12 February 2010

Movie Review: The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (1941)
Directed by George Waggner. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patrick Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya.

This weekend, after numerous delays and production and post-production nightmares, Universal finally unveils its re-make of The Wolf Man, with the title compounded into The Wolfman—which means I won’t have to always put a date after the film’s title to distinguish the ‘41 movie from ‘10 movie. I’ve got tickets for the 10:45 show tonight, and you can expect a full review for Black Gate on Tuesday. I’m apprehensive and excited about the new version—but if anybody is prepped to enjoy it, it’s an old horror movie nut like me. At the least, it gives me an excuse to say a few words about the original film. I’m in the right mood. Bay at the moon mood.

When I approached the original 1932 The Mummy last year, I honestly didn’t know what I could say about it that hasn’t already gotten worked over a million times before by critics, historians, and bloggers (and bloggers and bloggers and bloggers). The same applies to The Wolf Man. It’s an iconic Universal horror movie, and has had greater impact on werewolf mythology than any other work of fiction, whether literary or cinematic. There, nothing else to report.

Oh, all right. I can always write a bit more about one of my favorite movies, even if there is nothing new under the moon.

The Wolf Man, from the perspective of film history, is the Jewel in the Crown of Universal’s Second Age of Monsters. The first era was 1931–1936, starting with Dracula and concluding with Dracula’s Daughter. In 1936 the Laemmle family lost control of the studio and the new regime had no interest in continuing with horror films—a sentiment the public seemed to share, and which the puritanical Hayes Code made easy to enforce. In 1939, Universal returned to horror with an (implied) bloody vengeance with the epic Son of Frankenstein, a movie that came to life after a double-bill of Dracula and Frankenstein turned into a money printing machine. (Although Son of Frankenstein has to stand in the shadow of two legendary predecessors, it is a great film all on its own and deserves more attention than it usually gets.)

Flush with success, the new Universal would bring back the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy (in “Kharis” form), Dracula, the Invisible Man, and the Phantom of the Opera. But the Wolf Man was the breakout new star, the era-definer, even though he only solo-headlined one film. His director, George Waggner—who later moved into television and weirdly changed the spelling of his name to George WaGGner—became the driving creative force of the Second Age, the new version of James Whale.

Re-watching The Wolf Man movie last night (for the hundredth time, I’ll wager) I’m again struck with how fast it moves. It lasts only seventy minutes and seems breathless, even though not much of that running time is spent on violent action but instead on discussions of rationality vs. superstition and watching poor Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) wonder if he’s losing his mind. By the time Larry actually transforms into the half-wolf hybrid with the wonderful Jack Pierce make-up—which always looks a touch more primate than lupine to me, but is still fierce to behold—the film only has twenty-five minutes left, yet it feels as if only fifteen have passed. And the savagery of Talbot’s wolf man is almost illusory. He kills only one person. I’ll bet you thought it was a lot more, right? All part of the wonderful magic of classic Universal films.

The Wolf Man occurs in that strange realm of unreal time that so many horror films of the period—not just Universal’s—inhabit. Ostensibly, the movie occurs in contemporary Wales. Certainly the clothing, like Lon Chaney’s high-waisted pants and short tie and Claude Rain’s dapper double-breasted suits, and the appearance of modern cars indicate that it is 1941. But nobody seems slightly concerned with that, you know, unpleasantness going on in Europe, or continual bombing raids on London. And when the night fog rolls onto the moors outside Talbot Castle and through the gypsy camp, you could swear it was 1890 and a time when werewolves and Roma superstitious could exist without the local constabulary doubting them for a moment. By day, Captain Paul Montford’s (Ralph Bellamy) and Sir John Talbot’s (Claude Rains) agnosticism about lycanthropy (“I do believe a man can become a wolf in his own mind.”) are sensible. At night, when the autumn moon is bright and the soundstage is well be-fogged . . . that’s a wolf of a different shade of gray.

