Nowadays urban fantasy has gotten all highfalutin with a bunch of flavors of wolf creatures. There are werewolves and lycanthropes and loup garous and lycans and blutbaden and all other sub-categories of wolf metamorphosing humans. Back in the day there were just werewolves. And the most famous case was Larry Talbot.
Larry was a British ex-pat living in America. He left home after a disagreement with his father. His father was a titled Lord living on the family estate. But when Larry’s older brother died it was time for the prodigal son to return and take up his family responsibility as the heir apparent. As luck would have it, Larry’s arrival home coincided with the arrival of a troop of gypsies outside of the local village. And it was at the gypsy camp that Larry would begin his personal exploration of nocturnal non-domestic canine/human feeding habits. Larry is attacked by a werewolf who during the day is Bela the gypsy fortune teller (interestingly played by Bela Lugosi). Bela wounds Larry but is himself killed by Larry using a silver headed walking stick. The head of the stick is, of course, shaped like a wolf’s head. Larry is carried back to his home where he survives his wound which heals in the shape of a pentagram (the sign of the werewolf!). The killing of Bela becomes part of a police investigation and Larry is suspected but being a nobleman, he is not pestered by arrest or even having to appear before a magistrate. The police inspector is forced to come visit him at the manor and all deference to his status maintained. Meanwhile Larry is starting to feel funny and the next night he turns into a werewolf and goes on a killing spree. After this he is desperate to believe that he is only suffering from nightmares and delusions but the evidence starts mounting up against him. At one point during one of his nocturnal hunts, he is caught in a leg trap. And here he is saved by Bela’s mother. The old gypsy lady feels responsible for Larry’s plight and recites a spell over him that turns him back into a man and allows him to escape the trap. Finally, Larry reaches the end point of his despair when he knows that his next victim is the woman he loves. Luckily (sort of) his father manages to kill Larry with the same silver wolf headed walking stick that Larry used earlier for the same purpose. So, the story ends on this somber scene of father looking down at the son he has just killed. The gypsy woman recites her spell again and we’re supposed to realize that this was the merciful release and the best-case ending for poor Larry Talbot.
In terms of range of acting ability and style the Wolfman is probably the most varied of the Universal Classic Monster Movies. On the one hand we have Claude Rains playing Lord Talbot, Larry’s father. Rains is an excellent actor and also a very polished individual who easily can play a nobleman in a movie. He was also rather short and slight of build. Then there’s Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry. Chaney was an indifferent actor and a very large and tall man with a booming rough voice. He was more at home in a broad comedy such as the pictures he did at Universal with the comic duo Abbot and Costello. In fact, he reprised his role as the Wolfman in the monster spoof, “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” It might be assumed that he would be out of his depth trying to portray a nobleman’s son but he plays the part as a self-made man who grew up in America and reflects the manners and outlook of his adoptive land. He employs a working-class diction and style of speech and comes off as a personable individual with maybe a slightly hot temper. The relation between father and son seems to be cordial, warm and in the spirit of a mutual rapprochement after a youthful revolt against parental authority. Before the disaster occurs to Larry, the atmosphere is of a joyful family reunion. So, these two actors almost exact opposites in appearance, acting style and talent level manage to do a convincing job of portraying themselves as family.
The other important portrayal is the old gypsy woman played by Maria Ouspenskaya. Since her son Bela was a werewolf she understands Larry’s plight and realizes what his fate will be. And being a gypsy of course she has witch-like powers (and a really cool accent). When Larry needs to escape from his wolf form she could recite the following spell to revert him to human form.
“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.”
She is the coolest aspect of the movie and provides the atmosphere (along with the fog machine that must have been working overtime for this film) that allows you to think 20th Century England could be infested with werewolves and gypsies.
And finally, the other notable aspect of the movie is the tradition spawned of werewolves transforming during the full moon. Or did it? Actually, in this first Larry Talbot outing the full moon isn’t explicitly mentioned:
Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.
Later they change the final line to “and the moon is full and bright.” So here we can see that autumn and wolfs bane is part of the equation. Maybe this restricts it to the Hunter’s or Harvest Moon.
So, do I like the Wolfman? Only parts. I like the beginning and I like the end. But the middle where Larry is fretting over whether he is going crazy isn’t all that good. So, I recommend seeing it at least once but it’s not my favorite for sure.