing around with a telescope, and sees her trying on earrings in her bedroom above the antique shop. He carefully notes the shop, then immediately goes there, posing as a customer. When he sees Gwen is indeed behind the counter, he walks up to her and says he’s in the market for earrings. When she shows him their stock, he turns them down. “I’m looking for something pretty specific,” he says, describing the exact set of earrings he’d seen her try on. When she still doesn’t catch on, politely saying that she hasn’t seen anything like that, he says, “oh, but you have, they’re upstairs on your vanity right now!” ….Let’s just say that the reaction in my apartment to that line was pretty strong.