The second phase of Universal horror films that began with 1939's Son of Frankenstein was even more prolific and successful than the first, although this did not come at a small price. For while the bulk of the horror films produced under the watchful eye of the two Carl Laemmles were high-budget affairs with the kind of major attention given to a prestige film, by the end of World War II the Universal monster movies were strictly the stuff of matinee flicks and B-pictures. That trend, though dating back to 1936 and the slashed budget of Dracula's Daughter, became standard operating procedure almost as soon as the studio jumped back into the horror game: though Son of Frankenstein itself was a fairly serious and ambitious film with the full backing of the studio's resources, we need look only to the following year to see such faintly ridiculous cheapies like The Mummy's Hand and The Invisible Woman getting made on a shoestring with whatever actors happened to be free that weekend.
At the same time, the transition to a matinee factory wasn't quite absolute, and a few serious efforts to continue the Universal horror tradition got caught in the middle, as it were: not tony affairs like Bride of Frankenstein, not squeezed-out quickies. One of these was the seven years later sequel, The Invisible Man Returns in 1940; another was the single Universal horror release of 1941, and the introduction of the studio's first new A-list monster since the heart of their golden age. This was The Wolf Man, a film of sometimes uncertain greatness that is nonetheless the most entertaining and effective Universal monster movie since Bride of Frankenstein itself, six years before.
The Wolf Man is absolutely not, as is sometimes thought by the more callow and inexperienced horror film watcher, the first werewolf movie. In of fact, it's not even Universal's first werewolf movie (it was beat to the punch, six years earlier, by the markedly dissimilar Werewolf of London). It is however the case that The Wolf Man is responsible for everything that you know about werewolves. It is completely thanks to the invention of Curt Siodmak (a German immigrant who became one of the most important Hollywood horror screenwriters in the 1940s and '50s) that werewolves can only be killed by silver, that a pentagram will ward off a werewolf, that werewolves are subject to the folk magic of the Romani people, or gypsies - even the most prominent of all werewolf facts, that they transform against their will during the full moon, is a wholesale creation of Siodmak's that doesn't appear until The Wolf Man's sequel.
Without any roadmap in front of him - neither a classic novel even imperfectly transmitted, nor a common genre template - Siodmak put together a story that probably wasn't hugely original back in 1941, and thanks to years of imitators seems positively mossy nowadays, but replete with so many shiny distractions that it's easy to overlook how very little actually happens. In the beginning, a certain Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) has just returned from a years-long stay in America to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, a Welsh community that is at least a half-step more believable than the various cartoon German village making up the Frankenstein universe, on the occasion of his elder brother's death. We are quickly informed by Larry's kind but tremendously proper father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) that the older Talbot boy was the heir-apparent to Talbot Castle, and that it's natural that Larry would resent being the second son in a culture where the second son doesn't get much but a decent allowance, and though he wasn't raised to understand the responsibilities of being a Talbot, he's going to have to learn quickly. All this is packed into a very speedy exposition burst that works only because Claude Rains is one of the all-time great supporting players from the classic Hollywood eras, and points to the primary flaw of the screenplay in The Wolf Man: information is passed along in the most pointed, unlikely conversations, pretty much constantly. I understand that this isn't a vampire picture, where Siodmak could assume that his audience knew a lot going into it, but the exposition throughout the film is handled in a terrifically inelegant manner.
That being said: Larry, we find, is an eminently scientific and practical man, and to prove it he brings his father, an amateur astronomer, a really top-of-the-line telescope lens. In a rather subtle and nice bit of dialogue, Sir John establishes himself as the mid-way point between Larry's forthright pragmatism and naturalism, and the wholly superstitious and metaphysical world that - this being a Universal horror film - is waiting in the wings; "All astronomers are amateurs. When it comes to the heavens, there's only one professional." That is, Sir John is both man of science and man of faith, the only such person in the movie.
In due course, Larry uses the new telescope to spy on Llanwelly, and on one pretty girl in particular (Evelyn Ankers). Observing that she lives about an antiques shop, he promptly goes into town to visit her, learning that her name is Gwen Conliffe and she is unfortunately not able to take Larry up on his offer for a date. That very night, to the old gypsy fortune teller, where she'd be going anyway, and she asks Larry to please pick her up after work by the very effective means of telling him that he must absolutely not do so.. Along the way, to justify his entry into the store, Larry randomly buys a walking stick with an elaborate headpiece, a silver wolf marked with a pentagon. This stick is a key part of the local area's werewolf mythology, and poor Evelyn Ankers is saddled with delivering all of Siodmak's newly-invented lore in one huge leaden glop of exposition that provides a lot of necessary information while coming across as the most contrived possible means of doing so.
