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31 Days of Horror: It isn’t easy being wolf or man when one becomes ‘The Wolf Man’

31 Days of Horror: It isn’t easy being wolf or man when one becomes ‘The Wolf Man’

The Wolf Man

Directed by George Waggner

Written by Curt Siodmak

U.S.A., 1941

If this little classic horror movie marathon for Sound on Sight’s 31 Days of Horror has taught us anything, it is that the best monster movies are the ones that convey through their narratives the sense of tragedy surrounding the monster’s existence. It is not easy being scary and equipped with enough prowess to toss people over cliffs or boats as easily as it is to snap fingers because it results in nobody liking you. Frankenstein’s creation, for example, had it really bad considering he was literally born into the dramatic state he shortly lived in. Another, possibly more depressing example is that of Lorn Chaney Jr in The Wolf Man, who was not born a creature of the night, but made into one by sheer bad luck. What is a doomed persron stuck with a case of lycanthropy to do?

Lon Chaney is Larry Talbot, the relatively young son to one Sir John Talbot (Claude Raines), who has come back home from the United States following the passing of his brother in a hunting accident. The  viewer is led to understand that his brother was next in line to take over the family estate, Talbot Castle. Now the onus falls onto Larry’s shoulders, although his father seems more than willing to mend past familial issues and help make Larry’s transition from regular mechanical engineer to upper ruling class home owner as smooth as possible. Upon setting his eyes on the lovely Gwenn Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) who helps run her father’s antique shop, the situation appears to be looking up. Of course, the reprieve is brief, with his world taking a dramatic turn the night they visit a gypsy camp none too far from the Talbot grounds. It is there that one the elders (Bela Lugosi in a welcomed cameo)  seems to attack Gwenn in the form of giant wolf. Larry overpowers the animal, but not before he is bitten, which is when his physical self transforms into a terryfying werewolf each night. Suddenly, taking over the Talbot estate is the least of Larry’s worries.

George Waggner’s The Wolf Man takes a page right out of Frankenstein insofar as both protagonists are in many respects doomed from the moment destiny has dermined their fates. There is always a glimmer of hope in the case of both characters, but each film makes it perfectly clear that the odds are stacked firmly against them. Waggner’s picture goes one step further however. Whereas the monster in Frankenstein knew nothing more than what his maker conditioned him to be aware of (despite some hints at something greater gestating in his mind), Larry Talbot is presented to the viewer long before his hairy predicament complicates matters. He is an overall decent man, plagued by the many desires, fears and hesitations that dictate how any regular human should normally behave. Because of that, the curse of the werewolf is all the more potent as a piece of the narrative. Larry was committing an act of heroism by trying to save someone from being mauled to death and for that he is damned. Hard to think of anything more tragic. It is equally interesting to note that very few scenes feature actor Lon Chaney in full wolf attire. When the film does show off its makeup and costume effects, the results are appropriately eerie, yet as the story evolves it becomes ever clearer that the horror Waggner wishes the audience to experience is not limited to nighttime attacks in foggy woods, but the emotional and psychological turmoil suffered by Larry when he is not the monster, which is a very mature and bold way to approach the film’s story when so many might be expecting something else entirely.

The casting of Lon Chaney is equally pertinent. He was quite the stocky man, with his physicality ultimately paying off both when he is ordinary Larry and when he morphs into the fanged hunter. In the latter’s case, the advantages should be obvious enough: decorate a big, well buit individual in freaky werewolf makeup and the ‘scare factor’ rises significantly. Chaney was a capable physical actor and his few scenes as the titular antagonist demonstrate that perfectly. However, the dichotomy between his naturally impressive physical stature and the very docile nature of his character Larry makes those human scenes all the more compelling. It is as though the filmmakers opted to cast a big man for the cool monster scenes yet inadvertently ended up with an actor who provided them with something even more special and unexpected for the dramatic scenes when he did not wear the prosthetics.  There might be a few awkward moments in the early goings when Chaney makes some harmless attempts at humor while trying to woo Evelyn Ankers (comedic timing perhaps not one of the actor’s stronger points), but notwithstanding those few moments, the actor gives an especially heartfelt performance. It means a lot when showering lots of praise on an actor in film that includes Claude Raines but someone other than Raines himself. Speaking of Raines, even though it might not sound right (considering what a phenomenal performer he was throughout his career), his work in The Wolf Man is not his best. He is by no means poor in the film, this is still Claude Raines after all. Nonetheless, he does not appear as committed to this role, spending the majority of the film either with his hands in his pockets or patting Lon Chaney on the back when the latter’s stress begins to mount.

Finally, the film deserves applause for staying true to the sense of doom and gloom which has befallen its protagonist. Of all the films reviewed this month, it is here, with The Wolf Man, that the filmmakers most successfully translate from the page to the screen an discomforting sense that things might end very, very badly for the main characters. Part of that has to do with the fact that unlike with the creatures of any of the other films in the marathon, it is easiest to relate to Larry Talbot. He is the most human of the villains in this collection of stories and thus the most unfortunate. To put in even more bluntly, it’s just to easy to feel sorry for the poor sap that when the going gets especially tough, the viewer definitely receives an extra kick to the gut.

As iconic as werewolves are in horror film lore are, and as highly regarded as Lon Chaney’s  interpretation is, The Wolf Man is often ranked behind Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of status as classics. Now, in fairness, it never trails either by very much as it typically added into the conversation very quickly. Having now seen it at long last, this movie fan can easily champion it for being just as strong as the aforementioned legendary pictures. It might even be the one that resonates the  most, emotionally speaking.

-Edgar Chaput