On The Wolf Man, et al
And now, the latest in our month long series about classic horror we launched here, this one devoted to werewolf films of the classic era. While the core of this post will concern the 1941 Universal hit The Wolf Man and its sequels, unlike the other Universal franchises we have blogged about (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man) this one doesn’t proceed in such a straightforward manner. One, because The Wolf Man wasn’t Universal’s first werewolf movie. Rather than basing sequels on their 1935 film Werewolf of London, Universal chose to start fresh, with an entirely different mythos. Secondly, unlike the other series, this one had many imitative films by other studios produced around the lore of its principle creature. (Note this post will only cover the classic period of the 1930s and 40s).
Werewolf of London (1935)
In this, the first talkie werewolf picture, a scientist (Henry Hull) goes to the Himalayas in search of a rare plant that only blooms in moonlight. Whilst there he is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. He manages to bring some specimens back and keep them alive, using “artificial moonlight.” A mysterious fellow scientist, Dr. Yogandi (Warner Oland), hovers around trying to get a look at the plants (they are supposed to be an antidote to werewolfery.) Soon it becomes apparent that the hero has become a werewolf. Every night he changes and kills somebodyin the fashion of Jack the Ripper, as he jumps out of alleys and pounces on women. Out of desperation he locks himself in a boarding house. The film features a scene in a zoo with real wolves—John Landis pays homage to it in his An American Werewolf in London. Eventually like all werewolves he meets his fatal bullet. What makes this occasion slightly different is his lengthy death speech, which seems to run about five minutes. The make-up on star Henry Hull is much less extreme than one finds in later werewolf movies. The moments of transformation owe a lot to the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Wolf Man (1941)
This film is is a parallel universe where everyone in England except Claude Rains has an American accent. Rains is the lord of an enormous estate. Lon Chaney Jr., his son, returns after an 18 year absence, following the death of his older brother, to do his duties as presumed heir. Unfortunately he brings his date to visit a gypsy camp, where he has a disturbing future told by a fortune teller (Maria Ouspenskaya) and is bitten by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi.) Chaney is blamed for the murder of the girl and the gypsy both, yet has trouble convincing people he too is becoming a werewolf. (Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man is conceived of as a tragic character in this and all its sequels, mostly the big mug just walks around looking miserable.) Eventually local police constable Ralph Bellamy and others do become convinced. In the climactic scene, Rains beats his own son to death with the same silver-handled cane he had used to kill Lugosi.
The Mad Monster (1942)
An interesting picture, mixing elements of Jekyll and Hyde, The Island of Lost Souls, and The Wolf Man. George Zucco is a mad scientist who injects a local mental defective with a serum that turns him into a murderous werewolf. His ultimate dream is to build an invincible army, but first he uses the creature to kill all the scientists who previously scoffed at him. (The backstory done in a clever way…he imagines a conversation with them, but they are translucent hallucinations). A mob of local hillbillies eventually get justice. This movie may contain some of Zucco’s best acting — he’s rather terrifying in it.
The Undying Monster (1942)
Some cool direction here by John Bramm, who also did The Mad Magician and some other interesting film and tv work, but the script is dull. A 20th Century Fox film. It begins with a werewolf attack on a nobleman and servant girl out on the moors. They make it back to castle. The man survives, the girl dies. We learn of a curse on the family. The grandfather had died of mysterious causes. There is a crypt in the basement. A Scotland Yard detective tries to solve it all like a conventional murder mystery. A brain specialist is conveniently on hand as well. Over half the characters are unaccountably American. Finally in the last 5 minutes of the film there is another attack. It turns out to be the hero, who has now become a werewolf as well. They shoot him on a cliff and he changes back to himself. Not the most compelling or original story.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Grave robbers exhume the corpse of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) in order to rob him of the coins in his pocket. Unfortunately they do this during a full moon. He breaks out and awakens in a hospital where he has trouble convincing the doctors he’s the supposedly dead man,. He starts killing again. Eventually, he goes to castle Frankenstein seeking a doctor to cure him. There he finds the Baroness Frankenstein, and the monster (played by Bela Lugosi—who’d turned down the role in the original movie and now seems to really be eating crow. And looks very weird in the make up, to boot.) He convinces another scientist to try and cure him, by doing some kind of mind switch with the monster. In the climax, while the two monsters are on the operating table, the moon changes Chaney into the wolf man AND someone accidentally pulls a switch causing an explosion, releasing the monsters, who promptly begin to do battle. Then the villagers explode the old dam (the experiments happen in an old watermill, using its motive power rather than lightning. A flood ensues, wiping away all in its path before it. Lionel Atwill plays the local police captain.
