When you see a film at the time of its first release you are seeing it at the right time. If a film contains subtexts or commentaries about the state of the world or is trying to make some political point or other, then it helps to be aware of the situation in the intuitive way that can only come from living through the right period in history. When you see a film donkeys years after it was first made then you need to bear in mind what was going on at the time as the flick may contain some references to those events, or it may just have some cheap looking effects because all the money was being used at the time to pay for World War 2.
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) sets things in motion in The Wolf Man (1941) by returning to his ancestoral home in Britain after years away in America, where he tries to bury the hatchet with his dear old Dad after the death of his older brother in a hunting accident. Larry’s Dad, Sir John Talbot is the lord of the manor and patron of the nearby village and he encourages Larry to get to know the place and become involved in the running of the estate.
Larry impresses his father with the technical skills he picked up while stateside including a knowledge of advanced optics which he puts to use in repairing his Dad’s telescope. While testing the telescope Larry spies an attractive girl down in the village and he heads into town to meet her. The girl, Gwen, runs an antique shop and Larry buys a cane for himself so as not to appear too creepy (though that ship had well and truly sailed after Larry comes across as the stalker of the century by telling Gwen he could see into her room). The cane is topped with a silver wolf’s head and pentagram design and Larry carries it around with himself all the time (just in case he runs into Gwen; that way she’d believe that he really wanted it as opposed to copping onto the truth that he just wants into her knickers).
Larry talks Gwen into “going for a walk” with him that night, though she drags her friend Jenny along too, and all three end up at a nearby gypsy camp where they can get their fortunes told. Along the way the women tall Larry about all the local folklore which for some reason is fixated on Werewolves. Later that night, as they make to leave the halting site Jenny is attacked by a large dog and Larry tries to save her. He beats the creature to death with his cane but is bitten in the process and is too late to save Jenny.
The next morning Larry is visited by the local constabulary who are investigating two deaths at the pikey encampment, that of Jenny and a traveller named Bela (played by none other than Bela Lugosi of Dracula fame). Bela had been beaten to death with a blunt instrument and Larry’s cane was found next to him. Larry can’t believe the story he’s told so he tells his side of things about how he killed an animal with his cane and had been bitten, though when he tries to show the copper the wound he received it has disappeared.
Trying to get a handle on what’s going on, Larry nips back down to the knackers to try to gather some information. There he meets Bela’s mother who has a strange tale to tell about her son as well as some really bad news for Larry, just as the wolfbane starts to bloom, and the autumn moon gets bright…
The Wolf Man managed to become the standard by which early werewolf movies were judged and for all the right reasons as it’s quite good. While most people think of the dodgy effects of the transformation from man into wolf, which were limited at the time due to technology and a massive global war ranging on and making things hard to come by, The Wolf Man is really a master class in setting an atmosphere in a film. From the moment Larry lands back home the film sets the stage for something weird to happen, and once he makes it down town you just know things are going to kick off.
The quiet little village just oozes menace and the inhabitants add to that notion with the little rhyme they all know and recite at the drop of a hat:
and says his prayers by night,
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.
What really makes The Wolf Man are the performances, with Lon Chaney especially excellent as Larry Talbot, the poor prick who catches a wicked dose of lycanthropy off the gyppo’s. He was VERY American though and it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that after only eighteen years away in the colonies he’d gone quite so native; I would have expected more of a mix of an accent then the pure Californian he one ran with (and I’m a bit of an expert on the subject, if I do say so myself!).
The surprise cast member in The Wolf Man was Bela Lugosi, who was pretty severely typecast when you think about it, what with the vampire Dracula or the gate selling/wife beating/bare knuckle fighting/horse trading traveller Bela both examples of what passes for Romanian aristocracy. As Lugosi was Romanian though there were probably very few roles out there for him beyond vampire or pikey.
The Wolf Man single handedly defined and to an extent killed the warewolf film as the iconic images of a hairy Lon Chaney amount to what passes for such a creature in too many minds. The Wolf Man is a creepy film that while isn’t scary does qualify as horror by dwelling not on the killing the creature does but rather on psychological impact on the victim of the curse and those around him.
Two Thumbs Up for The Wolf Man.