“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
After an eighteen-year absence, the youngest son of Sir John Talbot returns home. Home is Talbot Castle, which is located somewhere in Wales. Larry Talbot arrives, soon after his older brother was killed in a hunting accident, ready to take on the responsibilities required of running the Talbot estate.
Sir John, played by the great, Claude Rains, has built a beautiful observatory in the attic of the castle. Soon after his arrival, Larry accompanies his father to the attic and while looking through a massive telescope sees local maiden, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) in her room, which sits above the local Antiques Shop she owns. Immediately taken by Gwen, Larry goes into town and to the Antiques Shop with the pretext of buying something. Long story short, he ends up with a unique cane, which is adorned with a silver handle shaped like a wolf and a pentagram, the sign of the werewolf. Given the cane’s design, the conversation turns toward the legend of the werewolf. Gwen recites the poem, “Even a man who is pure at heart…” and explains that every werewolf is marked with the pentagram symbol and is able to see it in the palm of his next victim. Although Larry’s mildly interested in the werewolf legend he thinks it’s absurd, but his visit proves successful when Gwen reluctantly agrees to go out with him – for a walk that evening to have their fortunes read by the gypsies who set up camp outside the village every autumn.
Eight O’clock comes around and as promised, Larry shows up to pick up Gwen. The woman is ready to go, but to Larry’s chagrin she invites her friend Jenny Williams (Faye Helm) to join them. The trio sets off to get their fortunes read. Along the path to the gypsies – a really creepy, fog-covered path – the three encounter a beautiful shrub of wolfsbane. And yes, it is bloomed. They stop to admire it as Jenny recites the poem, “Even a man who is pure at heart…” By this point the poem has been recited to Larry three times. Yet, he doesn’t get the hint.
Anyway – so on to the village they go and when they arrive the three are greeted by Bela the gypsy (Bela Lugosi). While Larry and Gwen go for a walk – again through the really creepy, fog-filled marshes – Jenny goes into Bela’s tent to have her fortune told. It doesn’t take long before it’s clear Jenny’s future doesn’t look promising. Bela is so disturbed by what he sees in the cards, in fact, that he anxiously rubs his forehead and… THERE IT IS! The pentagram! Now, I’d be outta there before he could say, “good evening” but Jenny, who’d given us the impression she was familiar with the werewolf legend, inexplicably decides to stay to get her questions answered. But then Bela takes a look at her palm and sees – not a life-line or a future , but… A PENTAGRAM! Holy wolfsbane! Horrified, Bela orders Jenny to leave. He can’t tell her anything tonight, “come back tomorrow,” he says. “Go quickly. GO!” Poor Jenny, now frightened half to death runs out of the tent. But she then goes running across – not a lit street with other people around – NO! She goes through the dark, foggy marshes!
Suddenly we hear a wolf howl followed by a woman’s scream. Larry, who’s still wooing Gwen, goes running to save Jenny…a wolf is attacking her. Thanks to his wolf head cane, Larry is able to fight off, and eventually kill the rabid animal, but not before Jenny is killed and – not before the wolf bites him. This can’t be good!
Now, let me recap – leading up to the attack the autumn moon is bright – although the moon is never actually shown in the film I must believe it’s out and bright because the poem says so – the wolfsbane is bloomed and they are in the middle of creepy, marshy, people-less woods. Just sayin’.
Anyway – Larry is badly wounded and a helpless Gwen, now cradling him, calls out for help. To their aid comes Maleva, an old gypsy woman we’d seen briefly at the gypsy camp, who takes the couple back to Talbot castle.
As Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) tends to Larry, we see the authorities, led by Colonel Montford (Ralph Bellamy) find a body at the site where Larry killed the wolf. Except the body they find is that of the old gypsy, Bela – his skull crushed by a sharp instrument. Lying nearby is a cane with a silver handle in the shape of a wolf with a pentagram. Colonel Montford, an old friend of the Talbot family, immediately links the cane to Larry Talbot who later explains that he killed a wolf, not a man, but when he goes to show both the policeman and the doctor the wolf’s bite, it’s gone.
Leaving Larry to his conscience and recovery Dr. Lloyd, Montford and Sir John discuss the young man’s strange behavior, leaning toward some type of psychological disorder as the explanation behind the strange happenings and Larry’s response.
