The Wolf Man is the tale of Larry Talbot, a young man who rebels against the family business, stays away from all things related to his family name, then returns home, years later as the prodigal son to give in and follow in his father's footsteps. WHOA! How'd Lon Chaney, Jr. get this part?
Man, that's some mighty fine and appropriate casting you Universal guys have got there! Why not cast Béla Lugosi as a Romanian guy named "Béla"? What the- YOU DID THAT TOO? Well I'll be damned! Okay, maybe not me... maybe it's Talbot who'll be damned... let's check it out!
Larry Talbot returns and doesn't hesitate to prove how creepy he really is... and that's before the Cursed Bite. He spies on shop keeping hottie Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) with a telescope, then uses the information he gleans from his invasive voyeurism to thoroughly freak out the poor lady. Just what were they teaching the Kids in America back in 1941? Somehow, in spite of the fact that Talbot comes off as a bit of a Masher and the fact that Gwen is engaged to another man (Patric Knowles' Frank Andrews), Gwen steps out with Larry to visit the Gypsy Fortune Teller named Bela (Lugosi, of course).
The die is cast as Gwen's best gal pal Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) becomes so much Purina Puppy Chow for a huge monster dog. Naturally Talbot springs into action just in time to beat the werewolf to death with his new Silver Cane (also adorned with a wolf's head and pentagram), but not before the wolf itself gets to take a bite out of him like McGruff the Crime Dog to crime.
"Crime", of course, is soon the word of the day. When the police investigate the scene they find not the body of a wolf laying next to poor mutilated Jenny, but the body of poor bashed-up Bela. Before long more people begin to die, all by night and all while Larry Talbot is nowhere to be seen. The "murders" started with Larry, now a stranger to Wales, and Larry is soon treated like an accused Serial Killer.
There is no more vigorous investigator than Larry himself, who is determined, at least at first, to clear his name! Soon, with the help of Bela's mourning mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) and the local Welsh folklore, Larry begins to uncover the truth of his fate. He, like Bela before him, has become a werewolf, a cursed creature of the night. He now carries the mark of the werewolf upon him, a five pointed star that will appear in the palm of the hand of his next victim. That victim is the last person he'd ever want to eat... well, in THAT way. Soon everyone is hunting the wolf, and the only person who won't believe it is Larry's dear old dad, Sir John Talbot (well played by Claude Rains).
The Wolf Man succeeds because of the pathos and humanity that Lon Chaney, Jr. (nee Creighton Tull Chaney) brings to the role of both Larry Talbot and his alter ego. He ranges from an "AW SHUCKS!" innocence to a tortured self-loathing and fear to out and out growling animalism. Chaney makes Talbot the true victim of The Wolf Man! Chaney's portrayal of the title character is most certainly scary and his murders are made all the more horrific by the visible humanity in the face of the erstwhile villain. You know they've got to get this guy, but you know you're going to feel terrible when he finally bites silver!
Chaney didn't do this alone, though. The Son of the Man of a Thousand Faces was given a new face of his own by the legendary Makeup Artist Jack Pierce. The process was arduous, every filmed second of conversion took hours behind the scenes, adding Yak Hair and prosthetics to Chaney's face, chest, hands and feet. As amazing as the animal's Face and Claws are, what gets me are the feet. Just take a look at the attention to detail Pierce put into those hind paws! The realistic canis lupus look and structure not only made the costuming more effective, but also changed the very way Chaney had to walk, adding a more hunched over (for balance) and animalistic look. Director George Waggner could have just shot our lead from the waist up. This shows a perfectionist and completist take on the evolving legend.
It's a legend that got a good kick start by writer Curt Siodmak! Werewolves weren't new when Siodmak penned The Wolf Man. In fact, The Wolf Man wasn't even Universal Studios' first filmed foray into the Lycanthropy Genre (that distinction goes to HOWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL Werewolf of London from 1935). However, Werewolf Fiction would be quite different today without Siodmak's contributions. Virtually every film with a full moon shot since this one owes a debt to Curt's Quill!
The Wolf Man is still a great movie today, fun and smart, with great acting (especially considering the day) and amazing special effects. Further, as frightening and occult-oriented as it is, it's reasonably safe for most ages. I believe I was about Six when I first saw it, and I loved it! It's a must for all fans of Classic Horror, especially Universal Studios Classic Horror, a must for all fans of Werewolf Fiction and a must for all of those cursed with the bite of the Wolf, causing one to stalk the night and a BLAH BLAH BLAH, Yackity Schmackity!
Four and a half Stars out of Five for the brilliant and tragic Classic Horror film, The Wolf Man! Now, if you'll excuse me, a monstrous creature just showed up at my door. He has large, piercing eyes, big teeth, his face is covered in hair, he's wearing a plaid flannel shirt and no shoes... Oh, wait, false alarm... it's just Kim Thayil! See you in the Next Reel... or... "THE LAME LIST!"
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