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Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Wolf Man (1941) - Horror Monster

The Wolf Man (1941) - There is no doubt what this film is about from the first shot of the film. We open on a bookshelf and a volume is chosen and open to a page to reveal the following. "Lycanthropy (Werewolfism) A disease of the mind in which human beings imagine they are wolf men. According to an old legend which persist in certain localities, the victims actually assume the physical characteristics of the animal. There is a small village near TALBOT CASTLE which still claims to have had gruesome experiences with this supernatural creature. The sign of the werewolf is a five pointed star, a pentagram enclosed by a circle."
There is no doubt the story we are about to see, in this day and age we all know the basics but in revisiting this film I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the screenwriting and the fantastic heart felt performance by Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role.
Like many of the classic Universal horror films it is not a perfect film. There is an uncomfortable mix of American and British sensibilities and accents in the film, what was originally going to be about a telescope installer visiting the European Castle, was change at the studios request to be about Larry Talbot returning home from an education in the United States. For the most part though the script is well put together with some awkwardness. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak attempted to keep the script away from Hollywood executive by delivering it as late as possible; he said in an interview "That gave the front office no time to engage another writer, who could mess up my screenplay. Also Universal was stingy and didn't like to spend money for rewrites. That was the secret of getting a 'classic'. The writer's original screenplay reached the screen, unadulterated by 'improvements.' " (quoted from David J. Skal's great book The Monster Show). Still there is some clunkiness to the early part of the film.
Larry returns home to help his father John Talbot (Claude Rains), in what I think is a slightly miscast Claude Rains. The body types between Chaney and Rains is so different. Chaney the hulking giant and Rains the smaller sharper featured man. Larry Talbot presents some awkward dialog about being sorry he was not there when his brother was killed in a hunting accident but wouldn't he have come back for the services. True global travel was not what it is today and maybe everything would have been done prior to him reaching home. Still they bury the hatch and Larry helps Dad install his new telescope.
Larry can see into town with the telescope and spies the lovely Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) in her room above her fathers antique shop. He makes his way down there and tries to be smooth in asking her on a date. She is too cool for school though and plays inviting while still spurning his advances. While this conversation takes place he buys a wolf headed walking stick. The Wolfs head and five pointed star gives her the opportunity to add to the lore in the film, telling him it the sign of the Werewolf and quoting the saying we get to hear several times in the film.
"Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night, May become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."
He buys the walking stick and although she says unconvincing no to his offer to meet for a walk and visit to the gypsy camp to have her fortune read. He leave happy and returns at eight like he said he would. She is actually looking for him when eight arrives. She plays coy and before they start their walk she brings out her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) who will come along on the date. Gwen is excellent in these scene keeping the Larry Talbot character off balance even as he starts to feel confident around her. The interplay is quite cute. Shame poor Larry will later have to learn she is engaged to be married to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles). Why did she allow this date anyway?
On the walk to the gypsy camp we get to see the wolf bane is indeed in bloom as Jenny picks some. At the camp she goes first and Bela (Bela Lugosi) in a minor role starts to tell her fortune but sees the circled 5 point star on her palm. "What do you see?" she pleads to his distress, but he sends her away, he is deeply distressed as he stands over the wolf bane she has dropped on the ground.

Now we are in the thick of the story as the fleeing Jenny is pursued through the fog by the werewolf. The wolf howls, she moves faster, then Larry and Gwen hear the screams of Jenny and race back towards her. Larry comes upon the wolf after it has ripped of Jenny's throat. He fights with is and is bitten before managing to beat it to death with his cane. The old gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) and Gwen take the wounded Larry back to the castle.
Problem is when the authorities arrive on the crime scene they do not find the wolf carcass but instead find Bela beaten to death next to Jenny who indeed had her throat ripped out. They want to talk to Larry about this of course and go to the castle. There Larry explains what happened and they share the results questioning whether he could have been confused in the dark. Larry insists he saw what he saw and attempts to show them his wound on his chest though there is no wound, just a 5 pointed star scar. It is so sad the way Larry struggles with what is happening. He knows things can not be what everyone is saying but can't prove otherwise. There is a striking scene at the tomb of the deceased Bela where Larry in hiding listens to Maleva recite a poem for her dead son and then when she leave he breaks down in tears.
The authorities are watching him, he learns about the werewolf curse from Maleva and she gives him a pendant to protect him. He though fears for Gwen and gives the charm to her. The first night of transformation is coming it is interesting how little we the audience get to see. Spoiled with modern special effect, the simple cut shot to hairier and hairier legs is so quaint. He is impressive after his transformation with the full facial makeup of yak hair applied in layers.
The film really though is not about the makeup but about the man struggling with the horror of the beast inside. As Larry struggles and the authorities close in he tries to get people to understand it is not all in his head. He attempts to leave but before he can convince Gwen to come with him he sees the sign on her hand. It is inevitable that Larry will die as the werewolf and when it is done it is a truly sad tale of a man caught in an impossible situation. When he gives his own father his walking cane the final night we know what is to happen. It in this case doesn't take anything away from this wonderful classic monster tale. Lon Chaney Jr. is excellent and captures the struggle beautifully. I whole recommend this film for all.
Rating (8.2) 5.0 and up are recommended, in the Zombiegrrlz system BUY IT!

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