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