The Wolf Man is a 1941 American horror feature film written by Curt Siodmak and produced and directed by George Waggner.
The Universal production stars Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya.
The title character has had a great deal of influence on Hollywood’s depictions of the legend of the werewolf. The film is the second Universal Pictures werewolf movie, preceded six years earlier by the less commercially successful Werewolf of London.
Chaney. Jr’s portrayal of The Wolf Man is considered to be one of the main Universal Monsters and is often listed with the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera and Gill Man.
The 1940s offered little in the way of horror films, certainly compared to any other decade of the 20th Century, given that the horrors of the real world were enough to contend with. However, there is little doubt that even with cinemas bursting at the seams with monsters, The Wolf Man would rise to the top.
The plot is beautifully simple, yet compelling; Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) returns from America to his Welsh home, to his father, John, played by Claude Rains, after learning of the death of his brother.
Whilst there, he becomes romantically entwined with the local girl at the antique shop, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). Finding any excuse to be near her, he purchases a walking stick topped with a silver wolf’s head, which she explains represents the werewolf of local legend.
Several nights later, Larry finds himself rescuing one of Gwen’s friends from an attack by a wolf, only to be bitten himself.
A visit to the local gypsy soothsayer (played by the magnificently intense Maria Ouspenskaya) reveals that this was actually her son, played by Bela Lugosi and now as a victim to the curse, Larry will roam the countryside killing innocent ramblers. It was a pretty good prediction.
Lon Chaney Jr. (born Creighton Chaney) would never achieve the superstar status of his father and he was discouraged from following him into the acting world. Indeed, it was only after his father died in 1930 that he began to appear in films and changed his name.
It was not until 1939 and the release of Of Mice and Men, in which Chaney excelled in the role of Lennie, that audiences realised that talent clearly ran in the family.
His role as the Wolfman led to him being typecast for the rest of his career, something he seems to have been satisfied with, appearing as the character in every sequel.
The special effects for The Wolf Man were devised and created by make-up genius Jack P Pierce, adapting rejected appliances created for the enjoyable but inferior Henry Hull vehicle Werewolf of London. Chaney followed his father’s lead in being willing to put himself through thoroughly unpleasant and painful processes to turn into the monster. The application of rubber prosthetics, wigs, and, crucially, thousands of yak hairs took six hours to apply and three more to remove. Chaney recalled that the clawed hands were literally nailed to his flesh, though this rather mimics his father’s tendencies at exaggeration.
The sequences showing Talbot’s gradual metamorphosis into the beast required painstakingly adding the layers of make-up, shooting the necessary feet of film and lining Chaney up with etched glass to ensure he remained in exactly the same position, whilst the next sequence was created. This process required Chaney to remain motionless (and toilet-less) for many hours and led to friction between himself and Pierce.
The Wolf Man is one of the few of Universal’s major league monsters not to be based on a work of literature (the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Mummy being the others) though legends of men turning into wolves had existed for many centuries, particularly in Europe. Europe was evidently still considered somewhat mysterious by American filmmakers and this was the second of their films to be based in the perhaps unlikely setting of Wales (the other being The Old Dark House). The mist-strewn sets are unconvincing as genuine locations but beautifully realised as atmospheric, ageless backdrops.
Writer, Curt Siodmak’s screenplay was so convincing that many of his invented werewolf law have virtually turned into fact. Though silver had been mentioned as a method of destroying the monster, this was the first time silver bullets were mentioned, though ironically this was not the method of Talbot’s demise. Similarly, the bite of the affected wolfman transmitting the curse to another never existed before the film.
Quoted many times in the film, giving it an air of being a genuine saying is the following:
“Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
Oddly, the moon doesn’t appear in the film at all and only in the sequels does the appearance of a full-moon prompt to transformation (last line henceforth changed to “the moon is full and bright”).
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Part of the success of the film is due to Talbot being extremely unhappy with his fate; like Frankenstein’s Monster, the unwanted affliction causes much torment and the doomed man wishes himself dead, lending much pathos to the character. Having seen off Boris Karloff for the role, Chaney delivers a terrific performance, the make-up combining with his jerky, beast-like movements to create one of horror film’s most imitated roles. Rains is a good foil as his father and Lugosi gives an oddly reserved, though admittedly brief, appearance as the cause of all the misery.
At only 70 minutes long, the film is understandably fast-paced and concludes with typically quick, no-nonsense early Universal style. Alas, missing, is the intended scene of the wolfman fighting a bear (in Wales, yes); the hired animal ran amok onset, chasing Ankers screaming into the back-lot.
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The film was remade, quite successfully, in 2010 by Joe Johnston.
Daz Lawrence, MOV!ES and MAN!A
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