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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Consider the Source: The Wolf Man (1941)

The-wolfman

Fangs, fur and claws are bustin' out all over as Joe Johnston's A-list film of The Wolfman is unleashed in theaters this Friday and marks a whole new werewolf renaissance. Ironically, the original Wolf Man, released in 1941, came late to Universal Pictures' mad monster party. Universal established a stable of iconic creatures and supernatural bad guys a decade earlier with Boris Karloff's Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931) and Claude Rains' The Invisible Man (1933). Universal attempted to bring a wolf into the fold with 1935's Werewolf of London, which had less staying power, but did inspire the Warren Zevon song.

The Wolf Man, however, swiftly established lycanthropic Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) as the third member of Universal's terror triumvirate alongside Frankenstein and Dracula. Lugosi even "passes the torch" to Chaney by playing "Bela" (gee, how'd they come up with that name?), a tormented gypsy who bites Talbot and passes along the werewolf infection. At 70 minutes, The Wolf Man remains a prime example of the fleet, effective storytelling of the studio era, and takes a backseat only to director James Whales' powerful, moody Frankenstein films.

In short order we meet Larry Talbot, the American-raised black sheep (sorry) of a well-established English family, headed by Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Apart from his kinda pervy, stalkerish behavior towards a Gwen, a blonde villager (Evelyn Ankers), Larry's a nuts-and-bolts, straight-arrow kind of guy uncomfortable with the superstitions of the old country (even though half the roles seem to be Americans). Three separate characters share for him this bit of folklore —

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.
— which was, in fact, written by scripter Curt Siodmak. The Wolf Man popularized one of the most unsettling facets of werewolf lore: that even an average, well-intentioned guy like Larry could transform into an unthinking, homicidal beast. The potential of evil, animalistic impulses to utterly subsume a civilized personality gives The Wolf Man and its imitators uncomfortable psychological implications, and frequently turns werewolves into tragic figures. That might provide a reason why vampires tend to be sexier and more popular monsters: werewolves often turn out to be tortured victims of their condition.

Chaney, who took the role not long after playing Lenny in 1939's Of Mice and Men, credibly plays big galoots who wouldn't hurt a fly. For the second half of The Wolf Man, he looks sort of like Robert Mitchum on the brink of blubbering. Ironically, Chaney's famous makeup was designed by Universal's brilliant makeup artist Jack Pierce for Werewolf of London, but actor Henry Hull refused to submit to its arduous application process. Chaney, son of Hollywood's legendary "Man of 1,000 Faces," was more willing to put up with the hours in the makeup chair. Pierce's menacing design, with its fanged underbite and yak fur belt, went along way to establish the Wolf Man as a figure of classic cinema. Unlike Frankenstein, et. al, Chaney was the only actor to play the role in all its sequels, up until 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The Wolf Man, like the best of the Universal Horror films, is rife with psychological implications. Contemporary screenwriter Todd Alcott lays out the film's multiple Freudian implications, including an intriguing Oedipal dimension. With most of the studios' spooky fare, the influence of German Expressionism turns black-and-white, starkly-lit soundstages into the stuff of Jungian archetype. The shadowy trees and ankle-deep fog creates a primordial forest that's like the stuff of bad dreams even before the characters start speaking. Or howling.

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