The Wolf Man (1941)

LYCANTHROPY (Werewolfism). A disease of the mind in which human beings imagine they are wolf-men. According to an old LEGEND which persists in certain localities, the victims actually assume the physical characteristics of the animal. There is a small village near TALBOT CASTLE which still claims to have had gruesome experiences with this supernatural creature. The sign of the Werewolf is a five-pointed star, a pentagram, enclosing a…

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After the introduction of perhaps the finest cast ever assembled for a Universal horror film, Curt Siodmak’s script bites right into the fairy tale quality of The Wolf Man (1941) by opening a reference book. When I was a child I thought the story not to be a bedtime ruse, but rather it had to be true, or at least lycanthropy was, because it was printed in an encyclopedia. To a child, the Wolf Man was real. I accepted Siodmak’s entire mythology, including pentagrams, silver-handled sticks, nocturnal changes, healed wounds and the mysterious plant Wolf’s Bane. Years later I was disappointed when I learned that the plant is actually a flower in the Aster family, it does have some unique pharmacological properties, but Wolf’s Bane (Arnica montana) is nowhere to be found on the British isles. But it is present in the Carpathians where Dracula dwells. It looks like a dandelion. So much for Wolf’s Bane.

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At his best, as Lawrence Talbot in the original The Wolf Man or as the feeble-minded Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939), Lon Chaney, Jr. was a damned good actor worthy of academy recognition. At his worst (e.g. La Casa del Terror, 1959) he was still a commanding and entertaining screen presence. Just check him out as the butler Bruno in Spider Baby (1968) or watch him as a rundown Sheriff in High Noon (1952), or as “Big Sam” in The Defiant Ones (1958). To me, Chaney is authentic. He seems to be a guy that would be cooking a big pot of chili at a local festival.

The Wolf Man is my vote for the best werewolf film ever. Period. If I’m in a nit-picky mood I’ll find flaws in almost any movie, but The Wolf Man works perfect for me. I know, Bela’s wolf-dog transformation makes no sense juxtaposed to Chaney’s upright Wolf-Man (I always assumed Bela was born with the curse and was thus more evolved*). Chaney hams it up a bit too, but I can live with that. I also wish the script allowed for more of Bela the fortune teller, but these are minor quibbles. The Wolf Man is grand film making on every level: the score, acting, cast, sets, design, makeup effects, writing, photography and direction are all top-notch. Be sure to watch the new HD Blu-ray print that shines.

There’s quite a bit written on this film. A good place to start is Universal Filmscripts Series, Classic Horror Films – Volume 12 (Edit., Philip Riley, Contrib. George Turner, 1993).

*Film historian Tom Weaver notes that Bela’s wolf-dog is an earlier script remnant.

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