Speaking of the autumn moon: it’s astonishing how much of lycanthropy legendry screenwriter Curt Siodmak managed to codify in this film through his own blends and inventions. The pretense to science and psychology, wolfsbane, silver as a weapon, the pentagram appearing on the next victim, all come from the Siomak’s mix-and-match by Siodmak and now form a body of lore as famous as that of the vampire. Siodmak also created the poem “Even a man who is pure at heart . . .”, which many people now think really is a piece of old folklore. The same can be said for the gypsy woman Maleva’s (Maria Ouspenskaya) benediction beginning, “The way you walked was thorny . . .” Siodmak made that up as well.

Universal gathered a glittering ensemble cast, and proudly trots each of them out with their own visual credit at the opening of the movie. Chaney Jr. has the name recognition behind him, but Claude Rains gets top billing as Sir Joh, Larry Talbot’s father. Rains was a physically small actor, but a giant on screen; although not in as flashy a role as, say, the werewolf character, Rains gives my favorite performance among the cast. He adds a wonderful sense of both normalcy and fear, and in his simplest action you can see the history of a rich countryside family facing the end of its line. Along with Rains, you have Ralph Bellamy as the pipe-smoking “Colonel” with the no-nonsense approach to werewolf attacks, Bela Lugosi in a small but crucial role, and lovely Evelyn Ankers whose character of Gwen Conliffe shares a prickly relationship with Larry Talbot that stemmed from a difficult off-screen working relationship with Chaney. Maria Ouspenskaya deserves special mention as the embodiment of one of the classic horror movie roles: the wise elder gypsy lady. Ouspenskaya’s features and accent are as chiseled into pop-culture as the face of the Wolf Man.

Lon Chaney Jr. was an actor of variable talents. He was a poor Dracula and a boring Mummy, but he loved the part of the Wolf Man and gave his best performances as tortured Larry Talbot. He begins the film with a jaunty Americaness in contrast to his restrained father. (And could you believe Chaney as the son of Claude Rains? Well, if you can believe Benicio Del Toro as the son of Anthony Hopkins . . .) He flirts aggressively, almost like a jovial stalker, with the engaged Gwen Conliffe. Then he starts to change into a tormented man with a droop and sag to him that Chaney was expert at portraying. He would get to do even more with this aspect of the character in the first sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. But Chaney gets his best material under Pierce’s make-up, unleashing a very believable, snarling beast that rejoices in the spilled blood and the full moon.

Like Frankenstein, The Wolf Man is a Universal horror classic that feels incomplete without its sequel. The Wolf Man gives us many famous scenes, but Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man adds many more—some of which have gotten confused in viewers’ minds as part of a single film. The first movie doesn’t have any stunning transformation sequences; it’s the sequel that gives us the best lap-dissolves of Chaney’s face altering to wolf-visage. The Wolf Man only shows Chaney’s transformation from the knees down while sitting in a chair, and at the conclusion he changes from wolf to man, and the effect is nowhere near as beautiful as the changes in the next two films. Yet audiences seem to recall The Wolf Man having a major change into a werewolf. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man would also provide the most famous “fright” scene for any film featuring the Wolf Man: the shocking grave-robbing sequence when Talbot comes back to life in his crypt.

A quick guide for those of you seeing the re-make this weekend. Here are the new actors and the old actors’ part they are playing:
  • Benicio Del Toro is Lon Chaney Jr.
  • Anthony Hopkins is Claude Rains
  • Emily Blunt is Evelyn Ankers
  • Hugo Weaving is a New Character (a bit like Ralph Bellamy)
  • Nicholas Day is Ralph Bellamy
  • Geraldine Chaplin is Maria Ouspenskaya
  • Michael Cronin is William Wellman
  • Nobody seems to be Patrick Knowles
  • Rick Baker may be Bela Lugosi (not really, but a great cameo)