My string of classic horror novels this fall mostly had the effect of driving me to watch classic horror movies. And after watching The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and even the Karloff Frankenstein, I couldn’t resist picking up The Wolf Man when I happened across it on my library’s DVD shelf. It turned out to be quite horrifying—but not remotely for the reasons the filmmakers intended!
The story opens with the return of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) to his ancestral estate, trying to fill his deceased older brother’s shoes as heir, and rebuild a relationship with his father (Claude Rains). He’s quickly distracted by the lovely Gwen, by folklore about a werewolf in the neighborhood, and by a rather creepy band of gypsies. And after he’s bitten by a very peculiar wolf, he has something else to distract him…
First of all—Claude Rains! I didn’t know he was in this until I saw his name on the DVD box, and that was as much the reason I picked it up as any other. Did you know Claude Rains played the Invisible Man, the Phantom of the Opera, and the Wolf Man’s father? Quite the resume! This movie also features an appearance by another great name of classic horror, Bela Lugosi, the famous Count Dracula, here playing a very creepy gypsy werewolf.
I was obviously delighted by Claude Rains, although the casting does require a pretty strong suspension of disbelief. Rains is a slight man—Lon Chaney Jr. is built like a boxer, and when you see the two of them next to each other… Well, Larry Talbot must really take after his mother.
The movie on the whole is a slight if fairly entertaining story. The plot is simple enough, with the villagers rising up against the monster and the wolfman struggling both to hide his secret, and to resist the urge to go out killing when the full moon rises. I think what this movie misses that many of the other classic horror stories have is a really engaging monster (and I use that term with reservation). Legosi’s Dracula is genuinely spooky when he descends the stairs, levels his gaze at the audience and says, “I am…Drrracula.” Karloff’s Frankenstein is a sad and persecuted figure. Lon Chaney’s and Claude Rains’ Phantoms are strangely sympathetic even if they are crazy. Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman just didn’t do anything to elevate this movie beyond merely decent entertainment.
Which is not to say that he wasn’t a disturbing figure. Only, your monster movie has a problem when the lead is more disturbing when he hasn’t turned into the wolf yet! Which brings me to what I actually found horrifying. The hairy guy running in the woods had no real terror to it. But Larry Talbot’s romantic pursuit of Gwen? Creepy!
He first catches sight of her through a telescope he was setting up at the family estate—and which chances to look right in through Gwen’s bedroom window while she’s brushing her hair. All right, an accident…but he doesn’t look away. And then he goes and seeks her out, and starts commenting on things in her room. Rather than being totally disturbed and throwing him out, Gwen finds it all a bit intriguing. Still, when he suggests picking her up at eight, she says no—three times, all of which he very cheerfully ignores, and comes at eight anyway.
So I spent the Wolfman totally unbothered by the monster, but the man’s blithe pursuit of a girl who kept saying she wasn’t interested (even when she tells him she’s engaged to someone else!) bothered me horribly. I may have yelled at Gwen near the end, when Larry shows up to tell her that he has to go away so he won’t accidentally kill her, and she says…no, don’t go, let me help you! Because clearly the way to win a girl’s heart is to steamroll right ahead when she tells you she doesn’t want to date you. Ugh!
I suppose in the end, both the romance and the rather lacking make-up job for the monster are both products of the time the movie was made. But I can forgive poor make-up much more easily–it’s not as important to me, and also, special effects have improved. Hollywood is still putting out too many love stories that follow the same trajectory as Larry and Gwen.
This was not a favorite among the classic horror films I watched recently, but it was an interesting one. I greatly doubt this will ever make your hair stand on end, but it may get your feminist hackles up. It did mine!
Buy it here: The Wolf Man