The Wolf Man (1941)

Finalizing Universal’s Classic Monster Trinity, 1941’s The Wolf Man is a lyncanthropic fantasy parable boasting an incredible fogset supernatural town & aesthetics, compelling mystery, humorous ironicization, predatory/sex/fate themes, & legend Lou Chaney, Jr.-lead. 9/10.

When his brother dies, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) returns to Wales and reconciles with his father (Claude Rains). There, he visits an antique shop and, hoping to impress the attractive shopkeeper Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), buys a silver walking cane. That night, he kills a bad wolf – only to later learn that he actually killed a man (Bela Lugosi). A gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya) explains that it was her son, a werewolf, that he killed, and that Larry is now one himself.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Official CLC Review

The Universal Monster Trinity Is Complete

After Frankenstein & Dracula Built The Foundations Of The Mega-Successful Universal Monster Franchise, A Trinity Lift

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

The Universal Monsters were the most dominant franchise of the 20th century. From 43 films spanning across the Horror, Fantasy, Thriller, and Science Fiction genres in the 1920’s-50’s, they were the first-ever shared cinematic universe and a major groundbreaking step in movie history. Even in 1931: the early nescient stages of the franchise, their dominance was unparalleled – boasting two, if not three, All-Time classic and genre-definitive films that would punctuate pop-culture for generations to come: Frankenstein and Dracula. Throughout the many monsters to follow, and boy did they follow, none packed the same punch as the two big boys of the franchise – fine films as they were. Now, we have a trinity completion. The Completing the iconic Trinity Of Universal’s Classic Monsters, 1941’s The Wolf Man is a lyncanthropic fantasy parable amongst the franchise’s best movies – boasting incredible fogset supernatural aesthetics & Wales village setting, exotic and compelling proto-mystery-thrill narrative, humorous ironicization, predatory/sex/fate themes, and career-definitive handsome-and-affable Lou Chaney, Jr. lead performance.

The Old Historic Village & Aesthetics

One Of The All-Time Great Settings & Atmospheres Of Horror That Plays On The Ancient Origins & Charming Escapist Joy

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

The setting and aesthetic of The Wolf Man is one of the best in 20th Century-Horror. The breathtakingly-charming old cottage-lined town feels like a Dusseldorf or fantasy Scotland village out of the pages of a fairy-tale – a perfect backdrop for a film about big wolves that’s thematically-resonant and even self-referential to the classic folklore that preceded it (Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs, anyone?). Make no mistake though, this isn’t a canvas we’re expecting Snow White to come singing around the corner with animal followers for long: the magical escapist fantasy palette is morphed just as our protagonist-turned-antagonist into a blood-curdling, fogset, spooky moonlit dark forest moor boasting one of the best supernatural aesthetics I’ve ever witnessed to-date. The thorny branches, limitless atmospheric fog, and gypsy camps hidden within the mysteries of nature plays perfect backdrop – captured through magificent cinematography filled with extensive close-up frontality shots of The Wolf Man’s face to unsettle us and well-constructed framings of its fantastic settings, as well as a bizarre and effective mystical score by Previn, Skinner, & Saltin to highlight its feel – for the creature of the hour: The Werewolf.

One Of Mankind’s Most Primal Legends

A Regression To The Animalistic Roots Of Our Ancestors & No Control Over Our Psyches/Actions, The Werewolf Is A+-Terror

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

The Wolf Man isn’t the first film about werewolves to be released by Universal; it’s the first successful one. 1935’s Werewolf In London saw a compelling pitch/concept in a Tibetan herb-hunt that turns against its weary scientists be wasted by a mediocre cast, laughable barely-changed werewolf design by a S.W. Walker who muzzled Jack Pearce’s original design (given justice by reuse here) to make the wolf look like a man with a set of fake-teeth and bad hair day, and badly-copied duality-of-man narrative of Mamoulian’s far-superior, Academy Award-winning 1931 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Sex years later, The Wolf Man gets the werewolf right – not only through VFX and costume-design wizardry utilizing everything from rich time-lapses to boots covered in yak-hair to a patented six-hour-long make-up/wig routine to achieve the animalistic feel of its (technology-limited but nonetheless) great-looking antagonist, but by the brilliance of its script introducing us to this parabolic tale of nature, sex, fate, and Larry Torrance.

The Performances & Lou Chaney, Jr.

Magnificent Acting & Characterization, Led By A Hulking, Handsome, Hubristic, Humbled Lou Chaney Jr. Icon Performance

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

There are few other ways to say it: Lou Chaney, Jr.’s performance as The Wolf Man is one of the best in franchise and monster movie history. The duality with which he plays both the hulking, handsome, hubristic, then humbled Larry Torrance being jealousied into a departure from the family fortune only to return at the news of a shocking family death (ironically by hunting accident – quite likely from a previous werewolf as mentioned in later films) and inheritance – and the growling, snarling, animalistic, bloodthirsty howler of the werewolf is simply-put iconic and defined one of horror’s most popular concepts for generations-to-come. Chaney Jr. is the only Universal Monster to play the character in all on-screen franchise adaptations: a lifetime and career-definitive role he called ‘[his] baby,’ played perfectly in everything pop culture from films to TV features to cartoon-snippets to comic book serials with the same endearing magnetism and dichotomy. The rest of the performances are strong too. Evelyn Ankers’ gorgeous girl-next-door shopkeeper Gwen is a fantastic final girl/love-interest whose chemistry with Talbot (despite a shaky-game introduction, as discussed later) lights up the screen. Bela Lugosi has a cameo for the history books as Dracula (who could also transform into a bat or wolf) also playing the first wolfman in a separate fortune-teller role that packs equal punch.

