One of Universal’s best efforts within the gothic tradition, 1941’s The Wolf Man is one of the studio’s best horror films from its golden era. Though its director isn’t well known for his horror, the success of this feature is no doubt down to borrowing certain stylistic elements from Universal’s most innovative horror director, James Whale. George Waggner’s film could easily be a Whale film, both stylistically and thematically: dialogue being laced with humour, a unavoidable physical change and creation (though unlike Whale’s films there are no ties to homosexuality) and delicious lines of pathos. This isn’t just another monster film or the sort that Universal would start pouring out only a few years later but a massively underrated piece of gothic cinema.
The Wolf Man concerns the fate of Larry Talbot, the son of the rich owner of Talbot castle in an area surrounded by myth and folklore about lycanthropic happenings. Lon Chaney Jr. gives a startlingly effective performance as the tortured and tragic figure of Talbot as he becomes infected after being bitten by a werewolf while trying to save a local girl from an equally awful fate. Chaney is perhaps one of genres most underrated actors, most probably due to his father’s towering success, so seeing a full blooded performance from the man is exhilarating.
Talbot’s character does start off the film being a tad strange, almost a slimy character with his frankly odd and stalker like chat up lines used on local girl Gwen. When a group of Gypsies arrive in town, they bring with them the old curse of the werewolf. Not exactly politically correct but this does produce some wonderfully dated, unintentionally humorous lines from some of the supporting cast such as “Wolf!? Gypsy woman!? Murder!? What is this!?”. This where Waggner’s film differs from Whale’s efforts in that Whale’s humour was always on the intelligent side of intentional. Here Waggner’s is more rooted in the film’s dating.
Bela Lugosi’s presence is barely felt in the film, though his name was no doubt used to draw people in to the cinemas. He plays a gypsy incidentally called Bela and one can’t help but feel this was the studio having its own laugh on the poor actor as he increasingly struggled to find work at a decent rate. This awkwardness is thankfully avoided further as he leaves the film relatively early on but hints at the pressure the actor was increasingly under from the monopoly driven studio system of Hollywood.
The visuals of The Wolf Man are effective and atmospheric, especially surprising considering its small budget (almost half of what Tod Browning were used to after Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) broke the horror market) . Though the actual design and make up job of the wolf man himself is rendered almost ineffectual after a viewing of Carry on Screaming (1966), the sets and lighting in particular are some of the best Universal ever produced. Though set in Wales, this is pure Conan Doyle country, full of dark foggy evenings on the countryside and eerie towns, wonderfully realised and shot with a keen eye for shadows.
Even if slightly on the short side (at a mere 70 minutes), The Wolf Man can more than hold its weight against Universal’s more iconic films. Though the creature itself would eventually share the same fate as Frankenstein and Dracula with a rash of poor sequels (of which the ever more desperate Lugosi would be lumped into), the original film is one of the best horror films out there from the golden age of Hollywood and is as effective a piece a cinema as Universal ever produced.