Review: The Wolf Man

27 Oct

October Horror Month

Next in the Universal Classic Monsters box set is not the earliest werewolf film but it’s the one that people have at least seen and it set the template for many future werewolf films by establishing some of the rules for how the monsters come to be and how they are killed.

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) has been in the United States for 18 years and has come home to Talbot Castle to reconcile with his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) after his older brother, also called John, was killed in hunting accident. As the first born son John was due to inherit his father’s estate and had been brought helping to run the estate. Larry has been away learning practical skills and while likes fixing thing like his father’s telescope he’s not very interested in using it to look at the stars. He does find a very practical use for the telescope when he sees and attractive young woman getting ready in the a flat above an antique shop

Larry heads into town and goes to the antique shop and meets Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) working her father’s shop. His first move is creep her out by mentioning earrings that he saw through the telescope but he pretends to be psychic rather telling her where he saw the earrings He quickly drops that and instead say he wants to buy a walking stick. He selects a stick with an ornate silver handle in the shape of a wolf and a pentacle. He asks what that symbolise and Gwen mentions that everyone knows about werewolves and recites a poem that is apparently famous

Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms,
And the autumn moon shines bright.

Gwen says the pentacle is the mark of the werewolf and werewolves see the mark on the right hand of its next victim. Larry buys the cane and Asks Gwen when she finishes work and Gwen says she will not be meeting him. They see gypsy caravans arriving and Gwen mention that they come every year and there are fortune tellers. Larry says he fancies having his fortune read and tells Gwen that he will meet her later at eight but Gwen says no, she won’t be meeting him.

When later arrives Gwen waits expectantly for Larry. Larry shows up like he said he would and Gwen denies waiting for him. Larry asks if they are going to see the fortune teller. That’s when Gwen’s friend Jenny comes out of the shop. She wants to see a fortune teller too and is coming with them. On the way to the gypsy camp Jenny sees a patch of flowers growing and Jenny picks a bunch before saying that the flowers are wolfbane and she recites the werewolf poem. They get to the fortune teller and Jenny wants to go in first. While they wait Larry and Gwen go for short walk and talk in the woods and Larry confesses he saw her in the telescope but he realise how creepy that is and promises not to do it again. Gwen tells Larry she’s engaged and will be getting married soon but Larry still thinks he’s got a chance

Bela the fortune teller (Bela Lugosi) deals out cards to read Jenny’s fortune but he is disturbed by what he sees in the cards. Bela says he wants to read her palm and when she turns her hand over he sees a pentacle on Jenny palm. He notices the flowers Jenny is carrying and he abruptly ends the reading and sends her away leaving her worried about what he may have seen and isn’t telling her. Jenny runs of scared by Bela’s tone and she gets attacked and killed by a wolf. Larry sees the wolf and attacks it with his cane and he gets bitten. He beats it to death with the silver-handled cane and ends up badly injured and Gwen gets help from an old gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) to take Larry home in her cart.

The local chief constable Captain Montford (Ralph Bellamy) is in Talbot Castle drinking with Sir John when Gwen comes in with Larry and tells them about what happened. One of the local comes in and tells them that Jenny has been found murdered and Montford goes out to investigate what happened with a reporter and Dr Lloyd (Warren William) and just as Larry said Jenny’s body looks like it was attacked a large wild animal. But instead of finding the animal Larry said he killed they find the battered body of Bela the fortune teller and next to it Larry’s cane.

Next morning Montford and Dr Lloyd and come to see Larry. Dr Lloyd wants to treat his wound and Montford tells him that Bela was found dead. Larry’s bite also seems to have healed. Larry can sense their doubts and says he is sure he killed a wolf not a man. Dr Lloyd suggests they let Larry get some rest and Montford can ask his question when he’s better and they leave Larry’s room. Sir John comes up with a plausible sounding story about what happened. Montford still wants an explanation for a wound that healed overnight

Larry goes the village and sees Bela’s body being taken into the church and follows it inside. Bela’s mother Maleva comes to see him and the local priest is not happy with respecting her pagan beliefs and customs but he leaves her to it. Larry Talbot creeps into the chapel and stays in background watching Maleva as she recites a eulogy over Bela’s body.

The way you walked was thorny,
Through no fault of you own,
But as the rain enters the soil,
The river enters the sea,
So tears go to a predestined end.
Your suffering is over Bela my son.
Now you will find peace.

After she leaves Larry goes to the coffin and weeps over the body of Bela

In the antique shop Gwen sits down in a back room. Jenny’s mother comes in with a few other severe old women and demands to see Gwen to ask why she left Jenny alone with the gypsy. The mother says it was because she too busy with Larry and they are practically calling her a tart for seeing other men. Gwen hears all this in the other room and is upset at their callous bitterness. Conliffe orders them to get out. Larry enters the shop and the women all run off. Larry apologises to Mr Conliffe for getting Gwen involved in this. He was thankful Gwen didn’t hear them but she clearly did.  Gwen’s fiancée Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles) comes in to see them and his dog won’t stop barking at Larry so he takes it out. Larry introduces himself to Andrews then leaves in hurry.

