#6 – The Wolf Man 1941
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.”
The Wolf Man begins with Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returning to England to reconcile with his father (Claude Rains) after the death of his brother. As soon as Larry gets home, he wanders into his father’s observatory and starts using its telescope to spy on the neighboring village. Local antique shop girl, Gwen, soon catches the eye of Peeping Larry and he likes what he sees. He goes into town to creep on Gwen a little bit more, buys a cane topped with a silver wolf’s head, then tells Gwen he’ll be back to stalk her later than evening after she repeatedly turns him down for a date. Larry returns and needles Gwen into going to get their fortunes told by the band of gypsies that just rolled into town, only to have her third wheel friend, Jenny, insist on coming along with them. Jenny has her fortune ominously told to her by the Bela the gypsy (Bela Lugosi) and runs away frightened into the woods. Larry hears a scream and charges toward the commotion where he finds her being attacked by a wolf. He whips out his trusty silver wolf’s head cane and bludgeons it to death, getting bitten in the process. Larry later returns to the gypsy camp where an old woman informs him that the wolf he killed was really Bela, and that Larry will now become a werewolf himself.
Originally, the audience was never actually going to see the werewolf. The movie was initially intended to be more of a psychological study into Larry Talbot’s character. Was he actually turning into a werewolf, or was he just suffering through a psychotic breakdown? Eventually the studio decided that the movie would probably be more successful if it just went ahead and showed the goods. Talbot’s transformation is one of the few areas I think could have been improved upon even considering the technical limitations of the time. As it happens, you only get to see his feet. Other than that, the fog covered set pieces and soundtrack both work very well in providing the movie a successfully spooky atmosphere.
The Wolf Man is my favorite of all the classic Univeral monster pictures and the quintessential werewolf movie, narrowly edging out Teen Wolf. (Who doesn’t want to watch werewolf Michael J. Fox dunk a basketball? If that answer is you, we can’t be friends.) But seriously, while not technically the start of the werewolf movie bloodline (that honor goes to Universal’s 1935 Werewolf of London), The Wolf Man is the one from which all other werewolf movies have sprung. It established much of the now canonical werewolf lore, such as how they can only be killed by a silver bullet silver knife, or silver etc. You can thank it for influencing good movies like An American Werewolf in London, Silver Bullet, and Teen Wolf. You can also probably place some blame on it for Werewolf (however, MST3K version = Full Of Win), whichever Twilight movie/s has/have the werewolves (not going to look it up), and Teen Wolf Too (Why, Jason Bateman!? WHY!?!?)
The popularity of the film spawned four sequels that Lon Chaney, Jr. returned to star in. This was actually a rarity among the classic Universal monster pictures. The actors that made the roles famous in the original movies were replaced by different actors playing the role in the sequels. There was a subpar remake released in 2010 starring Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. Although the film has its problems, I appreciated that the effects remained respectful to the spirit of the original movie. Rather than just rendering the werewolf effects and transformations solely using CGI, the producers put makeup wizard Rick Baker, of An American Werewolf in London fame, to work. This netted the movie the Academy Award for Best Makeup in 2011.