Year of Monsters: The Wolf Man

Hello again! It’s been a couple of weeks, I know. I’m afraid I’ve been distracted by work and new fandoms and the like, but today I return to discuss our last official Year of Monsters movie: The Wolf Man. This is one of the few Universal films I’ve actually seen before, although not since high school. At the time, I’d found it very boring.

This time, well. Maybe a little bored? But also amused, surprisingly sad, and–in one noteworthy scene–downright incredulous.

Year: 1941
Director: George Waggner
First Watch or Rewatch: Re-Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Absolutely

Our story begins when Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to live with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), in Wales after spending nearly 20 years in America. (Apparently, this does not take place in England, as I’d originally assumed. You’ll have to forgive my confusion, as there are a bevy of accents in this movie, and I don’t believe Welsh is ever one of them.) The idea of Sir John being Larry’s dad shouldn’t amuse me nearly as much as it does, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with two white guys who resemble each other less than Lon Chaney Jr., a giant, and Claude Rains, an Englishman who stood at a whopping 5’7.” Rains is very English here, the kind of rigid, upper crust bastard who you can imagine saying things like “Pish-tosh! Werewolves? Stuff and nonsense, I say!” Meanwhile, Chaney Jr. is about as American as a dude can get, like, his accent seems almost aggressively American, somehow. Unfortunately, all their scenes together highlight another disparity: Claude Rains can act circles around Lon Chaney Jr.

As the titular Wolf Man running around the woods, Chaney Jr. is decent enough. As Larry, a dude who’s possibly been cursed with lycanthropy, or also possibly an accidental-murderer who’s going crazy . . . that, I’m less impressed with. I couldn’t take any of Larry’s (admittedly legitimate) freak-outs seriously, especially not when he tearfully confesses to Gwen. Like, I outright laughed when he yells, “No! It’s no use!” and runs out the door, which is obviously not the optimal emotional response. The Wolf Man is this great tragedy that, to me, feels considerably less tragic than it could have. Or rather, I do find the ending quite sad, but that’s entirely because of Claude Rains, who unknowingly bludgeons his son to death with the very silver cane that Larry gave to him for protection. I feel heartbreakingly sad for Sir John Talbot. Larry? Meh.

Admittedly, my apathy towards Larry isn’t solely due to acting; it’s also because the dude is, undeniably, a total fucking creeper. Let us discuss this by closely examining today’s lesson: How to Flirt With Larry Talbot.

Early in the film, Larry is repairing his dad’s awesome and hilariously large telescope, which he of course immediately uses to look around at all his new neighbors, including the pretty young woman who lives above the antiques shop. Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) is wearing a distinctive pair of earrings; this is important because when Larry makes his way over to the store, he asks to buy a pair himself, only he disregards all the available options before explaining the type he really wants: the earrings, of course, that she previously had on. And when Gwen’s like, “Sorry, we don’t have any jewelry that matches those extremely detailed specifications, you weirdo,” Larry actually says, “Oh yes, you have. You remember? On your dressing table up in your room.”

Ginny Weasley is all of us right now.

And then! And then! Larry, all supposedly charming and reasonable, actually asks Gwen if she’ll get her own fucking earrings for him! Understandably flustered at this point–because he’s being CREEPY–Gwen manages to say the earrings aren’t for sale. Super Smooth Larry, though, is all, “Well, guess I can’t blame them for not wanting to leave, cause they look so hot on you, babe.” Ugh. Ugh. Larry then proclaims himself to be a psychic (the kind who knows everything about beautiful women, natch), gets a crash course on Werewolf 101, offers up some terrible Red Riding Hood-related flirting, buys the silver cane that will later kill the shit out of him, and finally insists on a date, blatantly ignoring Gwen’s repeated refusals. Somehow, this is all supposed to be cute, presumably because nothing says romantic like Blatant Stalking.

Gwen, herself, is more or less fine, although I can’t say she has much in the way of actual personality. Her fiancé–yes, she has one–is even more of a non-entity, like, this dude is so irrelevant to the story I’m struggling to understand why they even bothered including him at all. The Drama, I guess, except there’s not that much drama involved? Most of the supporting cast isn’t that interesting, although Ralph Bellamy–who’s been in many a movie, but who I primarily know as that Old Guy in Pretty Woman–is decent enough as the stupidly tall and mildly antagonistic officer of the law.

The supporting cast members I really want to discuss, though, are Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is in this movie for five seconds, and he overacts every single one of them. He plays Bela (yes, really), a Romani werewolf who kills Gwen’s friend and bites Larry before Larry can successfully bludgeon him to death with the silver murder cane. Ouspenskaya, meanwhile, plays Maleva, Bela’s mother; this, despite the fact that the actress was only six years older than Lugosi, like, JFC, at least Claude Rains had 17 years on his supposed son. Come on, Hollywood. Get your shit together.