That evening Frank takes Gwen to the gypsy fair which is full of lively music and dancing. This is the gypsy funeral the priest was so upset about. They see Larry and Frank want go to talk to him to prove that’s he’s not jealous. Larry tells them he’s going home and Frank suggests they try the shooting range. Sir John watches with Montford and is pleased to see Larry is pretty good but when a wolf target appears Larry feels strange and can’t hit it.

Larry sees Maleva she wants to ta to him in her tent. He tells her that he was sure he killed an animal and not Bela. Maleva tells him he did kill an animal and that the animal was Bela. Bela was a werewolf and because he bit Larry he’s one now. She gives him a charm that may protect him and stop the change He leaves feeling a bit freaked out. Maleva passes the word around the gypsies about the werewolf and they all start packing up right away.

Larry runs into Gwen who is on her own after quarrelling with Frank He shows her the charm and tells her what Maleva said about him being a werewolf and gives her the charm. Larry notices the gypsies packing up and Gwen says she has to go too and runs off. Larry asks a gypsy why they are going and is told it because there’s a werewolf in the camp. Larry gets a montage of dream images of Maleva, Bela, Jenny, Gwen pentacles and the wolf.

Larry goes home and he sees changes starting, hair growing and he sits down in a chair to look at his feet growing hairier and he changes in to a werewolf or least his feet do. The werewolf goes into the woods and he attack and kills the gravedigger. There‘s the sound of a wolf howling and several villagers including Montford and Dr Lloyd go to the church yard to investigate and find the body grave-digger with wolf tracks around it

Next morning there are wolf prints that lead to Talbot Castle in through a window and up to Larry lying in bed. Larry wakes up confused and sees the wolf prints and cleans them up until he sees Montford in the grounds following the trail so he hides out of sight.

Next day Larry asks his father what happened and Sir John tells him about the gravedigger being killed by a wolf and finally Sir John addresses the problem that there are no native wolves in England by saying it may have escaped from zoo or a circus. Larry asks him about the werewolf legend a Sir John says that folklore from all over the world has something about men who become beasts. Sir John states that it’s a form of schizophrenia and dismisses the idea of physically changing into a wolf

They got to church but Larry doesn’t stay to face the stares of the villagers and slips out the back while they sing the first hymn. At Talbot Castle Sir John is discussing what to do about the wolf with Montford, Dr Lloyd and Frank. Larry says it was a werewolf and Montford laughs at him. Dr Lloyd thinks it may be a type of madness like Sir John had said. Larry asks if the madness can be cured. Lloyd says yes but Montford just says lock ‘em up. Dr Lloyd is very concerned about Larry’s sanity an suggests to John sending him away

Andrews and Montford supervise laying traps in the woods to catch the wolf. That night the werewolf gets caught in a trap. The hunting party is close behind him with sniffer dogs. Maleva finds him first and she says those words from Bela’s eulogy which returns Larry to human form. The Dogs are coming and so he runs off and two of the hunting party stop him until they see its Larry they tell Montford

Larry goes to see Gwen and tosses pebbles at her window to wake her up. Larry tells her he to leave and she wants to go with him but he tells she can’t. He has to go alone. Suddenly he sees pentacle on Gwen’s hand a realising that means she’s the werewolf’s next victim’ and he runs off. Larry tells his father he was bitten by Bela the werewolf and now he’s one too. They hear dogs and Larry say they hunting him. Sir John thinks this is all crazy talk. Larry mentions the gypsy woman and Sir John thinks he has the source of the problem. Sir John ties Larry to a chair to try to convince him he isn’t a werewolf, and since Larry is a werewolf that will go as well as you’d expect. Larry urges Sir John to take Larry’s walking stick with him when he leaves to join the hunt for the wolf.

Sir John joins the others at a hunting stand then wander off into woods where he meets Maleva who he blames her for filling Larry’s head with werewolf nonsense. She notes with approval that he’s carrying the walking stick. He hears shooting and he run back to the platform

Gwen appears looking for Larry and Maleva urges her to come with her but she runs off looking for Larry. The werewolf attacks Gwen and Sir John drives it off with the stick and they struggle but Sir John manages to beat of the beast and keeps striking it until it dies. Maleva arrive and say the spell/eulogy over the werewolf and Sir John watches astonished as the werewolf changes back into Larry. The others arrive and Frank goes to check on Gwen who is fine while Montford makes up a logical sounding story to explain everything.

This is the original tragic werewolf tale if you don’t count the versions of the story that take the form of Jekyll and Hyde story. There is more a relaxed naturalistic performance from the actors compared to the earlier horror films which shows the way the industry was developing away from its roots in theatre into its own style. I was surprised to realise on re-watching it that the full moon seems to play no part in this story. Lon Chaney Jr. is excellent as Larry Talbot and liked the way they developed the relationship between his character and that of his father. By today’s standards the film probably seems tame since there’s no gore but it does have an excellent look especially during the night-time scenes.

Rating 8.5/10

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Posted by on October 27, 2012 in Entertainment, Film


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