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Logline: After returning to his homeland, a man is inadvertently bitten by a werewolf, after which he becomes one himself.
“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” This poem is recited by several characters in The Wolf Man, the classic horror film starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as the iconic werewolf. My first memories of The Wolf Man begin when I was just a small child. My parents bougbt me the VHS tapes for several classic Universal monster movies, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Wolf Man, which has remained a personal favorite.
The Wolf Man was not the first film to depict a werewolf. In fact, Universal studios had released several werewolf films prior to this one, but none of them were very successful. The Wolf Man, on the other hand, was a hit and has left a lasting legacy. It has all the ingredients of the other Universal horror classics, including incredible makeup effects from Jack Pierce, great performances, and a brooding atmosphere. Like the Monster in Frankenstein or Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a tragic character and unable to prevent the werewolf within him from taking over and killing innocent people. Larry is a victim of circumstance and the psychological aspects of the film are absolutely fascinating. Chaney, Jr., whose father was the infamous “Man of a Thousand Faces” and horror film icon of the 1920s, gives a great performance as Larry. This role would define his career and he would go on to play the character in four additional films.
Aside from Chaney Jr., the other performances are solid. Claude Rains is great as always as Larry’s father. Rains had played the title character, or Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man. Bela Lugosi, who had played the title character in Dracula, appears in a small but important role as Bela, a gypsy/werewolf who attacks and bites Larry, thereby passing on his “curse.” The silver-headed walking stick decorated with a wolf is a great substitute for the silver bullet. Interested in the girl at the antique shop, Larry purchases this cane, which is later used as a weapon.
At seventy minutes, The Wolf Man is incredibly brisk and efficient. There is not a wasted moment in the film. The makeup effects by the legendary Jack Pierce are amazing. It reportedly took ten hours to put on Chaney’s makeup as the Wolf Man. The special effects are also impressive for the time. The transformation scene, in which Larry’s feet slowly grow hair, would be imitated in many other films.
The Wolf Man is an undisputed classic and one of my favorites from Universal’s classic horror cannon. Atmospheric and infinitely rewatchable, The Wolf Man is a great film about duality and one man’s battle with the dark beast within himself.
Rating (out of ****): ****