Is it ironic for a gravedigger to be killed while on the job?
It seems that some films have certain released dates established simply by the type of film they are. Christmas movies are released at the holidays while action films are summer and horror for fall. Although this is not a strict code, it is often followed fairly closely. It has not always been the case. The 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street was released in May and who thought to release The Wolf Man in December? Either way, both films found an audience and became classics regardless of the horrible timing or their release dates.
After learning of his brother's death, Larry Talbot returns from America to his family estate in Wales. He has his eyes on a local girl, Gwen, who runs an antique shop. He takes her on a date. Along with another girl, Jenny, they visit a gypsy camp to get their fortune read. Jenny is attacked right afterwards by a werewolf, who also happens to be the gypsy, Bela, who read Jenny's palm. Larry attacks the werewolf in defense of Jenny, killing the beast but not before being bit.
Bela's mother, Maleva, tells Larry that he will now become a werewolf at each full moon. "Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself." Maleva is a bit scary in her own way.
Although at first he believes her story is rubbish, he soon finds out the truth on the next full moon. Larry tries to tell his father what has happened but his story is dismissed as nonsense. His father calls for a doctor who says, "I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he's anything." On a night of a full moon, Larry's father joins a hunt to kill the wolf they believe is responsible for a couple of recent killings. Gwen is likewise in the woods that foggy night.
This is a horror film from those classic Universal monster movies. It stands out because of the cast. Claude Rains was a major star and they were usually not cast in horror films. It also featured the rare casting of both Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi, even though they never share the same scene.
The 2010 remake follows this one fairly closely. Both include a scene with a fight between father and son. Although this one only has one werewolf. Both have a scary setting featuring woods, cemeteries and an endless supply of fog. Although it never shows any blood, The Wolf Man still provides a great atmospheric haunt.
Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man.
Eric, you hit on the exact right word. The Wolf Man is incredibly atmospheric. From the fortune telling gypsy wagon, to the grand country estate, to the scenes in the foggy woods, the sets used in this movie are splendidly appropriate. Sure the special effects are cheesy and the Wolf Man makeup looks kind of silly, but the sterling cast and the fine direction by George Waggner more than make up for these flaws. Eric mentioned Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi but the cast also includes such familiar faces as Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Patric Knowles.
The Wolf Man completes the unholy trio of legendary Universal horror characters that also includes Count Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster. Like both of those previous movie creatures, the Wolf Man commits horrible murders but also evokes sympathy from the audience. After all Larry Talbot has no control over his behavior as a werewolf. In fact, of all the classic horror characters, his is the saddest tale.
Technically this was the second appearance by a werewolf in a Universal movie, being preceded six years earlier by the less well remembered 1935 Werewolf of London, which starred Henry Hull and featured make-up by Jack Pierce, the same guy that created Lon Chaney's werewolf makeup for this picture.
Modern directors could learn a thing or two about pacing from these old movies. The Wolf Man runs just 71 minutes but manages to pack in plenty of plot.
Although it's a horror movie and a melodrama, a few tidbits of humor are included. In one scene the gypsies are hurriedly packing up and getting ready to leave the area. Larry Talbot stops one man and asks him why they are in such a rush. The man answers, “There's a werewolf in the village.” Neither of them realizing that the man is actually talking about Talbot.
Many modern werewolf myths originated with this movie and were creations of screenwriter Curt Siodmak's imagination. These include a person becoming a werewolf after being bitten by one, the fact that it takes a silver bullet to kill one, and that a full moon causes the transformation. Even the movie's famous poem -Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright- wasn't part of any actual werewolf legend but was written by Siodmak.
The Wolf Man may seem incredibly primitive to modern moviegoers but it remains a classic horror film that fairly drips with atmosphere.
Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers in The Wolf Man.
The cast of this old horror movie is impressive. Claude Rains, who is actually top-billed, gives the movie a touch of prestige. His character is underdeveloped, but because we know Rains, it helps us know his character. Chaney does a good job in wolf makeup and a decent one out of it, but dramatic acting isn't his strong suit. As Patrick pointed out, even the supporting roles are filled with recognizable faces, all of whom help the story come to life.
Neither of my brothers mentioned Evelyn Ankers, the actress who played Gwen. She's attractive in a 1940s sort of way and does a good job in the part. Because of her tendency to appear in horror films, for a short while she was known as "the Queen of the Screamers". According to legend, she an Lon Chaney Jr. didn't get along, despite appearing in 7 movies together. She was the only actress to appear in a wolf man, a Dracula, and a Frankenstein film. This was her wolf man film obviously. The following year she appeared in The Ghost of Frankenstein and a year after that she would star in The Son of Dracula.
There are some humorous moments, as Patrick said. Some of them are intentional and some not. I found it funny that the story is set in Wales and yet no one uses a Welsh accent. There's plenty of English, American, and whatever the Gypsy accent is, but no Welsh. Or how about the way that Chaney peers into Ankers' bedroom window with his telescope and then proceeds to flirt with her afterward, creepily pointing out that he knows the contents of her bedside table, which she finds charming. The idea that the towering Lone Chaney Jr. was the diminutive Claude Rains' son is an amusing one, although the movie at least acknowledges this when Rains' character refers to him jokingly in one scene as a "big boy". And perhaps not so much funny, as more a sign of the times, but notice how casually the death of the gypsy is treated. Certainly the subject of arresting Larry for his murder is never seriously considered despite the fact that he was found next to the body and the owner of the murder weapon, which he continues to carry with him even after the murder!
It's true that compared to modern makeup and special effects, this movie is primitive, but it does a splendid job with what it had to work with. The art direction and sets are well done and the fog machines help cover up any weaknesses. They really set the atmosphere. Okay, so you can always tell that it's just a man covered in fur, but the wolf man is kept mainly in shadows and still manages to be believably menacing.
Horror movies today rely on gore and as many jump out of your seat moments as they can throw at you. This one relies on old fashioned atmosphere and acting ability and that's all it really needs.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1941)