Seasons of the Wolf

One of my most prized possessions is a box set of the old Universal horror movies, which were such a staple of my late night viewing when I was a kid, and I recently had occasion to rewatch the four werewolf movies.

Werewolf of London (1935)

Botanist Wilfred Glendon goes to Tibet in search of a rare plant, and while over there is bitten by a werewolf, though of course he doesn’t realise this is the case (who would?). Back in London, Glendon sprouts fur and claws, and goes out in the night on the prowl for victims. Every time he kills he is filled with remorse upon resuming his human form, but all attempts at self-imprisonment fail miserably, and to further complicate matters there is another werewolf competing with him for the cure. The plot at times seems risible, not least for the comic couple in the pub who seem to be channelling characters from The Arthur Haynes Show of the 1960s. Henry Hull as Glendon turns in a tolerable performance as the older man married to a young wife and the scientist so wrapped up in his work that he neglects her, but the film belongs to Warner Oland as rival botanist and werewolf Dr. Yogami, a suitably devious and complicated arch villain. I liked it, but mainly for reasons of nostalgia and the feeling that “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. As a side issue, it inspired yesterday’s Warren Zevon song and the John Landis film An American Werewolf in London.

The Wolf Man (1941)

This is the film that breathed new life into the Universal franchise and made werewolves a staple of the horror genre, but there really isn’t much to it as regards plot. Larry Talbot returns home to his father’s stately desres and is reunited with the old man. He sets his cap at a local girl and things are going swimmingly when he gets bitten by a wolf in the forest at night. Suddenly Larry is turning hairy on the outside and going off in search of prey. Fast forward to the creature’s demise and everybody realising what a terrible thing has happened, with echoes of the old “more things in heaven and earth” adage. It makes the previous film look positively convoluted by comparison, and yet it’s a case of keeping it simple working best. Part of the film’s appeal is the atmosphere, with mist shrouded forests and bestial howls far off in the distance, while constant repetition of a traditional verse every time the subject of werewolves is mentioned only serves to heighten our sense of anticipation. Larry Talbot, as played by Lon Chaney, Jr, is a far more likeable character than Wilfred Glendon, somebody nowhere near as self-obsessed, though his persistence with romantic interest Gwen gave me a bit of a pause. Chaney makes the character sympathetic and a tragic figure, this aspect reinforced by the nature of his ultimate fate. The makeup effects seem laughable by modern standards, but were height of the art at the time. Supporting Chaney is an all-star cast, including Claude Rains as Larry’s father, Bela Lugosi as a gipsy, Ralph Bellamy as the voice of officialdom, and last but far from least, Maria Ouspenskaya doing a lovely turn as a gipsy fortune teller. As a child it scared me.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Just as taking the stake out of its heart will revive a vampire, when grave robbers remove wolfsbane from Larry Talbot’s tomb he comes back to life. In the company of the old gipsy woman from the previous film, Talbot sets off for Europe to seek help from distinguished scientist Dr. Frankenstein. Alas, the good doctor is dead, but his daughter Elsa allows Talbot to study her father’s notes in search of a way to end his life. When the Frankenstein monster is brought back to life, the scene is set for a battle royal between the two horror archetypes. Again, this is a lot of fun. Chaney reprises his lead role with as much empathy and earnestness as before, while if he doesn’t quite reach the heights of Karloff, Bela Lugosi turns in a credible performance as the monster. As you’d expect of a Frankenstein film, there’s some human evil thrown into the mix, or if not evil then at least hubris, with a doctor wishing to satisfy his scientific curiosity providing the catalyst for the calamity that eventually unfolds. A final shout out to Ilona Massey, who as Elsa does an engaging turn as tentative love interest. Fortunately, or perhaps not, my Universal box set didn’t include any of the meetings with Abbott and Costello.

She-Wolf of London (1946)

It’s time to jump the shark, or whatever the lupine equivalent of that is. June Lockhart, who I know mostly from her days as Ma Robinson in Lost in Space (another staple of my childhood – wonderful times) plays the part of wealthy beauty Phyllis Allenby, all set to marry Mr. Right, whose real name is Barry. But when people start to get killed in the fog engulfed park outside her London mansion, and their deaths are attributed to a monstrous wolf, Phyllis recalls the dreaded Allenby curse and fears she may be turning furry. In fact somebody is attempting to send her mad, for reasons of their own. It’s hard to know what to say about this. Lockhart and Don Porter as Barry make a charming couple, even if he does verge on the over protective at times (euphemism), but the plot is pretty much an old staple of the genre (maybe it wasn’t in 1946) and required a lot more thought to be credible. Most of the characters, and especially the police, act like they’ve entirely lost touch with reality. Phyllis’ credulity beggars belief, and there isn’t really any solid reason for the villain of the story to act as they do. It’s an interesting historical piece I guess, but I suspect included in the box set solely to make up the numbers.

So what werewolf movies do the rest of you guys like?

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