In 1941, Universal Pictures released the last of their truly great monster movies The Wolf Man. The rise and fall of Dracula and Bela Lugosi and then Boris Karloff and Frankenstein, done their jobs, delivered the frights and scares, enjoyed the thrills yet the studio still struggled financially, desperately need a winning monster they called on screenwriter extraordinaire Curt Siodmak and he delivered. Horror films mainly in the 30s and 40s needed three things a good story, a quality ‘monster’ and good actors, to appeal to the audience, with just a drop of romance nothing too fancy this movie has all those ingredients present. In fact those items as important then as they are today. As for this movie itself, it has a fantastic atmosphere simple but very effective story with some nice moments in it. For the fans of classic horror movies, this is necessary see, as a reduction the status of ‘Gothic Monster’ The Wolf Man a late arrival to the main show the audience already familiar with the entire Frankenstein family. The Wolf Man puts the focus more on character development than actual horror; Talbot’s “transformations” are usually brief, and the scenes depicting his attacks somewhat restrained, however it all found something appealing about this man, hero turned villain. Universal still treated them with the respect they deserved a classic tale has since visited the big screen on so many occasions and incarnations. This one on a budget of $180,000 (equivalent of $2.9 million in today’s market) gave the green light to director George Waggner, who 1941 would also directed Man Made Monster and Horror Island, though this film clamored for the top spot.
Legend of the werewolf can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, to the Catholic Church however, Siodmak worked to create its own folklore to become a force to be reckoned with often in the cinema. All horror fans who know this film extremely well and know the fictional phrases as well in other horror movies like the 1-2 Freddy song from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. The phrase: “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 Wolf Man” written by one of the best writers of the genre, Curt Siodmak, however people likely to shrug or sadly ignore it cause of the black-and-white status, and omit the wonderful atmosphere and quality of the actors and story.
Most every horror fan both old and new know the story of The Wolf Man, but a short recap, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), living in America for 17-years (explains lack of dialect), returns home to his family’s estate in Wales, where he’s reunited with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains) due to his brother’s death. He and his father bury the hatchet on the past and build a new future, while Larry and Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) daughter of antique dealer, had wonderful on screen chemistry. While acting heroic, defending Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm), beats the animal with his newly purchase silver, wolf-headed cane but becomes wounded in the wolf attack, thereby begins the sinister transformation against his willpower. Another great character often overlooked the gypsy woman, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) who later returned to this role in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Maria, while not many great acting roles, ideally a legendary teacher of the craft, taught Lee Strasberg.
The most fascinating aspect of the film really comes from the backstory of most to the special effects fans, especially curious of knowing the history techniques and early form prosthetics from the incredible talents of Jack Pierce. Jack cemented the creation of the Wolf Man’s alongside the brilliance of his Frankenstein monster and Dracula, of the early lessons of layering pieces to create depth, for the actor to express the suffering or lust and desire of the creature. Pierce’s werewolf design would become definitive for many years to come using materials like yak hair, other materials and the makeup become more impressive. No CGI or even the animatronics from An American Werewolf in London or The Howling were available in 1941. Just the stop-motion method from animation, to apply a little, film, and repeat, the layer the shot afterwards, making a smooth transition. The cinematography and score are both some of the finest in any of the Universal monster movies, some of which finds itself homage shots in the more modern storytelling and films, however most go unnoticed of the originality.
Yes, The Wolf Man is dated, but the gothic tale still holds a rightful place in the history of horror, the story motivates the legend of this movie, it contains no vicious gore, and saturation of bloodlust, rather the romance and characters give a wondrous and entertaining pleasure to viewers. In fact, Lon Chaney Jr. became the only person to play all four of the classic movie monsters, an incredible feat for his time, and perhaps any, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); The Mummy’s Tomb (1942); Son of Dracula (1943) and of course this film The Wolf Man. As Universal Studios teams up to reinvent, and redesign their monster, this time as the Dark Universe one can only imagine to those horror to the original gothic monsters of old, no real comparison.