By the time 1941 rolled around, Lon Chaney Jr., had already appeared in many films, though none quite as significant as The Wolf Man would end up being. In this film, his second starring vehicle after Man Made Monster, he would finally get a chance to shine and show the world exactly what he was capable of. Much like Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, Chaney would find himself immersed in the world of horror for most of his film career. He would appear in a few westerns and dramas and the like, but people wanted to see him in horror films, as did studios. It might have been typecasting, and the roles may not have been the best to come along, but Chaney would deliver quite a large body of work before his time as an actor was to end. With the success of Universal’s many horror films, it was time for another creature to make its debut and like the previous films starring Frankenstein and Dracula, The Wolf Man would be successful and generate some sequels of its own. Sadly, none of them would star Chaney in a solo role; much like Karloff was able to do and would end up sharing the spotlight with his contemporaries.
As it was, Chaney would prove to be an incredibly fine actor, giving himself over to the role and creating a performance as memorable as the ones that both Karloff and Lugosi themselves had done years ago. Chaney was quite dynamic in the film, starting off as a brash and cocksure young man, trying to woo the local girl after going home to visit his father. After getting bitten by the wolf and finding out the true nature of the beast and what it means for him exactly, Larry’s whole attitude changes, and Chaney alters his appearance and even the stance he takes later on in the film. No longer so prideful, Larry almost seems defeated, sullen and one of the most, if not the most tragic figures in Universal’s horror film cannon. The way Chaney takes the weight of the world onto Lawrence Talbot’s shoulders, it is like watching a man who has nothing left to live for, and as a viewer, and you cannot help but feel empathetic towards the man.
The film, while being of the horror genre, was also a tragedy with the downfall of the well-to-do Larry Talbot. And no matter what befalls Lawrence or what happens in the movie, we enjoy watching it, and watching him as he travels down his path into darkness and despair. While both Frankenstein and Dracula were based off of literary works, The Wolf Man was not. Written by Universal stalwart, Curt Siodmak, and filmed by George Waggner, the film and the creature would end up being the third of the big three Universal horror properties. While The Invisible Man and The Mummy released prior to this film, and later The Creature From the Black Lagoon, would also be recognized as essential creature features, they would not make as much of an impact as The Wolf Man did. Perhaps it was the inherent drama of the story that really pushed it forward, the incredible performance by Chaney, or both. Whatever the reason, The Wolf Man resonated with audiences then, just as it still does today.
Another aspect of the movie which would make it stand-out from other films during the period were the great creature effects used to transform Larry from man to wolf. It can be said that when you see him turn for the first time, it is one of the most magical things to ever appear on film during those early years when special effects were essentially, still in their infancy. Thanks to Jack P. Pierce, the man responsible for makeup, The Wolf Man would look exactly that. Makeup and creature effects alone would not make the film look as good as it was, and so with R.A. Gausman on set decorations and cinematography by Joseph Valentine, the film would be a dark and shadowy masterpiece, which in itself lent to the specter of horror to be found within.
Chaney of course, would not go it alone in the film and so a very talented cast was assembled around him. Claude Rains, no stranger to horror having played the original Invisible Man, would star as Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot. Rains would give the role, and the picture a dignified air with his presence. Sir John is a forgiving man and a loving father, one that would do anything for his son and Rains would add to the air of tragedy surrounding Lawrence by the end of the film, and even influence its sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, without even appearing in the picture. The talented Evelyn Ankers would appear as the woman on the receiving end of Larry’s affections when he first returns home. Ankers who had already appeared in a few pictures as well prior to this point much like Chaney, would go on to star in many of Universal’s horror outings after this film made its debut. The movie would also feature Patric Knowles, Warren Willam, and Ralph Bellamy, while woman who Larry would go to for help would be played by Maria Ouspenskaya who would almost steal the show from Chaney. Last but not least, her son Bela would be portrayed by the one and only Bela Lugosi in-between his roles as Ygor in the Frankenstein franchise.
The Wolf Man would be both influential and inspiring to future filmmakers and their movies through the years featuring the feral creature. Much of what was represented in this film, and those that were to follow, have given cinema many of the concepts that would be repeated for years to come, such as turning on the full moon, the effect of wolfbane, the aversion to silver and more. The famous poem written by Siodmak and recited by Maria Ouspenskaya which went, ‘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,’ would be repeated by many over the years, both fan and professional alike. The film by all definitions of the word is a horror classic. It made stars, generated sequels and it has aged well with time, looking as if it could have been filmed today as a period piece. The performances by all, but specifically Chaney are timeless and remarkable. It would be a shame that Chaney, much like Karloff and Lugosi, would by typecast by his role, but such as it was, he will always be remembered because of his portrayal of the tormented Lawrence Talbot in this film and the ones that were to follow. And while this picture was preceded by Werewolf of London, it is safe to say that it is The Wolf Man that people look to when they think of the werewolf in film.
5 out of 5