The Wolf Man was the very first successful werewolf movie ever and is credited as the one that started it all. But actually it was the second Universal film about werewolves. The Werewolf of London predated it by six years.
What is interesting about the whole Wolf Man phenomenon is that it was the third most successful of all Universal monsters and it had no literary source. The whole idea came from folklore dating back to Greek myth. The evolution of the “werewolf” changed as different cultures passed down the story. The origins surrounding Dracula were similar when Bram Stoker merged the vampire myth with that of the folklore surrounding Vlad the Impaler.
The 1941 film, stars Lon Chaney Jr as Larry Talbot, a nobleman who returns to his childhood home to reconcile with his father (Claude Rains). Their estrangement is perfectly captured by Lon Chaney Jr and Claude Rains and then to further enhance Talbot’s situation they give him a love interest in Gwen (Evelyn Ankers).
One night Talbot tries to save Gwen’s friend Jenny from a wolf attack but Talbot is bitten by the wolf. The old gypsy warns, “Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself.” The werewolf curse has been passed on to Talbot and his life is changed. Uncontrollably he wanders the woods feasting on unsuspecting villagers.
What makes The Wolf Man so classic is the stirring performance from Lon Chaney Jr. This is a normal likeable guy who can’t control the beast within. That humanity is what makes the movie a cut above others. We really feel for the guy and his plight. It is a tragic tale like that of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde or The Incredible Hulk.
The transformation or lap dissolve that shows the change from Talbot to his wolf persona was extremely laborious and required a lot of patience on the part of Lon Chaney Jr. But it is probably one of the most influential horror sequences of the all time.
Every creature effects guy after The Wolf Man has looked on that sequence as an influence. Sure it has been adapted, adjusted and perfected in some aspects but imagine having to do a full transformation frame-by-frame.
Other interesting things about The Wolf Man is that you have Dracula star Bela Lugosi as a supporting player in the film. He plays the old gypsy’s son (also the original werewolf in the film). Also in all the sequels to the film, Lon Chaney Jr reprised the role. He played The Wolf Man five more times. He even took a swing at Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein in his long career associated monsters.
The Wolf Man is probably one of the greatest horror films of all time. It ranks probably in the top two of Universal monsters films. Behind probably just Frankenstein.
4.5 out of 5
So Says the Soothsayer.
TOP 10 UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTER FILMS
2. The Wolf Man
4. The Mummy
5. The Invisible Man
6. Creature From the Black Lagoon
7. Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man
8. Bride of Frankenstein
9. Phantom of the Opera
10. Werewolf of London