Film: The Wolf Man
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.
Horror films have come a long way. In the early days of film, horror movies either didn’t or couldn’t show much in the way of anything truly terrifying or gory. Everything had to be implied, which in many ways is more effective than just showing everything to the audience. Still, for a modern horror fan, many of the old films leave a lot to be desired because they seem so tame. When you’ve seen a guy have his intestines bitten out by zombies or watched someone cut through his own ankle with a hacksaw, seeing someone recoil in horror at an off-screen nasty feels like the kiddie ride at the amusement park.
And yet there’s still some real value in some of these old classics. The Wolf Man is a case in point. Like many of the old classic monster films, there’s a certain level of goofy here that’s hard to overcome. For instance, there’s no sane reason that a guy who turns into a wolf should kill people by strangling them rather than tearing out their throats, save that strangulation involves a lot less blood and gore, and in 1941, that was pretty important.
The Wolf Man contains a level of tragedy that most horror films do not, at least for the time. Back then, in movies, the good guys won and the bad guys lost. Oh, the heroes might go through some real trials or have the odds stacked up against them, but you knew going in that they’d eventually prevail. Take a look at a film like Dracula. You know going in that Count Dracula is going to end up staked or exposed to sunlight, or something and that the heroes you’ve rooted for the entire time will be on the other end and will walk into clean, clear daylight when all is wrapped up.
That’s where this film differs from most of the genre. Our hero is Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who has returned home to Wales on the death of his brother in a hunting accident. Larry is estranged from his father (Claude Rains), but is using this family tragedy to make an effort to reconcile. While there, he becomes interested in a local girl named Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) and buys a walking stick with a wolf-shaped head on it from her shop.
Later, Larry rescues Gwen’s friend Jenny from an attack by a wolf, but is bitten in the process. Of course, the wolf was not merely a wolf, but a werewolf, and now Larry has been afflicted with lycanthropy. He meets an old gypsy woman named Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who tells him that her son Bela (Bela Lugosi) was the wolf he killed—the same fortune teller he visited on the night of the attack.
Larry struggles with his new affliction and does what he can to prevent himself from turning into a two-legged wolf prowling the Welsh countryside looking for victims. But like any wild beast, the countryside rises up against him and he soon becomes a hunted creature.
And this is what makes this film such a tragedy. Larry Talbot is a really nice guy. He doesn’t do anything to deserve his fate, and yet this is his fate nonetheless. His affliction comes because he tries to save poor Jenny from an attack (and fails—Jenny is horribly killed by the werewolf), and for this deed, he is rewarded with a terrible curse, although he certainly had enough warning. Everyone he meets seems to recite the same poem to him about the dangers of werewolves, and that even those pure in heart can be afflicted by the curse.
Ultimately, because it is so tragic, The Wolf Man is a sad film, less horrific than it is a sad story. Chaney’s performance is sympathetic in the extreme. The audience can’t help but feel sorry for him the same way that people feel sorry for cancer patients and accident victims. If Larry has a classic tragic flaw, it’s that he’s too compassionate and too nice. He does what any of us would have done in the same situation, and for that, his fate is sealed.
The film is beautifully filmed, even if the effects don’t always hold up. The transformation from man to wolf is fun, but other scenes don’t work. The rear projection work, for instance, is pretty rudimentary. It’s also never explained how Bela could turn into an actual wolf while Larry only seems to be able to pull off the human-wolf hybrid critter.
A longer film might address these issues, but this one has a sadly brief running time. Right when a typical horror film would kick into high gear, this one is over. I’d love another 20 minutes of it, considering how entertaining these 70 minutes are.
Why to watch The Wolf Man: A very human and sympathetic portrayal of a monster.
Why not to watch: It’s running time means it’s over just when you expect it to start ramping up the scary.