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.
Universal had an impressive catalogue of horror films during the 30s and 40s that integrated gothic and science fiction themes into stories such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man. The Wolf Man can be considered part of that same dynasty and it established Lon Chaney Jr. much like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi before him, as a horror film staple. He was the Wolf Man as Karloff was Frankenstein’s Monster and Lugosi was Dracula. That’s how it worked.
What makes many of these films compelling is how they take myth and ground it in a believable reality. Fact and fiction becomes homogenized in a sense and such a world is a wonderful place to draw out horror. Because it can be supernatural, otherwordly, and frightening but it also hits close to home since there is a shred of truth always visible.
In this case, the film opens with the prodigal son, the lumbering, good-natured Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returning to the estate of his well to do father Sir John (Claude Rains). There’s some mention of a dead brother and a hunting accident–some tragic events. This is what brought Larry home and he seems to have patched things up well enough with his dad. As they say, time heals all wounds and it’s easy enough to dismiss it with that.
Anyways, life seems generally good. He’s getting acclimated with the quaint town of Lianwilly and he conveniently spies a girl working in her father’s shop across the way, the pretty ingenue Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) who happens to be already engaged. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to spend time with him because he really is a giant teddy bear with nary a violent bone in his body.
This is the preexisting world that the story develops only to be thrown off its axis by a telling event. It’s the origin of Larry’s troubles and they begin with a visit to a gypsy caravan, ending with him incurring a bite from a killer wolf. But the implications are much more ominous and deep-seated than that.
Because the trauma begins to eat away at him and his father though the local doctor sees his change of state as merely a psychological issue. Something he can be cured of. He’s only misguided–a little wrong in the head. They fail to see the full manifestations of his new sickness which transform him and lead him off into the night seeking after victims.
But if The Wolfman was simply an excuse to see a beast, it’s hard to gather that the film would have resonated with anyone then or now. In fact, this film is very much comparable to the superhero films we are so accustomed to now. The great installments are made that way by compelling characters and solid storytelling.
Curt Siodmak the brother of famed film noir director Robert Siodmak must be commended on his script which in a mere 70 minutes develops a streamlined story line full of a certain moodiness. To his credit, he helped lay the foundation for a whole legend that has become the standard archetype for any narratives involving werewolves.
The very fact the little poem uttered throughout the film is practically omnipresent, conjured up by so many individuals, works as a fitting harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile, the gypsies played by (Bela Lugosi) in an unfortunately relegated role and Maria Ouspenska, while pigeon-holed takes on the role of mystical soothsayers with ease. Throw in silver bullets, silver-headed walking sticks, and pentagrams and you have all the necessary touchstones (except full moons). Apparently that comes later.
Furthermore, the general atmosphere, time lapse effects, and painstaking makeup work of Jack Pierce all contribute to the heady brew. Perhaps because it is precisely these things that will make some disdain the horror genre with scorn that actually imbue a B-picture such as this a surprisingly engaging aura. It’s very much a part of the mythology that has been built around these monster movies and while meeting our expectations in a sense, that’s only a small, albeit integral part of this story.
Because, everything must ultimately return back to Lon Chaney’s performance as the genial giant Larry Talbot. He’s the complete antithesis of a monster. It’s not what he wants to be and he proves to have such a strong capacity for love. He keeps short accounts and he has a tremendous urge to protect others from harm. It’s innate in him. That’s what makes his ghastly transformation so devastating. Literally no one sees it coming (except Maleva) and you can attribute that to pure ignorance or you could go out on a limb and say it’s because Larry comes off as a genuinely good human being. By the film’s conclusion we feel truly sorry for him and that’s the key
But if we dare take the metaphor further still, I suppose we could say that his curse was a physical manifestation–reflecting the animalistic evil that can be inside of any person. The stuff that’s churning inside of our being at any given time. That cauldron of dark desires bubbling up. That’s what makes the dividing line between the physical and psychological so interesting in The Wolf Man. Normally they exist in separate spheres but in some ways this film makes them one in the same.