Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
The Wolf Man (1941) Directed by George Waggoner
"Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolvesbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."
Universal Monsters. They are the standard. In this day and age of CGI horror, onscreen disembowelments, and in front of your eyes transmogrification, it is sometimes hard to take the classics seriously. But they are classics; they were here first (mostly) and captured the public imagination, defining the monsters in ways that few media ever have before, or since. The flat top of Frankenstein's head and the neck bolts were dreamed up by James Whale, but have endured every since.
Thus it is with The Wolf Man. Larry Talbot (Lon Cheney Jr.) is the younger son, brought home to the family estate by the tragic death of his older brother. He is destined now to inherit the land and its responsibilities from his father, Lord Talbot (Claude Raines). But while attending a gypsy faire with Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) the lovely blonde from town, their chaperone Jenny (Fay Helm) is targeted by Bela (Lugosi) the fortune teller, and werewolf.
Larry arrives, and using his silver headed cane, kills the beast, but is bitten. And we all know what that means.
The film explores Larry's increasing agitation as the beast within him grows. At last there is a final confrontation between man and beast, and Larry finds the same peace Bela did, and by the same instrument.
A mere 70 minutes, the film captures the terror that we all face when confronting the animalistic side of our nature. It deals with the uncertainty we face in life; was it a wolf or a man (actually, it was Lon Cheney's German Shepherd) that he killed. It deals with the avaricious side of human nature...Larry shows that in spades as he pursues Gwen, a woman engaged to be married, and the struggle to control those urges. (Larry's gifting Gwen with the talisman meant to suppress his animalistic side.) The comparison of lycanthropy to insanity...as Larry is convinced of his guilt; those around him merely think him insane, almost as scary a proposition as turning into a wolf.
Though seminal in modern werewolf lore, it is interesting that the moon was never shown once in the movie, nor was his transformation tied to it. That piece of lore came with the sequel, 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. However, a few things were forever linked with the Hollywood werewolf. One, you need silver to kill them. Two, if you survive a werewolf attack, you are doomed to become one yourself.
The makeup took six hours to put on, and three to take off. The movie features three transformations, twice, the feet only with six shifts, and one continuous polymorphing of the face with seventeen shifts. State of the art, it was an image to haunt generations of movie goers. (It did a number on a seven year old who stayed up late to catch it on the late show when his Grandmother went to bed early.) Now, comparing it to the transformation of David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London, it seems silly. But back then...it had a powerful effect.
The old movies used their limitations to good effect. Black and White film causes you to focus on form. Shadow builds mood, and hides a hundred flaws, as does the fog upon the moors. A picture of stalking feet is somehow more frightening than the full monster, and it saves that shot for later, maximizing the effect. The shadow of a pentagram in a pretty girl's palm can be as scary as the monster. Music underscores everything, growing darker and more frantic as the mood tightens. They made do with what they had, and made magic with it.
Like so many Universal monster movies, when it was over, it was over.
This review is Lean-n-Mean at 666 words. It is also entered in Wicked Hallows.
Full Moon Theatre. Werewolves on the Silver Screen.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12