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Universal Classic Monsters: “The Wolf Man” (1941)

Wolf Man

“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.” My personal favorite of the Universal Classic Monster films and werewolves are, without a doubt, my favorite all time monster. I went trick-or-treating as a werewolf when I was in the third grade. They are way cooler than those Euro-trash vampires… My sister would get ticked if she heard me say that.

Curt Siodmak, the screenwriter of “The Wolf Man,” created the lore that is associated with werewolves. Transformations occurring during the full moon (though there are no shots of the full moon in this film), pentagrams as the mark of the werewolf, and silver being the only way to vanquish a lycanthrope. The first sequel, “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man,” would reinforce the full moon aspect of the legend. Naturally, Jack Pierce was responsibly for the Wolf Man makeup just as he had been for the Frankenstein Monster and the Mummy. I find it ironic that Lon Chaney Sr. starred as the original Phantom of the Opera in 1925 and Claude Rains, who would play the Phantom in the 1942 remake, was cast as Sir John Talbot, the father of the Wolf Man, played by Lon Chaney Jr.. In an odd way, it’s like the Wolf Man is the son of the Phantom.

“The Wolf Man” also features a well done love story. In previous monster movies, you would have a mad scientist betrothed to woman who can’t understand his megalomania (“Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man”) or an undead individual trying to claim the immortal soul of an innocent woman (“Dracula” and “The Mummy”). This is the only love triangle where you’re rooting for the leading lady, Gwen Conliffe played by Evelyn Ankers, to end up with the monster because he is a monster through no fault of his own. Lawrence Talbot is a hopeless romantic, who is sadly destined to meet with a bad end.

Lon Chaney Jr. won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lennie Small in a film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1939. Chaney Jr. is unique from other Oscar winners in that he spent the majority of his career pursuing horror roles. He would also play the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, and Count Dracula. One can suppose that he was trying to live up to his late father, who was known as “the man of a 1,000 faces.”

Universal’s first werewolf movie, 1935’s “Werewolf of London,” starring Henry Hull, failed to inspire audiences. Contrarily, Lawrence Talbot became the next inductee into the pantheon of classic monsters. Lawrence Talbot was sired by a gypsy fortune teller, played by Bela Lugosi in an extended cameo. Maria Ouspenskaya plays the mother of Bela, who does her best to look after Lawrence when he is cursed to be a lycanthrope and gives him a charm which just might hold the beast within at bay. Lawrence instead chooses to give the charm to Gwen because her safety matters the most to him. A charm would also be used in 1994’s “Wolf,” starring Jack Nicholson. Sir John ties his son to a chair to help prove that there are no such thing as werewolves, but to no avail. Sir John kills his son with the same silver tipped cane that his son used to kill Bela the gypsy. Gwen was saved, but such a bummer of an ending. Werewolves are so tragic. Dracula is evil and needs to be destroyed. The Wolf Man, not unlike the Frankenstein Monster, is purely a victim of circumstance.

Unlike, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” the Wolf Man wasn’t based on a novel, so when Hammer Films got around to making a lycanthrope flick, they made “The Curse of the Werewolf” in 1961, which was loosely based on Werewolf of Paris, a novel written by Guy Endore in 1933. Oliver Reed starred and sported a werewolf makeup that had some simian features mixed in with Jack Pierce’s 1941 Wolf Man design. Keep an eye out in “The Curse of the Werewolf” for supporting actors would appear in the early James Bond films.

1981 was a big year for werewolves with the release of both “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London.” These films both paid tribute to “The Wolf Man,” but “An American Werewolf in London” was closer in tone to “The Wolf Man,” in telling the story of individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time, whose lives are destined to end in tragedy. “The Wolf Man” was remade back in 2010, with Benicio Del Toro cast as Lawrence and Anthony Hopkins as Sir John. Though not a commercial success, I do enjoy how this film tied plot devises from other werewolf movies together to create a sense of uniformity in the legend. Anthony Hopkins was bitten while on an expedition in the mountains like Henry Hull in “Werewolf of London” and Benicio Del Toro suffered from horrific nightmares in the vein of David Naughton in “An American Werewolf in London.” The Wolf Man in this movie was also running across the rooftops, wearing a bloodied white shirt, which was very reminiscent of Oliver Reed in “The Curse of the Werewolf.” (Credit goes to artist Phil Gormley for noticing the Hammer influence.)

Lawrence Talbot became the star of the 1940’s “Monster Rallies.” Count Dracula was always up to his wicked ways and the Frankenstein Monster was portrayed as a simple minded brute post-Boris Karloff, so by default, the Wolf Man had to be the protagonist. He battled the Frankenstein Monster to a draw in “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man,” a gypsy girl fell in love with him in “House of Frankenstein,” he stopped a mad doctor in “House of Dracula,” and he teamed up with Bud Abbot and Lou Costello in “Abbot & Costello meet Frankenstein” for a final showdown with Count Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi. Lawrence Talbot is without question the hero of the Universal Studios Monster saga.