by Jake on October 3, 2012

The Wolf Man is unique in the stable of classic Universal monsters. He’s a relative latecomer, for one thing; the original movie came out in the ’40s while the other baddies originated in the 30′s or earlier. He’s the only Universal monster to be featured in multiple films that was always portrayed by the same actor (Lon Chaney Junior, who also played a mummy, a vampire and Frankenstein’s Monster). But more than any of the others, the Wolf Man movie, and it alone, has had the strongest impact on the portrayal, even the very notion, of werewolves ever since.

“Even a man who’s pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms, and the Autumn moon is bright.”

That bit of verse is the product of the screenwriter, Curt Siodmak. He just made that up.

The Dracula and Frankenstein movies were based on their respective novels. The Mummy movies were based on the mummy’s curse hullabaloo that accompanied the King Tut expedition. The Wolf Man is based on merely the concept of werewolves, period. Most of the mythology of the movie is simply made up. The idea that one becomes a werewolf by being bitten, the stuff about the five-pointed star, the whole silver thing, the idea of the werewolf as the victim of a curse, these are all either made up out of thin air for this movie or cribbed from various other things, bits of legend, even aspects of other monsters, creating a patchwork monster that Dr. Frankenstein himself might say was a bit much!

And it WORKED.

It worked beautifully. The filmmakers got to play with the cool Gothic mood, foggy nights, Gypsies, magical amulets, cryptic verses, frightened villagers, all the good stuff. Add in a great performance by Chaney as the long-suffering Larry Talbot and a top-notch makeup job for the beast itself and you’ve got a hit on your hands!

So here’s a funny thing: the full moon is never mentioned, not even once, as a factor in the movie. It appears that Talbot changes into the Wolf Man every night! In the later movies, they added in the full moon stuff, even changing the ‘Gypsy verse’ so that the last line now went: “And the moon is full and bright.”

Notice I say ‘later movies’ and not ‘sequels’. There was technically a sequel to ‘The Wolf Man’ if you count the monster mash-up ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man‘. It does attempt to pick up where the original movie left off, but poor Larry Talbot never again got to fly solo. He was always around, though. He shows up in ‘House of Frankenstein‘, ‘House of Dracula‘, then finally wraps it up in ‘Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein‘. None of these films, with the possible exception of that final comedy, are particularly worthy follow-ups to the first. And what’s with all this ‘meeting’? It sounds almost pleasant, doesn’t it? Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein – like they’re at a garden party or something.

But I digress.

Lawrence Talbot & The Stick of DestinyTalbot’s character became the “good monster” in the sense that he was always trying to find a cure for his condition, was trying to keep others safe from his hirsute alter-ego and was usually fighting Dracula, Frankenstein or both. Most of these character ideas have been used to make whiny, crybaby vampire stories ever since, but at Universal, Dracula was the one utterly bad guy monster. Poor Frankie was just a tool, ditto the Mummy (well, Kharis, anyway; we’ll talk mummies another time) and the Wolf Man was a victim. It was basically the Jekyll and Hyde story!

Of course, by today’s standards, the actual werewolf transformation sequences seem hokey. They simply used dissolves between the different stages of the transformation to achieve the effect. What many don’t realize is that this method of transformation remained standard in movies and TV for the next 30 years! It wasn’t until completely new methods were developed in the late 70′s and early 80′s that creature transformations really evolved from the same tricks used on the Wolf Man transitions.

The Wolf Man has been copied, ripped off, even remade, but the popular idea of the werewolf really traces back to this movie. Certainly there have been werewolves in folklore and legend and stories since the beginning of history, but it wasn’t until 1941 that this movie distilled all those various and conflicting ideas down into the concept of the werewolf as we understand it today. And in many ways, Larry Talbot is the most satisfying of the monsters, because he’s the one who is most like us. Unlike Dr. Jekyll, Talbot didn’t do this to himself. Unlike Dracula, he doesn’t revel in his monstrousness. While neither Frankenstein’s monster nor the Mummy asked to be here, they are not conflicted about what they do. It’s hard to imagine them racked with guilt for very long! But with the Wolf Man, the audience gets to sympathize completely with the monster. This was a fairly new concept in horror movies back then, and it may be a large part of why the film is still great today.

The Wolf Man‘ (1941) is available to be streamed via Netflix.

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Jake October 3, 2012 at 10:52

Just a heads-up: any links that don’t lead anywhere will soon enough. The keywords link to future articles that are on the way!

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