Maleva is far and away this movie’s most likable character, the self-assured mentor that unfortunately nobody ever listens to. She repeatedly tries to save Larry’s worthless ass, which is pretty sporting of her, considering he killed her son and all. First, she gives him an amulet that will protect him from the curse (an amulet which he immediately and uselessly bestows upon Gwen), and later, frees him from a bear trap before hunters can find and kill him. Maleva also tries to keep Gwen from running after Larry in the woods (Gwen refuses and immediately almost gets killed), and tries to push Sir John into admitting his own doubts, that perhaps he knows, deep down, his son really is a werewolf.

The scene between Maleva and Sir John lasts, like, a minute, but it is easily my favorite in the whole movie. Claude Rains is all stern protectiveness and staunchly repressed fear (he even says “rubbish!” much to my delight), while Ouspenskaya is both wry and awesomely disdainful. There’s a fascinating story between Maleva and Sir John, two parents who both want (and fail) to save their children. I’d actually be really interested in seeing a remake specifically focused on these two, rather than Creepy Larry and his boring, doomed romance. Alas, instead we got that Benicio del Toro movie that looked absolutely dreadful. (Maybe it wasn’t? But . . . yeah, it looked pretty bad.)

Some Random Notes:

1. The Wolf Man is not the first werewolf film ever made but the second. I considered choosing Werewolf of London instead, but this felt so classic; I couldn’t pass it up. Maybe I’ll watch Werewolf of London at a later date, and then presumably listen to some Warren Zevon.

2. Let’s talk Werewolf Lore!

The Wolf Man was an extremely influential film in regards to modern werewolf canon; however, there are some pretty noticeable differences. The full moon, for instance, is notably absent here (though that will change in subsequent sequels); instead, wolfsbane is the key to triggering the curse, as we discover in this not-actually ancient poem that’s repeated way too many goddamn times:

Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright
.

Words have power in this movie, more than I might’ve expected from a werewolf story. Maleva has her own poem/prayer/spell that she says over the bodies of both Larry and Bela (with only very slight variations):

The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over. Now you will find peace for eternity.

It’s only after she says this that the corpses return to their human forms. She also repeats this prayer/spell at one point when Larry, still alive and in his wolf form, is caught in that bear trap; it allows him to change back into a human and “find peace for a moment.” It’s never really explained if this is supposed to be Maleva’s own inherent magic, or some Romani spell work, or something that anyone could do, if only they knew the proper words. Still, I kind of enjoy it. I feel like I don’t see enough neat werewolf magic stories.

Other werewolf lore of note: silver, definitely. It’s what kills both Larry and Bela. Then we have the pentagram shit, and look, I will never, ever, ever be able to take pentagrams seriously as a werewolf thing, but I am mildly interested in werewolves who get these brief psychic glimpses of their next victim, like, it’s totally silly, sure, but the kind of silly I sorta live for. I am always, always here for the nonsensical psychic shit.

3. It’s sort of amusing that while Bela Lugosi’s werewolf actually runs around on all fours–like, you know, a wolf–Larry is a bipedal werewolf. I can never take bipedal werewolves seriously, although I’m starting to find it almost comforting, how ridiculous most werewolves in movies/TV look. Like, the decade doesn’t even matter.

It’s like a universal constant, something we can hold onto during these chaotic and trying times: werewolves are awesome, but on screen, they almost always look absurd.

Anyway. While the bipedal/quadrupedal thing is never explained in the film, most people seem to think it’s because, in an earlier version of the script, The Wolf Man was a psychological horror film, where the audience is never fully sure if Larry is actually turning into a werewolf or just thinks he is. It’s interesting, too, because you can still easily see the echoes of that story here, even though Universal clearly decided to go another way.

4. Gwen might not be a particularly interesting love interest, but I feel incredibly bad for the actress. By all accounts, Evelyn Ankers had a terrible time on set, from Lon Chaney Jr. continuously and vindictively pranking her, to passing out due to fumes from the fog machine, to–and I shit you not–being chased by a live fucking bear on set. She’s also the only main cast member who’s not named in the trailer, which, once you survive being chased by a bear? I think you should just automatically get first billing. (Instead, first billing went to Bela Lugosi, which, seriously. He is barely in this movie.)

5. Finally–actually, that’s it! We’ve made it through all twelve Year of Monsters movies, though there should be a bonus review up sometime next week, hopefully, due to the generosity of my friend, Rob. Until then, here is The Final Ranking, although I’ll be honest: I’m still definitely not sure about 7, 8, and 9 at all, and might order them differently on any given day.

The Final Ranking

1. The Black Cat
2. Creature from the Black Lagoon
3. The Bride of Frankenstein
4. Dracula
5. Tarantula
6. The Wolf Man
7. The Mummy
8. The Invisible Man
9. Frankenstein
10. It Came From Outer Space
11. Nosferatu
12. The Phantom of the Opera

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