The Wolf Man (1941)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi
Directed by: George Waggner
Released by: Universal Pictures
Synopsis: Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales to reconcile with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), after learning of the death of his brother. While there, Larry becomes romantically interested in a local girl named Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who runs an antique shop. As a pretext, he buys something from her, a silver-headed walking stick decorated with a wolf. Gwen tells him that it represents a werewolf (which she defines as a man who changes into a wolf "at certain times of the year.")
Review: Out of the first three Universal Monsters films I have reviewed so far I would say that The Wolf Man is the most brutal of them all. While the violence is tame compared to today's horror standards, the film is a very tense and exciting thrill ride starring one of the most fascinating creatures of all of fiction.
In order to understand why the film is violent when compared to other movies let's analyze the monsters. Dracula was terrifying, but had a lot of charisma and exotic charm that you couldn't help but love. He dealt with his victims and enemies in a smooth manner and only reacted harshly if his life was in danger. Frankenstein was a victim of circumstance, created to defy the laws of life by an ambitious but misguided scientist and became feared by everyone in the process. If he attacked someone it was because someone approached him harshly or it was all an unfortunate accident. The wolf man I would say is both a victim and a villain. That's because the victim with the wolf man's curse can't control when he turns into the monster, and once he does he loses all consciousness and all he thinks of is attacking and killing, even those that are close to him.
That's why The Wolf Man delivers a lot of tension. Everyone is a victim, including the wolf man himself, and anything can happen once his raging instincts take over. The story is also rich in fantasy and mythology, making the wolf man more than just a random creature that came out of nowhere. It's because of this that the story is not only exciting but fascinating as well. There is a mystical reason for the creature's existence, rather than the hand of man guiding its creation. The creature must be disposed of in an specific manner that won't come easy. It gives the film a subtle amount of depth not seen in other movies of it kind.
If there's one thing I would talk against the film is that it's not as dramatic or even as human as other movies. What I mean is that while both Frankenstein movies dealt a lot with the subject of life and death as well as man's acceptance towards the strange and unusual. The Wolf Man is a simpler story rich in mythology and danger, but light in human drama. It doesn't help that many other movies based on the Werewolf curse had a much more expansive story where the mentality of the victim was explored and thus the consequences of his actions were far worse. In comparison, The Wolf Man feels slightly weak. This isn't really an issue as the film is still enjoyable regardless, and not everybody will see it this way, but after witnessing how Frankenstein dealt with this beautifully it's a shame that the plot in The Wolf Man didn't have more to it.
In terms of cast performance it is solid if slightly forgettable. Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot and the Wolf Man is believable, going through many emotions such as doubt, denial, desperation and anger that further complicates his situation, and as the wolf man he is scary and beastly. The rest of the cast didn't strike a chord with me. Most of them are there to provide a reaction towards the actions of the monster (friends and family) or to expose his character (the gypsies). The film, however, does have a great appearance by Bela Lugosi as one of the gypsies and the first victim of the wolf man's curse.
In terms of staging the story, The Wolf Man looks really good though it is far more simpler, creating an atmosphere that is similar to Dracula's. The film takes place most of the time on the foggy forest. This gives the creature ample opportunity to catch his victims by surprise, and shocking the audience in the process. The costume design for the wolf man is really good despite the era it was made. Transformations are subtle but indicative of the man's suffering and his sting as the creature is great to watch to say the least.
Overall, I would place The Wolf Man between Dracula and Frankenstein in terms of quality and enjoyment. It is far more exciting than Dracula thanks to a very good sense of pace and an engaging mythos that makes the monster that much terrifying. But it also lacks the human depth that made Frankenstein such a great series of films in my eyes, and the cast isn't as good as in previous movies. The Wolf Man, however, is far from a bad film and if you enjoy classic horror and the Universal Monsters franchise then this film is worth at least one viewing.
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5