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From the Vaults: 'The Wolf Man' (1941)

September 20, 2010 |  4:40 am

Wolfposter Well, I am fudging on the year again this week, mostly because I had 1941's "The Wolf Man" in my queue and felt like watching it. And here at From the Vaults, that means I felt like writing about it! Let's go!

Starring lovable lummox Lon Chaney Jr., this is the Universal classic that helped create the modern werewolf trope, embroidering moonlight, silver and pentagrams onto an Old World shape-changer story. (As with "The Mummy," there's no direct source material.) Lycanthropic hero/monster Larry Talbot would go on to be resurrected Jason-style in a string of sequels, all featuring Chaney, whose name became synonymous with the role -- his character is even listed in the opening credits as just "The Wolf Man." (I guess there wasn't much point trying to surprise the audience.) To watch this movie is to watch horror history. It's even got Bela Lugosi!

After his older brother's death, Larry comes home to the family estate, still run by his hale and hearty dad (a no-nonsense Claude Rains). As horror heroes go, Larry's not a real cerebral guy -- he's not theatrical like Dracula or brainy like Dr. Frankenstein or interested in raiding old tombs like all those "Mummy" guys. He's more of a guy's guy, who likes to fix stuff and check out babes; after repairing his dad's telescope, he's soon using it to spy on beautiful shopgirl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). Gwen turns out to be engaged, but persistent Larry gallantly escorts her and a friend to a gypsy fair anyway. Big mistake!

Wolfchaney In short order, we have a gypsy fortune-teller (Lugosi) freaking out, a wolf attack, a bludgeoning, and the first of many chases through the misty forest. Larry, of course, is bitten by a werewolf and spends the rest of the movie gradually going to pieces as he tries to cope with the impossible truth. Helping him are his fiercely protective dad, a patronizing doctor ("We're all a little bit confused"), and rational constable Ralph Bellamy, who is very good at looking professional while frowning at wolf tracks and gypsy corpses.

Chaney's had my heart since I saw him as the fatherly chauffeur Bruno in 1968's "Spider Baby" (which features several in-jokes, like a well-timed wolf howl and the goofy line "So are you really a 'Wolf Man' fan, Ann?"). It's nice to see the big guy in his prime. He's utterly endearing, whether he's awkwardly trying to flirt with Gwen (he looks like a bull standing at her shop counter, trying not to crash into anything) or sweating with terror at the idea that he might be an unwitting killer. Poor fella! I'm curious to watch the sequels now and see if Talbot continues to come across as adorable or if he becomes a straightforward monster.

Wolfmenace (Aside: Isn't it a shame how the werewolf always has to get killed at the end? With werewolf movies you've always got the struggle of human vs. animal, and the animal always wins and has to get shot. That's just awful. Everyone loses in these movies. I mean, what's wrong with wolves, really? Can't we just live and let live?)

It's the performances that really elevate this movie. The story is pretty straightforward, and while the misty forests are fun, the visual effects overall aren't all that thrilling. (It's hard to be terrified by the wolf-man makeup, although I'm sure it was impressive at the time; he just looks like a very hairy person with a sort of koala-bear nose. And as a friend of mine pointed out, how come Bela Lugosi turns into a wolf but Chaney turns into a big crazypants hybrid?) But Chaney, Rains, Ankers and Bellamy create a solid core of sympathetic characters, and Maria Ouspenskaya turns in a fab performance as a mysterious gypsy woman. (Is there any other kind?)

Sorry, I'm a little rambly today. The wolfsbane is blooming and I didn't get much sleep last night -- weird dreams, and what's all this blood on my floor? Hmm.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images, from above: Chaney gets some mysterious advice from Ouspenskaya; the Wolf Man vaguely but effectively menaces Ankers.