The Wolf Man and The Universal Studios Monster…Mash

Whether we’ve seen them or not, I’m sure most everyone has heard of the classic monster movies produced by Universal Studios in the 1930-s and 40’s. Films like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man (which is next on my list), The Bride of Frankenstein, and of course, The Wolf Man (two words). These well-known flicks stay alive symbolizing the dawn of horror, the popularity of the monster, and as a basis from which these iconic figures are depicted to this day. So what of The Wolf Man, in particular?

Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. – Jenny Williams –

In Summary & Review
The Wolf Man centers around the story of Larry Talbot (Lon Cheney Jr.) who returns home after 18 years away. We don’t really know why he was gone that long, all we know is that his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) is rich, a bit snobbish, and fairly skeptical of his wayward son. Larry begins his return by stumbling upon his neighbor Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) Rear Window style,while testing out his father’s telescope; endearing him to us immediately (or not). He immediately rushes to her shop to introduce himself, and that’s where his lesson in werewolf lore begins. When a band of gypsies passes through town Larry and Gwen and her friend Jenny go to have their fortunes told, only to cross paths with a murderous wolf. Thus, the terror begins, landing Talbot right in the center of suspicion.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this movie. I suppose, it being one of the first werewolf films, I expected some sort of grand lore to unfold, and the first gruesome death-by-wolf to induce shock. Having not seen many werewolf movies, The Howling probably being the only one, most of my werewolf knowledge stems from books like Harry Potter and The Dresden Files. I was looking forward to a classic look at these strange and frightening creatures, which are depicted in these books as the deadliest, cruelest, and most devilish of monsters. After watching the film, though, I was left thinking the werewolves of my reading adventures were far more frightening than that of Lon Cheney Jr. as the Wolf Man. Of course, he was one of the first, and that does make him special. Doesn’t it?

I have to say, all-in-all, though I kept watching, I was a little disappointed in this film. It started with grand potential, slowly building up to Cheney’s character, Larry Talbot, becoming the werewolf. Little references to dogs, wolves, and wolfbane crept in weaving suspense. Then, after the transformation, the suspense just sort of dropped and everything from that point forward was both expected and shallow. I will give Universal props for the tragic ending, though. Expected, as it was, it was still…memorable. Until, of course, you find out that Universal went on to resurrect Larry Talbot for three more horror movies, and one Abbott and Costello monster flick.

Recognition & Discussion
It seems as if either the original Dracula, Frankenstein, or Wolf Man appear on many lists people have compiled of their favorite horror films. But why? They aren’t scary… not even close. Years later, I actually can’t even remember what happened in the Dracula or Frankenstein movies, though I obviously know the tales of both monsters as well as anyone. Of course, there are those images that stand out; Bela Lugosi opening up his black cape and grinning freakishly and Boris Karloff first coming to life as Frankenstein’s monster. The same is now true for me of the scenes in which Lon Cheney Jr.’s wolfman stumbles through the foggy woods in search of his next victim. It would seem, then, that the acclaim of these films now is more in respect for their significance in monster history, than in their actual timeless thrill. Unlike the classic comedies or dramas, which have themes, jokes, and characters that still hold relevant, it would seem that our sense of “scary” has changed through time. The twists, the jump-out-of your seat scares, and the gore of modern horror films has left these monsters of yore waddling about in disappointment. What they represent has not changed, but they’re scare-power has greatly decreased. In, my opinion.

I wonder, though, how a film like TheWolf Man was received in 1941. Was it scary? Was it cheesy? What about Frankenstein or Dracula? According to a 1941 movie review from The New York Times, reviewer T.S. (perhaps I should started writing with just my initials for a name) gives less than flattering remarks about the film:

Perhaps in deference to a Grade-B budget it has tried to make a little go a long way, and it has concealed most of that little in a deep layer of fog. And out of that fog, from time to time, Lon Chaney Jr. appears vaguely, bays hungrily, and skips back into mufti. Offhand, though we never did get a really good look, we’d say that most of the budget was spent on Mr. Chaney’s face, which is rather terrifying, resembling as it does a sort of Mr. Hyde badly in need of a shave. Privately, and on the evidence here offered, we still suspect that the werewolf is just a myth.

