THE WOLF MAN was part of Universal Studio's
triumphant monster revival that began with THE BRIDE OF
FRANKENSTEIN. Though Universal already had at least
monsters on their payroll - The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and The
Mummy - The Wolf Man, or rather Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), the man who
would turn into a wolf when "the autumn moon is bright" (or later,
"when the moon is full and bright") was an exciting and inspired
addition to their stable of fright characters.
Lon Chaney, Jr., son of famous silent film star Lon Chaney (of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA fame), had become the most valuable player at Universal, taking over the roles that Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi used to play. The junior Chaney was a fine character actor whose work in monster movies eventually overshadowed some of his other brilliant performances, such as his amazing portrayal of the dumb brute Lennie in Hal Roach's superb OF MICE AND MEN. For the Wolf Man, Chaney had to undergo the agonizing application of yak hair to his face, a process that took hours. Chaney himself said that as much as he hated putting on the makeup, he dreaded the painful removal even more. The results, however, were well worth it, as the makeup for The Wolf Man is remarkable even today, equal in imagination and execution as the makeup the developed for the Frankenstein films. Amazing what they could do before computer generated effects came along to ruin everything.
Returning to the formula used in the earlier films such as FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY, the werewolf of THE WOLF MAN was a tragic figure, one who did not ask for his troubles and who was helpless to control his actions. Lawrence Talbot, the jolly son of Sir John Talbot, is bitten while killing another werewolf (played by Bela Lugosi) and thus becomes one himself. Up to then, Talbot had been an aimless bachelor with no purpose to his life. For the rest of the Wolf Man series, he would pursue his new dream - ending his curse, be it by death or by a cure.
Though we remember The Wolf
Man as someone who turns into a wild
animal when the moon is full, in this original film, there is no
mention of the effects of the full moon. The poem which nearly everyone
in the film recites, mentions only the autumn moon:
"Even a man who is pure at heart/ and says his prayers at night/ may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/ and the autumn moon is bright."
We also remember the remarkable stop-motion transformation of Talbot's face, from a man to a wolf man, but in this first film, the technique is only used once, and in reverse, after Sir John kills the Wolf Man. It would be up to the later films in the series to fill in all the details of the werewolf legend.
With its wonderful cast (including the unforgettable Maria Ouspenskaya as the old Gypsy woman and Claude Raines as Talbot's father), and its intelligent script, THE WOLF MAN remains one of the classiest horror movies ever made, and clearly one of the best of the "Universal Horror Cycle Cycle" of the 30s and 40s. - JB