Predatory/Sex/Fate/Magic Themes

Complex Ideas About The Animalistic Nature Of Man, Gender Dynamics, Science Vs. Superstition, & Mankind’s Fight Against Fate

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

Claude Rains’ strict, by-the-books, science-driven, capitalistic father is masterfully character-developed from skeptic-to-believer being the one to kill his last family remaining heir by-accident and by non-belief, and Maria Ouspenskaya’s gypsy is one of the best performances of the film: a sarcastic, flippant, cautioning, nuanced character who plays up the supernature well. Themes of The Wolf Man center heavily on complex ideas about the animalistic nature of man, gender dynamics, science vs. superstition, and mankind’s fight against fate – often doing so through the ironized lens of an irreverence and cruel humour that is quite refreshing. Boy-Meets-Girl is on front display: but framed in such a juxtaposition that it comes across very predatory, our major (and really: only) problem with the film and one that aged poorly. Talbot stalks Gwen throughout the film, peeking against her will at her through her bedroom window, then telling her about it (c’mon bro.. cringeworthy), and asking her out 10x to easy-no’s – but still persisting even though she practically screams to leave her alone: a line men-nor-women should ever cross; no means no.

Flaws

A Creepiness & Stalker-y Talbot Introduction That Didn’t Age Well, Poorly-Meeting What Ends As A Fantastic On-Screen Romance

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

Regardless, his animalistic pursuance (one even subtly called-out by Gwen in, for example, her saying the dog cane specifically ‘suits him’) somehow works despite the poor introduction: they develop a romance across the film’s events that ends well with a tragic love story that could’ve used 10-15 minutes more of exposition in between, especially with the film only being a breezy 1 hour 9 min: great for rewatch-value, to be even better than its already solid core nonetheless. The irony of his wolf-like pursuance of this young girl who told him no leading to him physically becoming a wolf is darkly-humorous – and he is thoroughly punished in a parable/morality way by having to live through the horror of a wolfy murderous fate he tries desperately to get out of its hot clutches before the ultimate punishment of death is tragically inflicted upon him by a cruel universe. Much attention is also given to the psychology of mankind’s dark/evolutionarily-regressive side and the lingering possibility of lunacy: is this all really happening, or an elaborate ruse of hypnotically-sugged insanity? The film thus plays a nice science vs. superstition theme, whose deliberations of the mysteries of the universe and mankind (as well as phenomena outside the explanations of scientific research/knowledge) are astute and psychic maladjustment one of the early mass-examples of psychological-thrillers that would become a hallmark of cinematic history – as well as, of course, the monumental legacy on the horror genre and monster movies.

Conclusion

One Of The Best Universal Monster Movies

A Lycanthropic Fantasy Parable Boasting Incredible Fogset Supernatural Aesthetics, Exotic Proto-Mystery-Thrills, Complex Themes, & Iconic LCJ-Led Performances

Photograph Courtesy Of: Universal Pictures

Overall, The Wolf-Man is one of the best Universal Monster movies. The film exemplifies ’30’s/’40’s Golden Age-Horror at its finest: pure escapism of dark tales told in fantastically-shot and searched locations, compelling storytelling, influential narrative constructions, deeper themes analytical of mankind’s primal questions, and killer lead performances that cement their creations as pop culture icons for generations-to-follow. The werewolf tale painted by Richard Waggner and Lou Chaney Jr. is one with ancient roots, brought to life by era-cinematic wizardry to impressively create an entire world & script this good without any literary predecession like Dracula or Wolfman – one that captivates the imagination while loaded with social-commentary, atmosphere, VFX, and scares.. impossibly in a mere 1 hour 9 minutes. Despite the creepiness of Larry Talbot’s introduction to what would become a nice end-romance arc with Gwen, the film ironizes and projects a scary-but-thematically-resonant take on the animalism natural roots of boy-meets-girl, majestically-paints a macabric picture of a nightmare fairy tale village, and packs plenty of horror punch in a finely-acted morality parable that plays on our fear of non-control or hurting the ones we love most. Completing the Trinity Of Universal’s Classic Monsters, 1941’s The Wolf Man is a lyncanthropic fantasy parable amongst the franchise’s best movies – boasting incredible fogset supernatural aesthetics & Wales village setting, exotic and compelling proto-mystery-thrill narrative, humorous ironicization, predatory/sex/fate themes, and career-definitive handsome-and-affable Lou Chaney, Jr. lead performance.

Official CLC Score: 9/10