He goes on to compare the werewolf to Santa Claus, stating that both are in need of a makeover to make their image more convincing. He states:

Without any build-up either by the scriptwriter or director, he is sent onstage, where he, looks a lot less terrifying and not nearly as funny as Mr. Disney’s big, bad wolf. Sharing his embarrassment are Maria Ouspenshaya, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers—who under more nonchalant circumstances would be referred to as a “sterling” cast. Most of them look as though they wished they had a wolf-skin to jump into—any old wolf-skin, so long as it was anonymous.

I question his comparison to Santa Claus, though. I’m pretty sure that depiction has lasted throughout time. Also, why would you compare Santa Clause to a werewolf? Regardless, the film, according to The Times’  T.S., does nothing to make the myth of the werewolf believable. Of course, something important to note, is that the screenwriter, Curt Siodmak,  admits to purposely not writing the script based on actual werewolf mythology, but rather he makes up his own werewolf story. He claims to base his monsters on scientific truth rather than mythology. In this case, I’m not really sure where the science was, but Siodmak must’ve thought it was there. Perhaps, he refers more to his later scripts featuring Cheney’s wolf man squaring off with Frankenstein and Dracula.

Frankenstein and Dracula on the other hand roused positive reviews in 1931 when they were released. In the December 5, 1931 issue of the New York Times, reviewer Mordaunt Hall says, “It is naturally a morbid, gruesome affair, but it is something to keep the spectator awake, for during its most spine-chilling periods it exacts attention.” The same reviewer gives praise to Dracula in an article from February 13, 1931, “It is a production that evidently had the desired effect upon many in the audience yesterday afternoon, for there was a general outburst of applause when Dr. Van Helsing produced a little cross that caused the dreaded Dracula to fling his cloak over his head and make himself scarce.”

It would seem, then, that by the time The Wolf Man was released, either Universal was losing it’s flare, or audience tastes were changing. The Wolf Man and it’s sequels (of which most monster movies had in those days), were hailed as the last of the great Universal monster films.

In an article by Eric Hehr titled The Golden Age of Monsters on, he discusses this golden age of horror:

Universal’s impact on the horror genre is without a doubt tremendous. They were not only able to brand the genre and coin the term ‘horror’ in a cinematic sense, but they were also able to exploit it in order to bring money into an otherwise suffering studio in a bleak point in America’s economy. Carl Laemmle Junior and Senior fed the public’s craving for these romantically dark, twisted tales, and in the process an incredibly deprived and underprivileged public still managed to feed the Laemmle’s wallets. Junior developed shock value in horror films, set the foundation for the original archetypes, and in the process created stars out of actors playing disgusting, sinister characters.

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
It’s hard to know who to blame for this film falling a bit flat. Lon Cheney Jr. certainly gave his best performance, and for the time, the make-up and costuming by the acclaimed monster maker Jack Pierce (Whose story is both interesting, and tragic) was on par. Curt Siodmak could, perhaps, have written a better story then with better suspense build-up near the end, but then, he too was on beat with the times. Or was he? The New York Times reviewer would say, “No.” I don’t blame anyone, though, for my underwhelming reaction to this movie. It was simply, not what I’d hoped for. I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe one of you can. Maybe you disagree wholeheartedly with me. Heck, maybe I just picked the wrong time to watch an early werewolf film.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
In searching for classic horror films, I found this on many lists. I hadn’t seen it, and I hadn’t seen many werewolf films. It’s as simple as that.

If you liked this, you might also like:
If you liked this, by chance, you’ll like Frankenstein and Dracula even more. You’ll also probably enjoy Abbott and Costello’s monster spoofs, of which, I plan to watch VERY soon. They did one with all of the Universal monsters, and some of them featured multiple monsters in one. I remember watching them as a kid and they were great fun. If you like this, I’ve included a few lists of werewolf movies that others have compiled. I can’t speak for them, so if anyone finds one you really enjoy, I’d love to hear about it.

Final verdict – in claps:
I did not clap. I did not howl. I didn’t boo, though. It was what it was, and I have respect for the era in which it was made. I loved watching the documentary about the Wolf Man that accompanied the film. I particularly enjoyed the section on costume designer Jack Pierce. Yak hair was apparently what was used to make Lon Cheney’s beard. Who’d of guessed? So… clap if you’d like. It’s just a matter of tastes. Clap in respect for an era, or clap because you love werewolves. Clap for Cheney and his depiction of the Wolf Man or clap for the costuming. I wouldn’t fault anyone for liking this film.

Related Links
More on the history of The Wolf Man:
Other people’s favorite werewolf films: