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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Vargtimmen (AKA: Hour of the Wolf) (1968)

HourOfTheWolf

Vargtimmen (AKA: Hour of the Wolf) – 1968

Director – Ingmar Bergman

Starring – Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, and Erland Josephson

Hour of the Wolf presents a much darker and scarier side of Ingmar Bergman than I’ve seen in any of his other films, without letting up on the acting or characterization that remains the hallmark of any Bergman movie.

This film is populated with some of Bergman’s regular stable of actors, including Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, and Max Von Sydow.  Ullmann and von Sydow play Alma and Johan Borg, a couple who have sequestered themselves on a remote island so that he may deal with his inner demons with a relative amount of privacy.  Seemingly, everything starts off on the up and up, but it quickly becomes evident that he is tortured by something, so much so that it keeps him up nights.  While Johan is distant and brooding while dealing with his fears, Alma, like a lot of female characters in Bergman’s works, saddles herself with the blame and responsibility of caring for him.  Unfortunately for them both, all she manages to do is join him on his descent into madness.

The imagery used is unsettling, and remote, causing the feeling of being further from safety.  The couple has chosen this secluded place in an attempt to find a safe place, but instead the (almost) deserted island presents more dangers than it shelters them from.  The feeling of isolation and helplessness increases as Johan’s described demons (the lady who threatens to take her hat off, and with it her face, the man who is disguised as a bird, and the lusty former conquest who is probably dead), begin to take shape in the form of the island’s other in habitants.

The line blurs even further when we learn the root of Johan’s guilt, and we start to believe there is more madness in him than sanity.  The telling of this story is a mixture of documentary, flashback, hallucination, and incomplete third person testimony, which only increases the unreliability of what actually happened.  The film starts as Liv Ullmann exits their cottage to a waiting (and unseen) documentary crew.  She tells of how Johan became more and more distant from her as he decended further into his fantasies.  From this we move on to what seems to be a flashback, peppered with further flashbacks and discussions with people who may or may not be there.  Little by little Alma is corrupted by the visions, and she starts seeing the same “ghosts” that Johan does.  At first we take for granted that her story is being relayed to this unseen documentary crew, but soon enough we’re not sure if they are the end result of her own madness.

Possibly the most unsettling part is, when at one of the final gatherings of the various characters, the old lady wearing the hat finally takes it off.  The whole movie has built to what happens next.  We watch as Johan unravels before our eyes, assailed with imagry borrowed years later for such classics as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  The power of this imagery is the fact that it is not over-used, and for the entire first half of the movie is only hinted at, and suggested.

Filmed entirely in high contrast, black and white photography enhances the unsettling feel of the entire film.  From sunrise to mid-day, and from sunset to the titular hour of the wolf, the lighting borrows and lends in equal measure from the mood of the characters.  A walk home at dusk is much more threatening, while we feel more self assured during the bright day time scenes.  Even through watching this lesser known film (at least it was lesser known to me) it is certainly easy to see how longtime Bergman cinematographer,  Sven Nykvist, won his two Oscars (both Bergman films Fanny and Alexander and Cries and Whispers) and was nominated for numerous other awards worldwide.

Though, Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen in Swedish), isn’t one of the films first thought of when you hear Ingmar Bergman, it is still a valuable exercise in tone and atmosphere, and is truely representative of what makes a Bergman film.  The lonliness and tension are palpable, and by the end, just like someone who is going mad, we question everything!

“More like The Hour of the Get the Fuck Over!” – Ashley