Produced and Directed by George Waggner
“There’s something very tragic about that man.”
Why Did I Get This?
This is the first Late Review on Blu Ray, and part of the brilliant Universal Monsters box set released in 2012 which I couldn’t really afford at the time, but felt like I had to own. I watched them all over the years, but mainly returned to the Frankenstein films and Dracula (plus Creature From The Black Lagoon wouldn’t play properly on my player until I upgraded a few years back).
During the first lockdown in 2020, Late Reviewer contributor John Featherstone and I regularly held virtual watch-a-longs, and we worked our way through the box set (including the Spanish-language Dracula which I thought was brilliant!), but I don’t think The Wolf Man was ever really one of my favourites.
I’ve recently listened to Adam Roche’s absolutely brilliant podcast about the Universal horrors, and found Lon Chaney Jr’s story fascinating and quite heartbreaking. Over the summer, I also listened to another podcast (though I honestly can’t recall its title), which spent more time than I thought kind absolutely laying into Chaney Jr’s acting ability and screen presence.
Anyway, both of these (and the Late Review which will follow this one), made me curious to revisit 1941’s The Wolf Man to see how I felt about it, so here we go…
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will contain spoilers for the movie. If you want to avoid them, scroll straight down to the next heading!
The Wolf Man is the story of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr), who returns to his rural family home following the death of his brother. While trying to impress a local shop girl (Evelyn Ankers), he is attacked by a wolf which he kills but which turns out to be travelling fortune teller Bela (Bela Lugosi). Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya), tells him he is now doomed to become a werewolf when the moon is full.
The Wolf Man has always been a pretty mid-tier Universal monster for me – I like it just fine, but would rewatch any of the Frankenstein movies over it on any given day.
I’ve never really put my finger on why that is though, because it’s a perfectly fine film.
I’ll admit that while at 70 minutes, it’s short and sweet, there were periods where it felt to me like it could’ve moved a bit more quickly. Unlike Dracula, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, it’s surprising how little screen time the monster actually gets – I’d forgotten just how much of The Wolf Man is Larry Talbot trying to woo a shop assistant and having an existential crisis about the curse.
Saying that, while the time frame feels quite compressed (it’s unclear but feels like the story runs over only a few days), there’s plenty of stuff that really stood out to me this time around. In the first few minutes we get some rear projection as Larry is driven to his ancestral home (was this the first appearance in a Universal horror movie of an automobile? Feels like it to me.), to a lovely matte painting of Castle Talbot, followed by a nice camera dolly as Chaney approaches his home. Later on, we get some nice wipe edits, shots which are meant to look like they’re taken through a telescope being focused, and superimposition of five-pointed stars on victims aplenty.
The forest settings are spooky enough, with your classic Universal layer of mist and trees big enough to hide behind (and hide fatal beatings with silver-headed canes behind), and also from the classic Universal stable, you get some top makeup work by Jack Pierce… eventually.
The transformation, when it does finally happen, is focused on Talbot’s legs as cuts to Chaney thumping his chair arm and time lapse trickery is used to cut between the stages where Jack Pierce added more hair. Each time we see Chaney in full makeup, we start with shots of his feet, walking on tiptoe, before panning up to reveal him in all his hirsute glory.
As an effect, the layers of yak hair and lupine dentures look fine, certainly good enough to be adapted 40-odd years later and applied to Michael J Fox, but while it’s certainly an iconic look all I could think of after the first transformation was… hang on, he was only wearing trousers and a vest when he turned, but now he’s wearing a shirt that’s tucked in and buttoned up to the collar!
I like to imagine there’s a deleted scene somewhere of Larry discovering how difficult it is to dress properly when you’ve got wolf paws but still can’t be seen in public without looking neat and tidy.
Away from the makeup, The Wolf Man features a lovely performance from Claude Rains as Larry’s scientifically-minded father who is deeply worried about his son’s mental wellbeing. I only knew Rains from the rich man’s Passage To Marseille (I only saw him in the poor man’s Casablanca much more recently), but going back and seeing him in this and The Invisible Man really made me appreciate his work more.
Lugosi’s performance is also nice, if a great deal more stagey than some of his costars (particularly the reveal of the mark on his forehead as he’s telling the fortune of his doomed victim), and his costume and appearance is great. Ouspenskaya as Lugosi’s mother gives good spooky and foreboding presence with her repeated appearances, but to my mind, she potentially pops up out of nowhere to deliver creepy lines one time too many.
As for Chaney, it feels like there’s a pretty vast gulf between his performing style and that of, say, Rains. In their scenes together, there’s a noticeable difference in quality, but in many ways it plays into the father/son relationship – Larry’s the lost and confused child, acting more openly and plainly, while Sir John is the stately, rational and grounded figure with a much more subtle performance.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m used to seeing werewolf transformations being painful, but Chaney’s subdued response to his transformation seemed too little. Likewise, there’s a point towards the end of the film where he walks into a bear trap and I’ve had bigger reactions to standing on a piece of LEGO.
However, he gives good melancholy over his plight (one character says he’s got himself into a “mental quagmire”), but from seeing him appear as Larry Talbot in later movies, I think it’s fair to say he got better with the character as he went on – in the later 1940s Frankenstein movies, he plays an older Larry who’s coming to terms with his curse and I think it’s better work than he did here.
But overall, I think he’s fine in this. It’s a fine film, but something about it just keeps it out of my top three for the box set. Probably makes my top five.
It’s fun to revisit a film like this – one that I know a little, but have recently learned a little more about. Certainly knowing a bit more about Lon Chaney Jr’s life outside the movies gave an interesting new aspect to how I viewed him.
I really liked him as Lennie in 1939’s Of Mice And Men, in a role that suited his puppy-like enthusiasm and imposing stature. Conversely, I recently saw him as Frankenstein’s monster in an episode of 1952’s Tales Of Tomorrow – a live broadcast in which he was allegedly so drunk he thought he was taking part in a dress rehearsal. It’s sad to see because he’s good in places, but keeps picking up props to smash, then putting them down gently to save them for the live show… which he’s currently filming. It’s available on YouTube, and is pretty interesting, if sad to see.
In terms of The Wolf Man though, he’s pretty good, but surrounded by others who are better. The makeup is good, and some of the technical trickery is terrific, but overall, I reckon there are better entries in Universal’s classic monster series.
Still pretty iconic though, and definitely a film I’ll revisit.