The Wolf Man

Dullsville

The Wolf Man (1941)

     I realize now I had higher hopes for what I perceived as among the great classic horror stories than I should have. I think the downfall of The Wolf Man might lie in its script. Silly, contrived and dumb dialogue make for many a hokey moment in this tale of the beast within all men.

     Lon Chaney (Jr.) plays Larry Talbot who returns home to his father’s English estate after 18 years away. He buys from a pretty girl a silver topped cane whose handle is a wolf with a pentagram on its side. When on a date with this girl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), the couple and their chaperone Jenny (Fay Helm) visit some gypsies to have their fortune told. Unfortunately, one of the gypsies –the one played by Bela Lugosi— is a werewolf and soon thereafter shifts into his beastly form and kills Jenny. During the scuffle, however, Larry comes to the rescue, beats the dog dead with his silver cane and is bitten on the chest.

     The next morning the wound has disappeared and the gypsy is found dead in the spot where Larry had killed the wolf. The man’s journey into the life of a werewolf is facilitated by an old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) while his father, played by Claude Rains, a local doctor and others insist that lycanthropy is merely a condition of the mind through which a man imagines he is a wolf. We are entreated to some fancy effects in the morphing of Chaney from man to beast and back using both lapsed and continuous dissolves. The first two transformations are of the feet only but the film’s close shows the man’s face change.

     The concept of a werewolf has been at the root of many horror films, the later of which depict a much more gruesome creature than the one Chaney played here. His wolf man is merely hairy with feet and hands resembling more canine-like anatomy and some enhanced teeth to boot. It is hard for me to know given my upbringing in an increasingly gory entertainment society whether or not this facade was terrifying to the public of the time, although it was a highly popular endeavor for Universal Studios. As I said, however, the poorly written dialogue makes it difficult for even actors of talent, such as Ralph Bellamy as the constable, to give a genuine go of it. Rains’ was the only solid performance, which alongside all the others seems out of place.

  •  The Wolf Man is set for 8 p.m. ET Oct. 10 on TCM.
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