Dir. George Waggner
Reviewer. Dan Cook
The film that made Lon Chaney Jr. the third cog in the Universal monster movie machine, George Waggner’s 1941 lycanthropic classic THE WOLF MAN is a beautifully atmospheric watch that would lay down many of the themes and conventions synonymous with the werewolf mythos. Having already made his electrifying horror debut in Waggner’s fun yet disposable sci-fi oddity MAN MADE MONSTER a few months previous, Lon Chaney Jr. really comes into his own with THE WOLF MAN, delivering a very sympathetic yet highly physical performance that not only cemented his place in the horror hall of fame but also proved to audiences that he was perfectly able to take over his late father’s extraordinary cinematic legacy.
Chaney is excellent as Larry Talbot, the son of a rich landowner (played by Universal regular Claude Rains) who returns to his Welsh hometown after an 18 year absence for the funeral of his brother. While rediscovering his ancestral home, he meets Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) a young antiques shop owner who reluctantly agrees to accompany him to a Romani village to have his fortune read. However after being confronted and bitten by a large doglike creature while enjoying a walk through the midnight fog, Larry, with the guidance of an elderly gyspy (Maria Ouspenskaya) soon comes to realise that he has been attacked by a werewolf and that he too is doomed to transform into a murderous beast with the rise of the notably absent full moon.
Impeccably shot by five time Oscar nominee Joseph Valentine, THE WOLF MANis one of the best looking horror pictures in all of 1940’s cinema, with the palatial expanses of the Talbot Manor, the ethnicity of the Romani village and the misty creepiness of the forests (built on the largest of the Universal backlots) all lending the film a distinct atmosphere of otherworldly mystery and dread notably distinct from the comparatively claustrophobic nature of FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY and DRACULA - the later followups of which Chaney would appear in across the decade, becoming something of a sequel cash cow for Universal. Adding to this moody air is the music by Hans J. Salter which frequently lifts motifs from his score for MAN MADE MONSTER, (some of which bears an uncannily resemblance to Danny Elfman’s BATMAN theme written some 48 years later) and the eerie background noises of distant howling.
But beyond the evocative visuals and the ambient soundscape, what really sets THE WOLF MAN apart from all other lycanthrope movies is the charismatic and likeable central performance from Lon Chaney Jr. who would go on to reprise the role of the fated Larry Talbot in 5 subsequent films. The process of becoming the titular monster was far from easy, with the actor having to endure hours of laborious waiting while effects wizard Jack Pierce meticulously applied the fangs, wigs and pounds of yak hair that made up Chaney’s now legendary werewolf costume. The extreme effort involved in this tedious process must have been even more frustrating for both Chaney and Pierce when considered that the on-screen transformation lasts for a mere couple of seconds, focusing solely on Larry Talbot’s feet as they lap-dissolve from human to animal form. But the result is no doubt startling and while ‘The Wolf Man’ notably sags in its exposition heavy second act, the appearance of the teeth and fur certainly left an impression on the genre and today, Chaney’s werewolf is as iconic as Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster or Bela Lugosi’s (who appears for a brief period in THE WOLF MAN) Dracula.
When compared to its genre-defining 1930’s predecessors, THE WOLF MAN rather pales. Chaney aside, the performances aren’t particularly memorable, the lack of monster action is rather disappointing and as mentioned, the pacing wavers rather drastically before the glorious first appearance of the beast. However, it is still a splendidly crafted, often creepy and very enjoyable creature feature whose bloody pawprints linger on the horror picture to this day.