THE WOLF MAN hit the fog howling in December of 1941 (a time made for nasty surprises) and let impressed critics, enthused crowds and succeeding generations of loyal fans know that “Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
Returning to his ancestral home in Wales after years in America, ‘Lawrence Talbot’ (Lon Chaney Jr.) has his visit—and one night a month—permanently spoiled when he’s bitten by a wolf. Or—in that accursed fog it was hard to tell– was that canine really a man? Something snouty is afoot (the hairy kind). Larry’s father, ‘Sir John’, (Claude Rains) is skeptical (“I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything“), local pipe-gesturing officials are suspicious, pretty ‘Gwen Conliffe’ (Evelyn Ankers) doesn’t know where she stands (a good bet it’s in the fog). ‘Maleva’, a wizened Gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) knows the pentagram she sees in Larry’s palm means local throats are fair game.
Rounding out the class-A fiend lineup offered by Universal Pictures (Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and The Mummy), the studio put ample talent into this effort, shrewdly written by Curt Siodmak, snappily directed by George Waggner. $180,000 was spent, which sounds teeny today, but adjusting for inflation makes it roughly $3,086,000 in 2018, a trim indie package. Critics signaled approval of cast and handling, and enough chiller fans trooped in to have it place 97th for the year, grossing $2,400,000, ensuring the lycanthropic Larry’s Talbot travails would not rest un-sequeled.
Chaney, at 35, had been toiling for years in his fathers shadow, in dozens of inconsequential parts. Then in fortune-blessed 1939 he gave a fine performance as ‘Lenny’ in the excellent Of Mice And Men, and his 6’2″, friendly dog/sad bear visage began to get some traction. He’d repeat the Talbot role four times, claiming a loyal legion of fans, even as his career faded into lower gear. He plays his heart out as the stricken Lawrence, fully owning the sympathetic character.
It helps to have the backing of an actor like Claude Rains and vivid personality types like Ankers, Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi, who has a neat cameo as the doomed Romani werewolf who puts the bite on Lon. I love how the dapper Rains eloquently pronounces “Llarr-ry“, managing to curl the ‘L’ and mine some extra ‘r’s. 28-year-old looker Evelyn Ankers would become known as “Queen of the Screamers” through her decorating and enlivening 52 flicks between 1936 and 1950, this one her most famous. As for the essential Maria Ouspenskaya, 65 and appearing both ancient and changeless, aside from relaying one of the fright genres most famous quotes is further allowed to dispense the benefaction “The way you walk was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over. Now you will find peace for eternity.” When spoken with a thick Russian accent by a diminutive, mysterious grandma figure it carries the trace of a poetic fairy tale. A tiny bundle of steel, Madame Maria’s mystical Maleva exudes color and theatricality, power and spirituality. When she tells you you’re cursed, bank on it. *
The legendary makeup was the exhausting work of Jack P. Pierce, who took hours to apply—among other substances—yak hair to a discomfited Lonster. Indeed, why should those Himalayan critters keep fur to themselves when the Hollywood Hills beckon? With its recognizable 3-note baying brass ‘wolf motif’, the eerie, dramatic, finally mournful music score was shared, sans credit, by Hans J. Salter, Charles Previn and Frank Skinner. Richly atmospheric cinematography was the doing of Joseph Valentine (Joan Of Arc), whose light & shadow play blended with director Waggner’s skillful use of copious amounts of dry ice for fog. The brew of ingredients help immeasurably to sell the saga (of course, to start with if you’ll accept Lon Chaney Jr. as the son of Claude Rains you won’t have issues with many details).
Siodmak’s script introduced modern werewolve myths like bearing the mark of a pentagram, being effectively imperishable apart from being struck/shot by silver implements/bullets, and the famous curse verse: the “full moon” gambit would wait for subsequent murderous misadventures. **
With Ralph Bellamy (his Illinois accent about as ‘Welsh’ as Hugh Hefner), Patric Knowles (unexciting even when excited), Warren William (dapper insinuation on call) and J.M. Kerrigan. A quick 70 minutes of classic horror, it may have been outpaced by generations of effects expertise and less formal, more graphic storytelling, but it still casts a sentimental spell for those wide-eyed victims bitten by it at impressionable age. Lawrence Talbot lives on…
* Though they teamed five times, enticing Evelyn and lumbering Lon had a fractious working relationship (his boorish boozing didn’t help), and this assigment nearly whacked her twice. First she was chased up a ladder by a 600-pound bear that got loose (the bear’s scenes were cut out), then she fainted in the dry-ice vapors and was unmissed until someone literally stepped on her. She recalled “It would have been a short career, if they hadn’t tripped over me at last.” A year later she married Richard Denning, who would go on to battle the fifth member of Universal’s terror tribe in Creature From The Black Lagoon. She passed away in 1980, from cancer at 67. Maria Ouspenskaya left in 1949, when she fell asleep with a lit cigarette; her severe burns from the resulting fire contributing to a stroke a few days later at 73.
** For a kid (back when the Earth had recently cooled), Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy were rather creaky: the suave vampire, inarticulate Monster and shuffling Kharis looked like you could outrun them. But this hairy, snarling wolf-thing looked ferocious, moved quickly and then–WTF?– tore your throat out (prior to that, he seemed like a nice guy). For a few days after I first saw it (late of a Saturday night, naturally), following breakfast I had to walk—alone—across the house (like, what, 50 feet?) to the bathroom to brush my teeth. That was next to my bedroom, which some sadist had paneled with knotty pine; the black shapes looked like eyes. Not warping enough, my closet held the door to the attic…We loathe to diagnose, but it may be that, somewhat later on, this Universal-fear imprinting from Lon Chaney Jr. and yak fur was responsible for my merely watching The Green Berets and not actually joining them…***
*** For that matter, The Green Berets gets about as close to believability as The Wolf Man (sorry, Duke).