Thursday, November 20, 2014

Movie Review: "The Wolf Man" (1941) by David Pretty

The second flick I watched in the Cineplex Cinema Classics Halloween Double Feature was The Wolf Man. Following nine years after The Mummy, The Wolf Man is an even slicker package that exemplifies how well-tuned the Universal horror factory had become by then.

In fact, this wasn't Universal's first bash at head-lining a lycanthropy-stricken protagonist. That dubious distinction belongs to Henry Hull who portrayed the Werewolf of London back in 1935. Unfortunately that film failed to resonate with audiences partly because Hull refused to wear the full version of Jack Pierce's iconic make-up and partially due to the film's pedestrian plot.

But writer Curt Siodmak was convinced that a character suffering under the inherently-tragic werewolf myth had a genuine shot at joining the Universal monster fraternity, which already included such luminaries as Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Mummy. He persisted, eventually delivering a crackerjack script which was then realized by veteran producer / director George Waggner.

Prodigal son Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his ancestral home in Wales after his brother is killed in a hunting accident. Instead of acting like a resentful jackhole, his supportive dad Sir John (Claude Rains) uses this tragic occasion to reconnect with his journeyman son. Pretty soon Larry finds himself easing into the role of a local Lord.

This includes a whirlwind romance with the beautiful Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). After spying her from afar in a scene that feels less "Peeping Tom" and more "love-at-first-sight" Larry visits her at her family's antique shop. During their meeting it's revealed that she's engaged to be wed to the milquetoast Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles). Undeterred Larry invites her out with him the following evening.

Before he leaves the shop he buys an unusual walking stick with a silver handle in the shape of a wolf's head. This gives Gwen an opportunity to repeat a popular refrain amongst the superstitious locals:

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.

The following night Larry, Gwen and wing-woman / third wheel Jenny (Fay Helm) visit a traveling band of gypsies that have just rolled into town. While Larry and Gwen flirt with one another Jenny gets her fortune told by the intense and brooding Bela (Béla Lugosi). When the cards predict doom, Jenny freaks out and runs away, prompting the gypsy to give chase. Soon the girl's desperate cries for help are heard reverberating through the misty woods.

Larry rushes to her aid but suddenly finds himself in a life-or-death battle with a vicious wolf. He manages to slay the beast with his silver-headed cane but he's wounded in the process and passes out. When he comes to, Jenny is dead and Larry's cane has been used to tee off on Bela's skull.

Before we can pass this off as Republican-style xenophobia, Larry is approached by the gypsy matron Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) who tells him that her son Bela was cursed with lycanthropy. This gives her a chance to serve up that timeless old chestnut: "Whoever is bitten by a verewolf and lives becomes a verewolf himself". Naturally, Larry chalks this up to more paranoid local color and tries to forget about the whole thing.

Unfortunately THE LAW, led by Colonel Montford (Ralph Bellamy) can't overlook the evidence which clearly implicates Larry in Bela's murder. Sir John and their family physician Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) try to mount a defense for the young man but Larry's odd behavior makes this increasingly difficult. On the same night that a gravedigger is brutally murdered, Larry blacks out and then wakes up the following morning covered in mud. It would seem that the gypsy woman's warnings were more truth then superstition after all!

As I mentioned before, by the time the 1940's rolled around, Universal had pretty much perfected its horror recipe. Less melodramatic and stagey then The Mummy and Dracula, director George Waggner takes advantage of the ambitious script and serves up plenty of cool and interesting set-pieces. Like those earlier films there's plenty of vintage production design to admire here.

Talbot Manor is appropriately stately. The Conliffe antique shop is gloriously cluttered and arcane. And when the gypsies arrive in town the set decoration really starts to impress. All of those authentic-looking carts, tents, props and costumes become the stuff of nightmares when immersed in a gnarled, fog-shrouded forest. Eventually the movie takes on the bearing of a dreamy, nebulous fairy-tale.

The Wolf Man also features one of the earliest on-screen monster transformations. In earlier films potential werewolves or Mr. Hydes would just lurch off-screen or collapse behind some strategically-placed furniture. The camera would be turned off and the make-up man would rush in to do his business. When he was done the camera would start cranking again, the actor would either rise up or lurch back into frame and - voilà! - instant monster! Sure, it was a bit of a cheat but it worked in a pinch.

For his film Waggner wanted something more undeniable, more horrifying. Ergo, Larry's transformation happens right up on screen. As you might expect, a much more laborious process was used in order to achieve this. After the camera was locked down, Chaney had to remain perfectly still as make-up impresario Jack Pierce applied some appliances, grease paint and yak hair to the actor's hands and feet. After shooting a few frames, they'd turn the camera off and once again Pierce would run in and add a bit more detail to the illusion. This process was painstakingly repeated over and over again until Chaney was in full wolf mode.

