Universal originally tried to introduce werewolves to its roster of monsters in 1935’s “Werewolf Of London” but the film flopped at the box office and it would be another six years before Universal would shoot for the moon once again.
After learning of the death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) returns to his ancestral home in Wales to reconcile with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry quickly becomes interested in a local girl named Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), who runs the local antique shop. When Gwen is attacked by a wolf during a moonlight stroll, Larry saves her but is bitten in the process. Larry heals quickly but is told by a gipsy that he has been bitten by a werewolf and is fated to become one himself.
The film boasts a great cast, although the (unseen) mother of the Talbot family must have been an imposing woman given the height difference between Rains and Chaney. Rains, so imposing in “The Invisible Man” is dwarfed by his gigantic co-star. The film also features a young Ralph Bellamy, best known to modern audiences as Randolph Duke from “Trading Places” as well as a brief cameo from Bela Lugosi as a gipsy similarly cursed by lycanthropy.
Set in the same quasi-mythical Britain as “The Invisible Man”, it has the same turn of the century timelessness as many other Universal monster movies but its sensibilities seem more contemporary than most. The directness and insistence of Larry’s courtship of Gwen is a little bit squirmy, even by the standards of the day. He’s barely arrived home before he’s using his father’s telescope for tom-peepery on the local village girls followed by some ‘gee shucks’ creeping in person.
For such an apparently rare event, werewolves certainly seem to be a popular topic of conversation in the village and when a band of gipsies arrive the stage is set for the film’s set piece. The performances are decent throughout and Lon Chaney Jr particularly gives it his all in the dual role of the increasingly troubled Larry and as the eponymous Wolf Man. While not everything is in place, much of the Hollywood rules and traditions of werewolves are established in this movie. Even the famous saying quoted by many of the characters in the movie, ‘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’ often believed to be a genuine gypsy or eastern European saying, was actually created by screenwriter Curt Siodmak.
Curt Siodmak is responsible for helping popularise the idea of a person becoming a werewolf through being bitten, the importance of silver in dispatching a werewolf and also that werewolves are marked by a pentagram. Now, the pentagram shown in the movie isn’t what we would consider a pentagram by today’s horror movie standard, more a basic five point star, but its inclusion in the movie was a secret triumph for Siodmak. Inspired by his experiences in Nazi Germany, Siodmak was archly aware of the allegorical power of murderous monsters who pick out their next victim by marking them with a star. It’s doubly uprising that it managed to get past the notoriously anti-Semitic and pro-German Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Association which censored film production throughout the thirties and forties.
Complementing Siodmak’s excellent screenplay is the make-up work by the legendary Jack Pierce, the man behind the masks of all Universal’s most popular monsters. Originally, Siodmak’s screenplay was much more ambiguous around whether or not Larry actually turned into a werewolf or not but the studio, aware of the audience’s enthusiasm for creature feature, insisted it was made more explicit and thus another iconic look was born.
It’s not all gipsy curses, pentagrams and grisly wolf attacks, though. There’s a nice streak of humour through the movie as well, mainly provided by the bumbling sidekick Twiddle (Forrester Harvey) whose first name might as well be ‘Take A Note’.
Despite its heavyweight cast, there’s a lightness overall to the movie and it definitely feels pulpier than its more gothic predecessors. It’s still enormous fun, though – and clearly, Lon Chaney Jr enjoyed himself as he would return to play Larry/ The Wolf Man in three sequels and the Abbott & Costello comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”.