‘The Wolf Man,’ an eerily believable mix of psychology and superstition

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‘The Wolf Man The Wolfman
Directed by George Waggner
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, and Evelyn Ankers
USA, 70 min – 1941.

“The way you walked was thorny through 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.” 

The Wolf Man is the classic horror flick, of the werewolf persuasion. It tells the story of practical son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.) returning to Britain, after his older brother and heir to an illustrious British title (which title, we do not know) has died. At castle Talbot, Larry meets his father, Sir John (Claude Rains), for the first time since moving to America eighteen years earlier. Their strained, ‘second son-father’ relationship is resolved rather quickly and Larry assumes his duties as heir, only distracted by the lovely, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). When Larry tries to save Gwen’s friend from a wolf, he is bitten, and subsequently becomes the title ‘Wolf Man.’

This werewolf tale started much of the lore we know by heart today (thanks to writer Curt Siodmak). It’s natural that The Wolf Man would thus become a monster movie staple, let alone one of Universal’s best. On the other hand, the film has flaws. The most noticeable one is a the use of an American accent, pretty much across the board, on characters, who would’ve grown up in Britain. The only major character with a noted British accent is Claude Rains. His portrayal of the father works, but this is a miracle of actor chemistry; Chaney Jr appears, in certain scenes, much older than Rains.

The Wolf Man

Somehow, The Wolf Man is still fun to watch. The above flaws are suspended, in favor of an eerily believable mix of psychology and superstition (makes the film a hell of a lot more interesting than monster flicks that place guts and gore at the apex of story). Siodak deserves praise for his on-point dialogue about each topic:

“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.”

“I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything.”

“Fighting against superstition is as hard as fighting against Satan himself.

The Wolf Man

 The Wolf Man is no doubt a symbol of the beast that lives within every man (and woman). The film states as much, multiple times. However, it is most effective, when recognized by the ‘superstitious’ characters. The gypsy woman, Maleva (Maria Ousepenskaya), whose werewolf son Bela, (Bela Lugosi, of legendary Dracula horror fame) is killed by Larry, places this theme in supernatural terms. Her words bring Larry peace, when she says that Larry’s beast is not his fault, but must nevertheless be the cross – or rather, pentagon – he bears.

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