” ‘The way you walk is 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.’ Find peace for a moment, my son” – Maria Ouspenskaya, The Wolf Man (1941)
Ever since I finished grad school, I wanted to watch as many classic horror films as I could find. I finally had some free time and a long list of horror films. I realized that I had only seen one of the Universal Classic Monsters movies (Dracula from 1931) at that point, so I made the rest of them my first priority. The hardest film for me to find was The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr.. Once I finally had it in front of me, I knew the hunt had been worth it.
FYI: I decided not to draw a lot of attention to the “gypsy” components of this film. I did some research in preparation for this post because I was not sure if some of the language and/or portrayals were appropriate. I found from many sources that the Romani people are historically an oppressed group and the terms used by the characters in this film are considered derogatory. I think it is important to learn from cultural artifacts like these, and that means not censoring them. However, since this is my blog, I will not further use this term that is considered derogatory.
Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his family’s estate in England following the death of his older brother. His father, Sir John (Claude Rains), wishes to discuss Larry’s future with Talbot Castle and his inheritance of the estate. During a very creepy first encounter in her father’s antique shop (more on that later), Larry meets Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) and becomes interested in her. While in the shop, he purchases a cane with a silver wolf’s head and a star engraved on the top. Noticing the design, Gwen tells Larry about the folklore of werewolves. Larry sees some fortune-tellers traveling through the village after Gwen walks him outside, and he insists that she accompany him to have their fortunes read.
When Larry meets Gwen outside the shop, they are joined by Gwen’s friend, Jenny (Fay Helm). Larry does his best to hide his disappointment, and the three of them go to the woods where the fortune tellers have set up camp. Jenny goes first and is assessed by Bela (Bela Lugosi) while Larry and Gwen have a conversation nearby. Bela sees a five-pointed star in Jenny’s palm during the reading, and he commands her to leave immediately. Frightened by his change in demeanor and his refusal to tell her what he saw, Jenny runs away in distress. Soon, along with Jenny’s screaming, Larry hears the sounds of a large animal. Larry finds the creature and strikes it repeatedly with his cane. Jenny has been killed by the creature, and Larry is bitten before he kills it.
Larry awakens in Talbot Castle after Gwen and Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), Bela’s mother, take him there from the spot where he was attacked. Larry learns what happened to Jenny and that Bela was found bludgeoned nearby with what was evidently Larry’s cane. He swears he killed a wolf and not a man. Confusion and controversy surrounding the incident follow Larry and Gwen throughout the village. When Larry revisits the camp with Gwen and her fiancé, he walks off in distress and meets Maleva. She tells him the wolf he killed was Bela and that he would become a wolf himself if Bela had truly bitten him. As reluctant as he is to believe her, he accepts a charm from her for his safety. On the way home, he gives the charm to Gwen to keep her safe. Alone that night in Talbot Castle, Larry experiences a gruesome transformation. Thick fur appears all over his body, he grows long claws, and his teeth stretch into fangs. The following night brings another violent death. Larry awakens barefoot and disheveled in his bed with no memory of the previous night. When he fears someone he cares for may be the next victim, Larry acknowledges his affliction and does everything he can to end his path of destruction.
Let me begin by saying that I’m a little salty about Larry Talbot. It has pretty much everything to do with the scene where he is testing one of his father’s telescopes and ends up using it to watch Gwen in her bedroom. He may not have planned to see Gwen, but he continued to watch once he saw her, went into her father’s store below her room, and made sure she knew he could see into her room with the telescope. The whole situation, including Gwen’s reaction to it, was constructed as though she would be flattered by it. The execution of this scene may be a side effect of generational misogyny that was not as scrutinized then as it is now, but it is still uncomfortable to watch.
Along with the repeated predatory behavior, we have to acknowledge the other components of this story that would not be welcome today (see FYI paragraph). To be honest, I almost decided to write about something else when I rewatched this movie. I decided to keep on with it as an example of an influential horror film that makes some errors in cultural sensitivity. While any disrespect may not have been intentional in the making of this movie, storytellers know better now and have the capacity to create narratives that do not support discrimination (implicitly or otherwise).
The overarching component that made me fall in love with this film is its atmosphere that was made possible by the filmmakers and crew. The complex production design, deliberate setting composition, wide landscape shots, lighting choices, musical score, and groundbreaking cosmetic artistry create an eerie but enticing scene that the viewer cannot pull out of until the final frame. Considering how many capabilities the film industry did not have access to at the time, this film accomplished monumental strides in cinematography and a chilling cinematic experience.
Despite the issues I wanted to acknowledge, The Wolf Man is a pillar of horror cinema. It is a mesmerizing and haunting horror film that still inspires all types of monster movies. In any given werewolf movie (An American Werewolf in London, for example) it is not unusual to encounter a reference or two to this particular film. The Wolf Man demonstrates the richness of horror films and their capacity to be both terrifying and beautiful. It is still not the easiest movie to find, but it is worth the hunt.
Until next time,