“I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything.”
This explanation is in conjunction with the definition of Lycanthropy offered to us as The Wolf Man opens…
And the rest is the basis of popular lore – whether due to a “disease of the mind” or actual happenings, suffice it to say that Larry Talbot’s fate is a grim one, He transforms into a werewolf, terrorizes the villagers, kills the local gravedigger and suffers all sorts of side-effects including a sketchy memory and tremendous guilt. In other words his life as he knew it is over. And Larry’s end comes soon enough in a particularly tragic manner when he is bludgeoned to death by his own father using his own wolf head cane. Thinking he’s killed a beast who’s just attacked Gwen, Sir John watches in horror as Larry transforms from monster back to man right before his very eyes.
It’s worth mentioning that the psychological thread that runs deep in The Wolf Man was added by screenwriter, Curt Siodmak because he had an interest in psychology after having studied the work and theories of Sigmund Freud. Whether one buys into the psychology or not, it is interesting. Consider the theme – a symbol of the duality in all of us, the evil side that surfaces as the “strange” in the stranger takes over when he returns to his home as an outsider – to torment because he doesn’t fit in. If nothing else the psychobabble allows for endless hours of discussion. But it is not what makes The Wolf Man worth watching, it’s worth watching because it is great fun – an atmospheric movie with inspired photography by Joseph Valentine, a suspenseful tale that’s paced beautifully and has a great cast of characters.
Aside from the great script for The Wolf Man written by Siodmak, by the way, he is also credited with originating the modern myths of werewolves with this movie. This includes the fiend surfacing as the result of a bite, the silver bullet idea, and even the role played by the full moon. Also impressive is that Siodmak admitted he also “just made up” the famous wolfsbane poem, which is recited in every future Universal appearance of the wolf man (IMDB).
I have to say a few more words about the cast of The Wolf Man – impressive across the board and Universal made sure we knew it as this is the first of the studio’s films since Edgar Ulmer’s, The Black Cat in 1934 where each actor is introduced with his/her own title card. Leading the pack is Claude Rains, who’d launched his career in 1933 with a fantastic performance in another Universal Horror film, James Whale’s, The Invisible Man. Rains adds major gravitas to The wolf Man as far as I’m concerned. Although I will say Claude is physically not a good choice to play Lon Chaney Jr.’s father, watching and listening to him is always a treat. The stalwart Warren William was a popular leading man for many years by 1941, and the steady Ralph Bellamy was a staple in many films. Patrick Knowles had just finished John Ford’s, How Green Was My Valley when he appeared in The Wolf Man as Frank Andrews, Gwen’s intended whose affections Larry Talbot usurped. Evelyn Ankers who made several films with Lon Chaney, Jr. gives a fine performance as Gwen. Ankers is a great on-screen match for Chaney although according to many sources they did not get along too well.
Fay Helm who plays Jenny had a long career by 1941 and had appeared in a number of Universal horror films. Then there’s the great, Maria Ouspenskaya. Maria plays Maleva in The Wolf Man, the old gypsy woman and every scene she’s in is wonderful. In a real sense she’s the character that gives The Wolf Man depth and power. Because Maleva is so believable in her convictions regarding the werewolf legend, then we too can believe it is all possible. As Maleva, Ouspenskaya spends the span of the movie warning people to take the legend of the curse of the werewolf seriously and because she knows first-hand the horrors of the legend of the marshes she is the only one who offers Larry any sympathy. She also has one of the greatest lines in the film, a prayer she says to her son, Bela and later to Larry.
“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.”
Now, let’s talk about the man – The Wolf Man – one of the greatest monsters from the hey day of Universal Horror. And The Wolf Man is arguably the best of the 1940s horror films produced by the studio (in my opinion) with the exception of Charles Barton’s, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948, in which Lon Chaney Jr. reprised the role of Larry Talbot and his hairy alter ego. This is a great time to offer due kudos to the make-up genius of Jack Pierce for creating yet another unforgettable horror classic in The Wolf Man (in case you are not aware, Pierce broke the mold with the make-up in James Whale’s 1931 classic, Frankenstein).
