“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.”
— Gypsy Poem, The Wolf Man (1941)
Poor Larry Talbot.
We all know his story, of course. The plot of the original Wolf Man is so iconic and has been imitated in so many other films that, even if you somehow have never seen the original 1941 film, you still know what happened.
Larry (played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a loser. When we first meet him, he is nervously returning to his childhood home in Wales. (Chaney doesn’t sounds at all Welsh nor does he sounds like he’s from any other part of the UK for that matter, but that’s not really important.) Larry’s older brother has recently died and Larry hopes that maybe he can reconcile with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains). Larry’s brother was the favored son, the one who lived up to the Talbot name and made his father proud. Larry, on the other hand, hasn’t really succeeded at anything he’s ever done. To use the slang of the time, Larry comes across as basically being a lug. A big dumb lug.
After discovering that his father really doesn’t seem to want to have much to do with him, Larry goes for a stroll through the nearby village. He buys a silver-headed walking stick, mostly so he can flirt with the salesgirl, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). It turns out that there’s a gypsy camp nearby. What better place to go on a date!?
Well, perhaps Larry should have just invited her to the movies. Not only does a fortune teller (Maria Ouspenskaya) see something terrible in his future but Larry ends up getting bitten by what appears to be a wolf. The good news is that Larry was bitten while saving the life of one of Gwen’s friends, which is certainly going to make him look like good boyfriend material. The bad news is that the wolf was actually the fortune teller’s son, Bela (played by none other than Bela Lugosi). It turns out that Bela was a werewolf and now, Larry’s going to be a werewolf too!
Larry, needless to say, is not happy about this. But then again, Larry wasn’t happy before he became the werewolf either. Lon Chaney, Jr. played Larry Talbot in five different movies and I don’t think he smiled once. I guess that’s understandable, seeing as how he was a werewolf. In every film in which he appeared, Larry would beg someone to kill him and put him out of his misery. And, in every sequel, Larry would somehow be brought back to life and have to go through it all over again. I guess he earned the right to be a little glum.
But still, even before he’s bitten in The Wolf Man, Larry is kind of a boring character. The only time that he’s interesting is when he’s a wolf man. And really, he’s a far more successful werewolf than human. When we first meet Larry, he apologizing to his father for never living up to his expectations. But once Larry turns into the Wolf Man, he finally manages to get things done. When he’s the wolf man, Larry has the inner drive that he lacks as a human.
To me, the heart of The Wolf Man is not to be found in Chaney’s glum performance. Instead, it’s in Claude Rains’s performance as John. When we first meet Sir John, he seems like a rather imposing figure but, over the course of this 70 minute film, John slowly lowers his guard. We discover that he’s actually a loving father and there’s something rather sweet about watching as he slowly welcomes Larry back into his life. Of course, it all ends in tragedy. These things often do.
Everything, from the set design to shadowy cinematography to the hard-working fog machine (which keeps the moors looking properly creepy) to the performances of Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya, comes together to make The Wolf Man into a genuine classic of horror cinema. And, of course, I have to mention the brilliant makeup job that was done to transform Chaney into The Wolf Man.
Still, I have to wonder — why did Lugosi turn into an actual wolf while Chaney turned into this?
Oh well, it probably doesn’t matter. Just relax and enjoy the damn film, as a wise person somewhere once said. Be sure to watch The Wolf Man this holiday season!