Werewolf of London (1935)
The golden age of horror films generally covers the period from the early 1930’s to the late 40’s. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), featuring the last appearance of Lon Chaney, Jr as the tortured wolf man Lawrence Talbot is perhaps the last horror film from this period (although one could build an argument that Howard Hawk’s The Thing from Another World, from 1951, just lies on the fringe). Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935) pretty much kicked off the werewolf genre and effectively at that. Werewolves had made very brief appearances as vampiric transformations in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), but Universal expanded into having the werewolf as the central character in WWL. There’s a lot to like about this film and it holds up as one of my favorite werewolf films. For an in-depth review on the film and social merits see Strange Botany in Werewolf of London. I’m keeping it fairly light.
Right off the bat we’re greeted with an effective score (DUM da-da) by Karl Hajos who used both strings and brass to accentuate mood. I’m certain Universal recycled the score, but in what films I’m not quite sure (maybe it originated in The Black Cat?). Director Stuart Walker seems capable with his cast. Although, there’s nothing special about the camerawork, consisting primarily of stationary shots and some dolly work, I do like the slow closeup during Dr. Yogami’s formal introduction. Yogami’s Tibetan werewolf in shadow, with raptor-like claws and “popeye” forearms reminds me of a Max Fleischer cartoon. The attention to detail in this film is worth mentioning -check out the Tibetan moon with an ice-crystal halo. I particularly like the botanical garden scenes and a giant tentacled frog-eating Madagascar plant named *Cornelia (predating the feminine man-eating Audrey II by 25 years). Wow. Check out Glendon’s closed circuit TV!
And how can you go wrong with a film that opens with a botanical expedition to Tibet in search of the Mariphasa lupino lumino (Yogami calls it the Mariphasa lumina lupina), a rare flower that blooms only by the rays of the moon? The Mariphasa flower prop (possibly created by John P. Fulton) looks authentic enough, with a pod-like base common to various bromeliads and orchids. They look like the parasitic pods that Brooke Adams discovers growing as epiphytes (epi = upon; phytos = plant) in Philip Kaufman’s re-make of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
The film is well-cast with Henry Hull as Botanist Dr. Glendon. He’s a little stiff. Warner Oland plays the mysterious and cursed Dr. Yogami (a Japanese botanist?), also dependent upon the pharmacological properties of the phosphorescent moonflower. To me, it is Oland who carries WWL. What a screen presence -for most of my life I thought the Swedish-born John Verner Öhlund (Warner Oland) was Asian. Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin says he’s a lot of fun in this film, and I agree (yes, I am a Charlie Chan fan). It is Oland who delivers perhaps the best line in the film:
Werewolfery… the werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a satanic creature with the worst qualities of both…
Later, when Glendon transforms into the werewolf, appropriately a house guest exclaims “The devil’s in here! He had green eyes… and covered in hair (gasp)”.
The film is not without flaws. WWL features a stupid romantic triangle, rampant in Universal scripts during this period. Some folks are critical of a neatly dressed werewolf wearing a Gatsby-style cap, but I like the design of the werewolf from London. Jack Pierce created subdued makeup highlights, using yak hair, dentures and grease paints rather than building up a full-blown wolf face we are familiar with in The Wolf Man (1941). WWL is essential werewolf viewing largely due to the precedence of establishing a “wolf man”, Pierce’s makeup and Oland’s performance.
WWL is available on Universal’s The Wolf Man Legacy Collection DVD (2004). For this review I pulled out an old MCA Encore Edition Laserdisc and watched it on a Pioneer LD-V4400 player that has lasted over 20 years. They don’t make ’em like they used to!
Next up: The Wolf Man.
*The script notes the plant as a Madagascar Carnelia, but it sounds like the keeper is calling it affectionately as Cornelia.