Wednesday, October 06, 2010

“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.”

Ah, here we go. Wouldn’t be an Octoverride without some classic Universal Studios pictures. Last year we had Dracula and Frankenstein, this year we’ve got werewolves, starting with 1941’s The Wolf Man.

Upon hearing of the death of his brother, Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns home to Wales (according to the commentary) after a long absence. So long he’s got an American accent. He reconnects with his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) and the two share a moment about astronomy. The Larry does a little peeping tom action on a room above an antique store in the village and introduces himself to Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). She’s engaged to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles) but that doesn’t stop Larry. They all go out to a gypsy carnival in town, but Gwen’s friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) has her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi) and is attacked by a wolf on the way home. Larry beats the wolf to death with a silver headed cane, but is too late to save Jenny and is bitten in the process. As Larry begins to suffer the symptoms of the curse of lycanthropy, the gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) tries to help him deal with the affliction.

Directed by George Waggner with Joseph A. Valentine as director of photography, the movie is tightly paced and really well shot. The real visual star is of course the werewolf makeup effects done by the temperamental Hollywood genius Jack Pierce (who also did the makeup for Frankenstein’s Monster and a bunch of other Universal monsters throughout the 30s into the 40s).

Written by the very prolific Curt Siodmak (he was responsible for many of the Universal horror scripts from the 40s and showed up in last year’s Octoverride), a lot of the lore and mythology of the modern werewolf was solidified or outright invented (like the vulnerability to silver) by Siodmak for this movie. Bluntly, this is THE werewolf movie that all others follow, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Original music by (uncredited) Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner, the score is sweeping, menacing and really good. So good that cues were taken from it for later, lesser Universal movies.

The Wolf Man is top shelf Universal horror and the film responsible for vaulting werewolves into the pop culture gestalt as part of the Big Three of monsters (Dracula & Frankenstein’s Monster being the other two). This is required viewing for horror buffs, werewolf buffs and effects fans.

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