The Wolfman (1941)

The Wolfman – 1941

Director – George Waggner

Starring – Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Bela Lugosi

When mention is made of the “Classic Universal Monster” films, inevitably the first ones that spring to mind are Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman.  Given enough time to consider the category of film you might eventually think up The Mummy, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but these are just monsters whereas all of the other three are more fully realized characters.  It just so happens that these characters also happen to be monsters.

The Wolfman in particular, is the most similar to the audience.  He is an everyman, someone who, unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, we get to know before he becomes a monster.  He is every bit a human being, someone who is scared of what is happening to him, and remorseful of the crimes he has committed because of his affliction.  But does this humanity, this pathos make the Wolf Man story better than that of Dracula, or Dr. Frankenstein?  Not quite.

The story is simple enough and fairly well-known, a man bitten by a strange wolf while out during a full moon, finds himself turning into a wolf himself and roaming around killing for pleasure.  Ultimately he must either find a cure or he must be hunted down and killed before the killing will stop.

While a lot of the same elements are in place as they are in Dracula and Frankenstein (Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi even makes an appearance as a Gypsy afflicted with the werewolf’s curse), Lon Chaney, Jr. isn’t quite up to the challenge of acting opposite someone like Boris Karloff, and the imagery doesn’t hold as much terrific horror as the gothic imagery put forth in Dracula.  The film didn’t seem like that much of a surprise.  Instead I felt like I knew the entire time what was going to happen.

The imagery, set design, and music all seemed much more formulaic to me than in either of the other two, on top of the less convincing story and powerful acting, The Wolf Man was just unable to get from under the weight of its big brothers.  Where it did succeed admirably, was it’s ability to draw the audience in through its main character.  In each of the other two monster films, the showpieces were the monsters.  These inhuman, alien beings, lacking much in the way of recognizable human characteristics, served to menace the villagers, despite their best efforts (frankenstein) or because of them (dracula).

We were introduced to the Wolf Man, however, while he was still a man.  We are given insight to his somewhat troubled relationship with his father, and his competitive relationship with his dead brother.  We see him pining away after the local girl, and the awkward situation he is put in when he’s introduced to her fiance.  So right away, we can relate to him.  He is a man, first and foremost.  A man who eventually has one more problem thrust upon him, the whole turning into a wolf against his will and killing, thing.  The unfortunate part is, this history we’ve built up never plays a part in the story beyond the introductions.  We are able to sympathize with him at first, but eventually he just becomes “another guy” that we don’t really care all that much about.

Despite it’s not being as good as some of the other Classic Monster films, The Wolf Man is still definitely worth a watch, although I would contend with its position on this list if only because it seems like a “well we can’t leave The Wolf Man out” type of pick.

“Always listen to your neighborhood gypsy” – Ashley

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La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928)

PassionofJoanofArc

La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (AKA: The Passion of Joan of Arc) – 1928

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Maria Falconetti

Quite possibly Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most influential work, The Passion of Joan of Arc owes a lot of it’s notoriety and it’s impact to it’s lead actress, Maria Falconetti.  The fear, and passion thatFalconetti conjures on camera througout the duration of the trial of Joan,  is not merely some plot point to enhance the story, it IS the story.

Staged almost entirely within the courtroom or her jail cell, the story of Joan of Arc is fairly straight forward, so much so that most people know the jist of it even if they don’t know that they know it.  Joan, the famous saint, and girl warrior, is on trial for her alleged heresy (actually she was only officially tried for wearing in-appropriate men’s clothing).  During this trial, everything from her value structure to her manner of dress is drawn into question.  Evidence is forged, and heavy eccliesiatic persuasion is used.  Through it all Joan held to her beliefs, and was eventually sentenced to death.  This is not a spoiler, it’s too well known to have spoiled anything.

From the opening shots of the courtroom, I was immediately struck by how upclose and invasive the camera work seemed to be.  Not invasive of the actors, but of me.  Shot in striking, uncomfortable close-ups, Joan’s accusers seem warped and distended.  Each face (with the exception of Joan’s) takes on a sinister look, frowning, sneering, and conspiring with a simple furrow of the brow.  Joan on the other hand, seems to have a perpetually wet, upturned gaze, similar to a lot of religious paintings.  She is given more room in the frame and as a result, she serves as a respite for us as viewers when she is on screen.

I tried my damnedest to watch it in it’s original silent state, but after catching myself nodding off a bit, I turned on the optional audio track of accompanying music.  Let me tell you…this helps SO much!  The music serves as a balast not only for the dramatic action happening on screen, but for pacing, dramatic effect, and as an additional means of engaging the audience.

One thing I was surprised about when watching this, was the over-all quality of image that this version (the Criterion Collection edition) offered.  I am used to these older films being so grainy and damaged that they seem almost blurry, so it was quite a surpise to find that the print was clear as a bell, with only a few scratches and flaws in the picture quality.  Another final critique, since this story is based on actual documentation of the court proceedings, the reach of the story seemed lacking.  I would have liked to have heard more about Joan’s deeds before her trial, whether or not they were truthful or distortions put forth by her accusers, it would have helped to liven up the story a bit.

By and large, The Passion of Joan of Arc was a pleasant surprise to me.  The image quality in particular, but also the acting, and pacing managed to avoid the trappings (read: length) that many other silent films fall into.  While there were slow moments, the last scene of the rioting villagers being fought off by palace guards was more than enough to smack me across the face.