image courtesy of Universal Pictures, artist Alex Ross ‘The Wolf Man’
Originally I set out to compile a list of my favorite werewolf movies to watch around Halloween but so much time was spent talking about one film in particular that it’s become the whole of the subject. So the beast is making his demands, my Nasties and I must follow. Come with me if you dare as we traverse the darkened world of shapeshifting demons and travel under the full moon to discover The Wolf Man.
Creating the Werewolf
There is a unique comparison between the Wolf Man and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Bear with me because this is how my manic mind works. By comparisons I mean both films took already established monsters and spun a brand new lore around them thus laying fresh groundwork to a previously unexplored lore to these creatures. Just as zombies existed before Romero numerous legends were abounding around werewolves. And yet, just like how Romero taught us what a zombie is really meant to be, The Wolf Man established our modern concepts about the lore of lycanthropy.
That’s something that fascinates me.
image courtesy of Universal
The transformation by a full moon, the werewolf curse being passed on via a bite, silver (be it bullet, sword, or, in this film’s case, cane handle) being the only means to end the monster’s life, are all concepts stemming from Universal’s horror classic, The Wolf Man.
Universal was already known as the House of Monsters and was enjoying plenty of success thanks to previous horror films based on classic gothic literature. From the very start, Lon Chaney mortified audiences back in the silent era by his morbid depiction of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But it was his sovereign portrayal of the love-sick and ghoulish maestro of midnight terrors in the immortal Phantom of the Opera that secured his legend upon the pillars of culture.
image via IMDB, Lon Chaney, ‘Phantom of the Opera’
Following this gothic trend (wisely) the studio rushed to adapt both Bram Stoker’s supernatural vampire romance, Dracula, along with Marry Shelly’s imperial masterpiece, Frankenstein. Universal brought both classics to the big screen but with them came a new instrument of terror: sound! Dracula was the first horror film to speak and Stoker’s legendary book was never more alive with a fresh flow of ghostly un-life.
However, unlike each film hitherto mentioned, there was no novel to base the Wolf Man off of. This time around it was largely up to Curt Siodmak’s screenplay to bring lycanthropy to the cinema. Siodmak was tasked with nothing short of creating a new mythology for an ancient demon of the night.
Personally, I would have turned to old European tales of superstitious hysteria given rise during the maniacal witch-hunting days for inspiration. In short, I would have botched the whole project up too.
Woodcut of a werewolf attack by Lucas Cranach der Ältere
With a stroke of brilliance, Siodmak dipped into a very personal horror story for inspiration required for this new monstrous hit. Siodmak was a Jewish immigrant who narrowly escaped the sudden hostility given rise in Germany against his people. In an almost overnight change for the worst, he saw people marked by a star, sealing them to a doomed fate. He also saw neighbors he’d lived among for years turn savage and cruel.
He saw human beings transform into something beastly.
These would become powerful motifs in his screenplay about a man cursed with the mark of the pentagram star, the mark of the beast, and accursed to a fate he could not escape. His existence becomes one of fear, superstition, and uncontrollable violence.
The doomed hero of the story would become the hated enemy of the countryside. He would hunt down and slaughter those he loved and nothing short of death could save him from damnation.
These reflections of personal horror play out in the film and give depth to the tragedy of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who is bitten by a werewolf in an attempt to save an innocent life.
image courtesy of Universal Studios. ‘The Wolf Man’
Pause a moment and consider that. In an act of selfless good, Talbot puts his own life in harm’s way by throwing himself between a victim and a ravenous wolf. The wolf Talbot wrestles is not of this natural world though and is an accursed being under the Moon. Amidst the scuffle, Talbot is bitten and the curse is transferred, and thus another innocent man becomes a shape-shifting lunatic.
Bringing the Land of the Werewolf to Life
The Wolf Man has an all-star cast of Universal heavyweights. Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Son of Frankenstein) plays the role of a gypsy hiding the secret curse of the werewolf. Claude Rains (The Invisible Man, Phantom of the Opera) plays senior to Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot. Senior Talbot’s is the voice of wisdom in a world furnished with gypsy legends and wild superstition.
Hands down though the single-most-important role – that of the old gypsy woman –is played by Maria Ouspenskaya. Such a meek and mild little lady, but she is the power behind the film’s legend. She is our source of knowledge into the secret legends of occult powers, things modern man has woefully neglected. She is the perfect balance to Rains’ character of reason and science.
Jack Pierce returned back to bring life to Universal’s brand new cinematic monster. Already famed for his ghoulish masterpieces in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Mummy, Pierce worked his magic once again and gave the Wolf Man his signature look. For Chaney Jr. the process was a miserable – and oft times agonizing – experience. It was not said that Jack Pierce fairly cared for actors’ comfort once they sat in his seat.
image courtesy of Universal Pictures, Lon Chaney Jr. and Jack Pierce, ‘The Wolf Man’
To Jack, actors were a canvas for his dark imagination. To bring life to the werewolf Pierce applied yak hair to Chaney Jr’s face and would then singe the hair with extreme heat. After hours of putting up with that kind of treatment, I think I’d be a bit pissed off too!
The sets of the film are locked in a haunting atmosphere of mystery as we’re taken to misty moors, nighted woods, ruined graveyards, and, of course, the gypsy caravan. Honestly, it just feels like a film made for Halloween time.
Some may look at the movie with a critical eye today or simply overlook it in favor of other werewolf films, but to me, this one is pure Halloween fun at its finest. Had it not been for Wolf Man we wouldn’t have Silver Bullet, The Howling, or American Werewolf in London to enjoy today. This is a horror classic deserving of our respect if for nothing else than its deep influence over our culture today.
image courtesy of Universal Pictures
We understand werewolves because this movie taught us the rules. So as you’re planning out your Halloween marathons I promise The Wolf Man will be a very welcomed addition.
Now get out there and party like gypsies, my Nasties! And if you hear me howling under a silver moon you might want to start running for your lives. I promise I’ll give you a head start…hehehe.
Wolfy Final Notes!
The Wolf Man has undergone two remakes that are worth mentioning. Well maybe worth mentioning. Oh, screw it we’re this deep in, let’s do this.
Starring Jack Nicholson (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Batman) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns), this re-telling was sparked by the enormous fame of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and came out in the 90’s craze to remake the classic monsters with a new stylized take on them. Wolf brings the legend into a more modern age and we get to watch Nicholson turn into a wolf!
Not to sound like a dick but that’s pretty much all that this film has going for it. I like this movie and was excited to watch it back when it came out, but I was a kid starving for monsters in the ’90s. This isn’t really a monster movie and it’s not a horror film, not in the classic sense. It’s a supernatural thriller and drama. It’s not going to satisfy the gorehound. Still, for the curious viewer, it’s worth a watch.
The Wolf Man (2010)
The studio that gave us the original werewolf classic returned to the lore wanting to bring back the beast with modern makeup and effects. Legendary artist Rick Baker (American Werewolf in London) was brought on board to bring us a new Wolf Man. Sadly though the film was given a lukewarm reception. Audiences were not impressed by the use of CGI and really had a problem with the lead’s casting going to Benicio del Toro.
The film also stars Hugo Weaving (The Matrix trilogy, Lord of the Rings/Hobbit trilogy) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, The Rite). I saw this when it came out and honestly, did like it. I didn’t understand why so many snarled up their noses at this one. Oh well, that’s how it goes sometimes.
I recommend this one because it’s a fine monster flick. It’s a nice retelling of the original tale, gives viewers plenty of ferocity to enjoy. In short, it does not shy away from giving us monsters.