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Comb your face
by Asa Butcher
Issue 10
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The Wolf Man
George Waggner
Universal Pictures, 1941
“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.”

Blooming wolfbane, a bright autumn moon, silver canes, gypsy incantations, sinister woods, a permanent ground mist and another Universal Pictures monster that appears to have an aversion to razors. The Wolf Man became the benchmark for all Hollywood werewolf movies that followed and it still has the power to entertain after sixty years.

In the context of 21st century filmmaking, the movie is quite poor, but when watching a classic such as this you should enjoy it as a foundation for the horror movies that followed. It cemented many of the myths and legends that surround Lycanthropy (werewolfism) and does have the occasional dramatic scene that holds your attention.

It wasn’t the first werewolf movie, but Curt Siodmak’s screenplay, a great performance by Lon Chaney Jr. and excellent make-up by Jack Pierce combined to leave audiences ‘howling’ in delight. In today’s horror movies, we are treated to the character’s transformation early on in the film, but The Wolf Man holds back until the 40th minute, which in a movie of 70-minutes is along time.

The gradual build-up of the story and the delay of the transformation are frustrating, although it does give the story some control and avoids the blood fest of a Wolf Man massacring the small population of the village. The film has a strong cast for a B-movie, featuring Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya, and there are some enjoyable interactions between them.

The story begins when Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) returns from America upon the death of his brother. He begins to pursue an engaged girl (Evelyn Ankers) and accompanies her and her friend to a gypsy camp one night. The friend is fatally attacked by a wolf and Larry kills it, but not before it bites him. It emerges that Larry killed a gypsy (Lugosi), but the gypsy’s mother (Ouspenskaya) tells Larry that the bite will cause him to become a werewolf at each full moon and his nightmare begins.

Curt Siodmak’s script created many of the myths that future werewolf films would utilise. In the ‘Monsters by Moonlight’ documentary, Siodmak explains that the script was influenced by his experiences in Nazi Germany. The Wolf Man is a metaphor for the Nazis: a good man who is transformed into a vicious killing animal who knows who his next victim will be when he sees the symbol of a pentagram (i.e., a star) on them.

Lon Chaney Jr.’s portrayal of Larry Talbot trying to deal with his new surroundings and then his fate are marvellous to watch. He joined the ranks of Lugosi and Boris Karloff, with his performance as the Wolf Man and went on to play the character four more times, plus he is the only person to have played all four of the classic movie monsters.

Universal were saved by the spectacular horror series and this was thanks, in part, to the studio’s genius make-up artist Jack Pierce. He was their legendary monster-maker and his work on The Wolf Man is impressive for its period. Six hours on and three hours off, according to the documentary, and Chaney Jr. hated every minute of the make-up process, but the results on screen were worth the animosity – except the wolf’s dreadful haircut.

Watching the film today, I was interested in the actual transformation and how it was achieved without the use of CGI and other technological developments. Unthinkable today, the first and second transformation only shows his feet in six lapse dissolves, plus we see the top of his hairy boots. It is only on the third transformation that we see his face transform from werewolf to Larry in 17 dissolves and, despite its crudeness, it was smoothly performed.

The film suffers through some of the dialogue and the continuity is painful, such as why Bela Lugosi is an actual wolf, while Larry becomes a Wolf Man, or the gravedigger just gives in to the wolf attack, while a girl manages to fight him off for a minute. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, there are some exciting scenes, such as when he is trapped in the mantrap and the men and dogs are closing in, which hooked me.

My favourite character in the film is Mr. Twiddle (Forrester Harvey), who is the chief constable’s assistant), not only does he have the best surname, but also some of the funniest scenes in the film. Maria Ouspenskaya’s role as Maleva the gypsy is haunting, as she mourns her son’s death, counsels Larry and casts charms over the dead.

The Wolf Man is a masterpiece that horror and movie fans should watch to understand the foundations of Hollywood . The Wolf Man may never be the face of Gillette, but this is film that be described as short, sweet and hairy.

“The way you walk 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.

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