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April 5, 2011

The Universal Horror Experience - The Wolf Man

(Note from The Mike: Y'all love Universal's Monster flicks, right?  Well, The Mike does.  And it seems like it's about time to do something about it.  So welcome to a new feature at FMWL - The Universal Horror Experience.  Now I know that most of these films have been talked to death, so I hope to do something fresher than just saying "OMG YOU GUYS, these movies are like important".  In said feature, I hope to discuss my experience with these monsters, to review some of the sequels I've yet to see, and to talk about some films that follow up on Universal's original scarers.  For example, we're gonna start the Universal Horror Experience with....)
My love affair with Universal's monsters started with them existing as more of an idea than an actual entity.   I first really learned about them by reading those orange backed books about the monsters at the library - if you grew up in the '80s, you probably know those books. I read front to back about Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong, Godzilla, etc....but for some reason I don't remember caring much about the Wolf Man.  Frankenstein's monster was always the big brute, Dracula's always been the suave devil....but then there was The Wolf Man, who I always kind of wrote off as a side character in my youth. (Except I knew that he had gnards.  Thanks, The Monster Squad.)
But when I started to get into the movies during my teen years, The Wolf Man quickly jumped out at me as a favorite.  Where Frankenstein and Dracula were paring down their source materials to film lengths, The Wolf Man was taking something that hadn't been done too often - though Werewolf of London did precede it by six years - and using it to create a third icon to keep the money flowing in for Universal Studios.  In doing so, many of the things we've come to believe about werewolves - like their struggles with silver and humanoid appearance - were unleashed upon audiences for the first time.  I don't mean to slight The Mummy, The Invisible Man, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon (who was still 15 years away from existence) when I say The Wolf Man is above them as a top dog in the horror 'verse - but it's since become a special favorite to me.
The Wolf Man won me in part through its monster, but there was a whole lot more going on in the film.  Lon Chaney Jr. stars as both the furry beast and the seemingly harmless - aside from a bit of peeping - Larry Talbot, who returns home to his father after the tragic death of his brother in a hunting accident.  The Talbots are obviously a big deal in the small town they inhabit, which makes Larry a high profile individual - particularly when he's caught up in a love triangle with a local girl (the fetching Evelyn Ankers) and the accidental murder of a gypsy named Bela (aptly played by Bela Lugosi).  Larry is wounded badly by the beast that Bela appears to be, and we all know what that means these days.  (If you don't, check out An American Werewolf in London - which cites the film as a reference on screen - and get back to me.  Or, y'know, just watch the movie.)
Chaney's performance is certainly raw by Hollywood standards, but the younger Mister Chaney would make a career out of harnessing that off-kilter persona.  Though Chaney got his first big break two years earlier as Lennie in the first film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (opposite a young Burgess Meredith), the mixture of his size and stature with his ability to play meek and scared - plus a dose of his famous father's legacy - made Chaney a favorite with Universal after his initial turn as The Wolf Man.  Chaney would go on to portray Frankenstein's monster, The Mummy, and the Son of Dracula in following Universal horrors.  Though those roles would establish him as a horror 'verse fixture, but his original turn as Larry Talbot catches Chaney at his most human - at least until his swan song performance in former MMOTW Spider Baby.
The problem with Chaney, according to many horror fans, is that he most certainly is not an iconic presence like Karloff and Lugosi before him.  I won't argue that point, but I think he gets a lot of help in making The Wolf Man work.  The supporting cast includes Lugosi and Ankers but also big names Claude Rains and Ralph Bellamy, and each actor works well within Curt Siodmak's tragic script.  The biggest assist in creating the legend of The Wolf Man probably goes to makeup specialist Jack Pierce, who designed the look of the beast and supervised the exhausting process of creating the film's transformation from man to wolf.  
With this convergence of talents supporting the star, The Wolf Man jumps off the screen as a tale of horror with a Shakespearean bit of tragedy and more human drama than many horrors of its era.  While the film adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula can be mistaken for one-man shows thanks to their iconic leads, the superior cast and script behind The Wolf Man push it to the top of my go-to list of classic horrors.  I'm glad I shook the near-sightedness of little The Mike, because he remembered The Wolf Man primarily as the thing that scared Stephanie Tanner that one time on Full House.


JohnBem said...

I look forward to more entries in this Universal series, The Mike. I always enjoy reading writers' personal reactions to movies. It's somehow akin to that old Beat adage that the particular reflects the universal. Looking at familiar material through the specific eyes of another person can often lend freshness and a new perspective. (Wolfman comes in at Universal Number 2 for me; I have a deep and abiding affection for the Creature from the Black Lagoon.)

Chris Hewson said...

I think I might be a masochist when I say the the Wolf Man sequence is not over until we get The Sundance Kid Fights the Wolf Man, along with Butch Cassidy Against the Mummy, as the long awaited sequels to the infamous Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter!

Singlem said...

As a lifelong fan of all the Universal monster movies, I want to congratulate on presenting such a brilliant site. Keep up the good work.

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