Lon Chaney, Jr. would actually play the wolf man a total of six times – in five feature films and one television show. Aside from the original 1941 offering and the aforementioned Abbott and Costello meeting, The Wolf Man was followed by Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945). Chaney also reprised the role, sort of, in a 1962 episode of Route 66 in which he appeared with fellow classic horror legends, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. In that episode, by the way, Chaney plays the only one of the three horror legends who’s still working in the industry and gets to disguise himself in a number of different monster costumes, the wolf man being one of them – his most famous monster incarnation.
It’s difficult to conceive of anyone but Lon Chaney, Jr. playing the definitive Wolf Man, but he was not Universal’s first choice. According to IMDB, the studio originally intended for the role to go to horror superstar, Boris Karloff, but he was not cast for some reason. Instead the role went to Dick Foran, who was replaced by Chaney just a week before shooting began. In any case, Chaney made the role his own and it made him a legend. He’d refer to The Wolf Man as “my baby,” the role and film he felt was his “alone.” The reason for that distinction was that Chaney shared the monster spotlight with other notable Universal monsters in all the other films in which he appeared as Larry Talbot. Also, all the other monsters he played in different films had been originated by other actors – Frankenstein’s Monster by Karloff and Dracula by Lugosi. The Wolf Man (1941) was, indeed, all his.
Lon Chaney, Jr. also felt The Wolf Man was the most creatively satisfying role of his career and it stands to reason. He gives a great performance as the troubled Larry Talbot and as the Wolf Man, which he said he played for sympathy, as all the great portrayers of monsters had done, including his father. In Larry Talbot/Wolf Man Chaney created one of the most tragic of monsters – second (perhaps) only to Frankenstein’s Monster who didn’t even ask to be “born.” Larry Talbot was just an ordinary guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For fun – Inconsistencies in The Wolf Man…
The Wolf Man has long since been one of my favorite classic horror films for many of the reasons I mention above. But it is far from a perfect film featuring many inconsistencies and “bloopers,” if you will, that just add to the fun. For instance, a question that always comes to mind is why does Bela the gypsy turn into a wolf when the moon is bright, etc. when Larry Talbot turns into a Wolf Man? And how is it that Bela’s body is found fully clothed when he was naked as the wolf? And when Larry turns into the Wolf Man for the first time he’s dressed in an undershirt, but when we see him prowling as the monster immediately after he’s fully dressed in a dark shirt. Neatly buttoned and everything. Then there’s a wonderful blooper I’ve loved since I was a child. During the first transformation, which shows only the feet as they get hairier and hairier until Talbot stands and tip-toes away from the chair – his slacks raise and you can see the edge of the hairy boot. I got such a kick out of this with my friends I must have rewound the VHS (remember those?) a million times. I still get a kick out of it. That certain, wonderful “cheese” factor.
Two last bits of fun: I always enjoy the fact that it is Dracula himself who bites Larry Talbot and turns him into a werewolf. It’s pretty special is all I’m saying. And, noted in IMDB and mentioned in the DVD commentary is the fact that the church set that appears in The Wolf Man was part of the original set built for the legendary silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which had starred Lon Chaney Jr.’s famous father.
I read a review of The Wolf Man some time ago that made fun of the film and its value as a horror film. I believe the person stated it was horror of old people or something similar. Perhaps that’s correct, which probably proves I’m old. I can’t quite say I’m frightened by the film, but I am certainly entertained by it. However, regardless of freight meters, to discount this film’s value in the pantheon of Universal Horror is to do the entire history of monsters a great disservice. Everyone must agree Universal paved the way for all horror films that followed in one way or another and The Wolf Man is among the best made by Universal. So, it is without a doubt a film that deserves respect. For one thing, the legacy of The Wolf Man is as impressive as any of the other “big boys” like Dracula or Frankenstein. That’s true in terms of legacies, in any case, even if The Wolf Man doesn’t quite measure up to the others in quality. Films influenced by Waggner’s film are still being made today. And The Wolf Man didn’t have as its source a legendary literary work like the others did, making the film the main proponent of the legend of the werewolf…
…In many a distant village there exists the legend of the werewolf, or Wolf Man…his howl a dirge of death.
This post is my contribution to the A Thousand Faces! The Chaney Blogathon hosted by The Last Drive-In and Movies, Silently. Please be sure to visit either host site to read many more posts dedicated to The Chaneys – father and son – in this fabulous blogathon event.