As he promised, Larry shows up when Gwen gets off work, heading to the gypsy camp with her friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm). Neither of the girls minds very much, when Jenny gets her palm read by the gruff gypsy Bela (Bela Lugosi), Gwen takes Larry out into the woods to explain that she must not be alone with him, since she is engaged to be married. As they flirt the reading doesn't go very well; Bela sees a pentagram on Jenny's hand - the mark of a werewolf's victim, we learned in Gwen's expositiongasm - and practically throws her out. Hardly a moment later, Jenny is menaced by a big dog that, between cuts, briefly turns into a man in an unconvincing dog suit. Larry strikes it with his walking stick, the only weapon at hand, and kills it; but not soon enough to save Jenny, and at the cost of a nasty bite. The weird thing is, when the local police, led by Larry's old friend Paul Montford (Ralph Bellamy), arrive at the scene, they don't find a dog, or a wolf. They just find Bela, beaten to death, and immediately decide that Larry is a vicious psychopathic killer, as the wild-eyed locals in a non-urban setting in a 1940s horror film are wont to do.
Larry has greater concerns than being accused of murder, though: the bite heals up much faster than it plausibly should, and when he speaks to Bela's mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), she informs him frankly that her son was a werewolf, meaning that Larry has been bitten by a werewolf, meaning that Larry is going to transform into a monster himself, "when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright", as a local poem has it. Larry has a hard time believing in such paranormal nonsense at first, but he comes around after waking up to find that he killed a man the night before, while roaming the countryside as a half-man, half-wolf, a monster from out of legend. The design of the wolf man prosthetic, as famous as the studio's Frankenstein, has always confused me a wee bit: he looks absolutely nothing like a wolf (and Chaney's performance doesn't really do much to clarify the issue; he moves much more like an ape than any other animal). But there's a certain oddness to it that arguably works even better: we don't know what the hell Larry turns into, any more than he does, and its a bit freaky all told (though not remotely as freaky in 2009 as 1941).
Sir John dismisses this as the effect of too much local color on an impressionable mind, the local physician Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) believes that it is the post-traumatic stress of a man who can't believe he killed somebody, and Montford and Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles) - Gwen's fiancé - both mainly just want to get Larry locked up, each for his own reason, although Montford is distracted by the weird animal killings that have been cropping up all of a sudden. Meaning that poor Larry is pretty much out to dry: the only person who believes him is the old gypsy woman, and her advice is pretty much "you're fucked".
It is a common observation, and not the less true for being common, that The Wolf Man works first and above all because Larry Talbot is really a pretty decent fella, the kind of man that just about every person in the audience would like to buy a beer for. Lon Chaney Jr. was not remotely as good an actor as his dad was, and there's a good reason that he's only really remembered for the five Larry Talbot movies, and the 1939 Of Mice and Men. That said, his limitations as a performer are in perfect sync with the character in Siodmak's screenplay: it is required of Larry only that he be a decent, sweet guy, an everyman who gets in over his head with things that he can only barely understand. If you were trying to write a role just for Chaney's strengths (Siodmak had to rely on sheer serendipity), "decent everyman who doesn't understand what's going on" is almost certainly what you'd end up with. Accordingly, though Larry is a limited character played by a limited actor, he comes to life as one of the most perfectly-realised protagonists in all of classic horror, and because we are so inclined to like Larry, it's that much more upsetting (if not "terrifying" like the filmmakers wanted) when he gets so royally screwed over by the capriciousness of fate.
The cast around him is game and talented, but not really given much to do: the only real stand-outs are Rains - who could stand out in pretty much any cast that you stuck him in, e.g. Casablanca - and Ouspenskaya, a Russian transplant who had a handful of small, usually terrifically memorable roles in American movies ranging from a classy drama like Love Affair to a trashy B-picture like Tarzan and the Amazons. She was one of those actresses who just had presence, a natural and unforced thing that made you want to stare at her no matter what she was doing; in The Wolf Man, she elevates a reasonably disposable plot-element of a character into the moral heart of the whole picture.
Outside of Larry Talbot, the other element of the film that really sizzles are the visuals. Of course, even at their worst, you could almost always count on a Universal monster movie to have nice Gothic/Expressionist imagery, but for my tastes The Wolf Man is the best looking of all the studio's horror films not directed by James Whale. The work done in this movie by George Waggner (primarily a director of Westerns) and director of photography Joseph Valentine (who managed, in a career not marked by terribly significant work, to follow this film immediately with Hitchcok's Saboteur; he was also one of the co-cinematographers of the beautiful silent 7th Heaven) to make those standard-issue Universal sets look like the stuff of foggy nightmares is impossible to overstate; though it always looks like a soundstage, there's a certain something about the gloomy lighting of that soundstage that makes The Wolf Man the most atmospheric by far of the second phase of Universal horror pictures. Decades after the wolf man make-up has become so ubiquitous as to lose even the slightest possibility to frighten anyone old enough to go to preschool, the rolling fog over the fake Welsh countryside is still moody as anything, and it captures the damp, close feeling of the autumn woods like few other things have ever done.
All told, it's enough to make The Wolf Man one of the most memorable horror films of its generation, and the last great Universal horror picture before the monster movies thudded firmly and irrevocably into B-picture territory in 1942. Let us not allow fore-knowledge of the degradation of the Larry Talbot cycle to color the great triumphs of this one last hurrah of a great tradition of monster movies; the last time that the spirit of Carl Laemmle, Jr. would be keenly felt in any of Universal's horror films for more than a decade.
Reviews in this series
The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)