This technique is beautifully showcased during the film's first transformation sequence. Granted Waggner doesn't show Chaney's face during this pivotal moment, but this restraint allows for a spectacular reveal of the Wolf Man later on. The shot begins with an anxious and alarmed Larry noticing that his body hair is experiencing an alarming growth spurt. The camera locks down on his legs which slowly dissolve into wolf paws. Upon completion, he stands up and then stalks out to frame. Cut to those same beastly feet tramping through the misty forest. Then the camera pulls back, revealing the fearsome Wolf Man in all his snarling glory!
Between Waggner's taut direction, Joseph Valentine's agile camerawork and a stirring original soundtrack by the sadly-uncredited trifecta of Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner, the film retains quite a bit of its original power. When The Wolf Man first unspooled for audiences back in 1941 it really must have looked as if Chaney was transforming into a beast right before their unbelieving eyes. One can only imagine how many cinephiles must have fallen forward into their popcorn when they first got a load of this.

As great as the sets and makeup effects are, the whole thing would be rather hollow without the presence of Lon Chaney, Jr. Although he wasn't as accomplished or multifaceted as his famous dad, I'd challenge anyone to name another actor who could generate half the amount of pathos that Chaney manages to embody here. With his towering height, basset-hound facial features and cut-like-a-bag-of-milk physique, Chaney had the perfect sad-sack everyman qualities needed to embody a character cursed by fate. A case can be made that he was even more effective in lupine form: feral, manic and vicious.

Claude Rains also deserves a nod for his terrific turn as Sir John Talbot. I guarantee that if this film were re-made right now, the senior Talbot would be written as a complete asshole, treating his wayward son like the family's black sheep. Apart from a brief awkward moment, he's perfectly welcoming to Larry, relieved that his last remaining son is back within his sphere influence safe and sound. His unwavering support for Larry is what makes the film's finale even more tragic. The performance delivered by Rains is so natural and contemporary that I feel downright compelled to seek out his leading man roles in The Invisible Man and The Phantom of the Opera.     

Béla Lugosi doesn't have a lot to do here but his screen time is highly memorable. Always hypnotic, Lugosi brings a burning intensity to the role of the doomed Bela. Between this and his supporting role as Igor in Son of Frankenstein, one wishes that the studio had kept him in colorful bit parts throughout the rest of his life. He was a powerful and charismatic presence and it's a bloody shame that he was forced to appear in a lot of dreck later on in his career.

Also worthy of special mention is Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva the gypsy woman. Already an accomplished actress back in her native Russia, Maria turned the disadvantage of a thick accent into a thriving career, playing a slew of Slavic characters in Hollywood. Her performance here is very low-key and borderline monotone which is perfectly in step with someone who's seen a lot of weird shit and unnatural fates. In contrast to her outward stoicism, the mixture of sadness, pity and relief she communicates during the following speech still clobbers the viewer smack dab in the feels:

"The way you walked was thorny, though no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity."

Finally, the winsome Evelyn Ankers is terrific as Larry's love interest Gwen Conliffe. Considerably less waifish and screamy then your average horror movie damsel, Anders brings a reserve of strength and confidence to the role that lesser actresses might telegraph. Her scenes with Chaney crackle with chemistry and she always seems to be two steps ahead of him during their verbal sparring. Even though she's betrothed to the yawn-inducing Frank Andrews her devotion to Larry never feels like like a far-fetched script contrivance.

Is the movie perfect? Not quite. Just looking at "father and son" Claude Rains and Lon Chaney, Jr. standing next to each other is enough to inspire giggles. Even though Chaney could inspire sympathy without effort he really wasn't a great nuts and bolts actor. All of the film's write-ups insist that the action takes place in Wales but has absolutely no impact on the story itself. In fact, the action could very well be set in GENERIC EUROPEAN TOWN. Finally, as one of the first werewolf movies some of the lore is downright kooky, such as the inexplicable appearance of the pentagram on a victim's hand.  

Nevertheless, The Wolf Man represents the last truly original addition to the Universal horror pantheon. From here on in, the creatures started to get paired up in an increasingly-silly series of "monster mash" movies that attempted to bolster their flagging appeal. Eventually these great character had to suffer the indignity of chasing Bud Abbott and Lou Costello around back-lots and creaky-looking castle sets. It wasn't until Creature from the Black Lagoon surfaced in 1954 that something new and original was added to the milieu.

There's been a lot of talk lately of rebooting all of the Universal Monsters, which sounds like a good idea in theory. Unfortunately if the recent Dracula Untold is any indication, the producers of this Marvel-style "shared universe" are completely missing the point. Turning these properties into CGI-soaked action-fests will only end up watering down these iconic characters whilst pissing off the purists. Case in point: I remember being super-excited to see the movie Van Helsing back in 2004. But then I actually saw Van Helsing*Eeeeeeeesshh!*
Regardless of what's to come, these new versions will never diminish the atmosphere, class and timeless qualities embodied by classics like The Wolf Man. If you want to see some vintage movie craftsmanship combined with a few mild shivers, you gotta check it out! 

Tilt: up.

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