The Return of the Vampire (1943)
For this movie, Columbia Pictures essentially stole the characters of Dracula and the Wolf Man from Universal (and gave them different names). Bela Lugosi plays a very Dracula-esque vampire who is freed by some unwitting air raid wardens (one of whom is played by comedian Billy Bevan) who pull the stake out of his heart in the aftermath of a blitz. The vampire has an assistant, a preposterous, unintentionally comical talking werewolf with a cartoon nose. The werewolf doesn’t attack people, he just acts as the assistant for the vampire. He was in a sort of werewolf rehab for several decades, but now he has relapsed. In the end, there is another German air raid, and the werewolf himself drives the stake through the vampire’s heart.
Cry of the Werewolf (1944)
A low budget Columbia B picture, with many original elements—more than enough to keep it very interesting. For one it is set in a supernatural museum, with exhibits on vampires, voodoo, and werewolves. It is the former house of a Gypsy Queen who was herself a werewolf. A curator who is on the verge of discovering the truth is killed. An investigation begins. Meanwhile, the Gypsy Queen’s daughter arrives from Transylvania and becomes the new one. She realizes she is a werewolf and begins killing everyone who comes to the secret. One cool aspect that sets the film apart is that instead of conventional make up, she turns into a real, literal wolf. The other of course is that she is female.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
Insanely entertaining and chock full of events! A suitable rebound from the dip in quality in Ghost of Frankenstein. Nearly every Universal horror star is in it. The title of the film is ironically fitting, as the house is nearly all that is left of Frankenstein and the original story thread.
Boris Karloff plays a mad scientist, a former assistant of Frankenstein whom we first meet incarcerated in a dungeon. He instructs the hunchback in the cell next to him on how he can reanimate dead bodies (using hilariously simple chalk diagrams). Right on cue, they are freed when lightning strikes the castle that holds them, collapsing it. Outside they find a carnival wagon stuck conveniently in the mud . It contains Professor Lampini (George Zucco) and a show of horrors, notably the actual skeleton of Dracula. Karloff kills the professor, and steals his show, expertly impersonating a carnival barker when the need arises. They travel to a small town where he has an old score to settle. Zig Rugman is a local burgomaster, Lionel Atwill the police chief (sans mechanical arm), and there is a pair of obligatory, nondescript lovers.
Karloff revives Dracula (John Carradine) who goes and kills the burgomaster and attempts to steal the girl. Later Dracula is trapped by sunlight and the girl escapes. These characters now pass out of the story completely. Next Karloff and the hunchback meet up with a bunch of gypsies. Just like Quasimodo, the hunchback falls in love with a beautiful performing gypsy girl. They rescue her from a cruel gypsy king who whips her. Then they go to Frankenstein’s castle, finding a mysterious frozen land underneath. There, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the monster (Glenn Strange) are frozen. Karloff thaws them out for his experiments, planning to exchange their brains. Wolf Man wants to be cured of his lycanthropy. He begins to turn at the full moon, killing people. Meanwhile the gypsy girl has fallen in love with him. The jealous hunchback wants the Wolf Man’s body. Out of love, the girl shoots the werewolf with a silver bullet. Then the hunchback attacks Karloff. The Monster throws the hunchback off the roof. A mob comes after the Monster, carrying Karloff. Then they fall into quicksand and sink. THE END-?
House of Dracula (1945)
The genre dies a second death here, we’re getting near the end of classic Universal horror. This one concerns a certain doctor whom all the Universal Horror monsters visit in order to be cured of their maladies. First John Carradine shows up as Dracula, then Lon Chaney as the Wolfman arrives. The doctor has a pretty hunchbacked nurse—that should give us some indication of the trouble to arrive! Only MAD doctors have hunchbacked assistants! When the Wolfman turns and escapes, the doctor follows him to a cave…where they uncover the body of Frankenstein (Glenn Strange)! The doctor is tempted to revive the monster, but is convinced it would be evil. Meanwhile he appears to have cured the Wolfman. He is in the process of curing Dracula of vampirism with a transfusion…but the latter turns the tables and puts his own blood into the doctor. Later there is a struggle, and Dracula is exposed to sunlight and dies. Unfortunately now the doctor turns into a vampire. Now that he is evil, he instantly revives the Frankenstein Monster. Mayhem, and an all-consuming fire, ensue.
She-Wolf of London (1946)
Despite the racy title, this is one of the dullest of the bunch, a soporific women’s picture not unlike Dracula’s Daughter. Here the heroine (June Lockhart) merely FEARS that she is a werewolf, because of a rash of recent murders and “the Curse of the Allenbys”. The film is redeemed as an experience solely by the atmospheric presence of gaslights and hansom cabs, but lots of GOOD horror movies have those.
Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)
This is the last Universal film to use the original classic horror monsters, and their original actors (or, heh, their original replacements): Dracula and the Wolf Man (Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney) and in the film’s closing gag, the Invisible Man (Vincent Price). Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are baggage handlers who have to deliver two crates to an amusement park House of Horrors. The crates turn out to contain Dracula and Frankenstein (Glenn Strange). The Wolf Man shows up to try to warn everybody. Costello’s girlfriend is a female mad scientist who wants to transplant his brain into the monsters. Several, tedious, endless scenes with Costello seeing the monsters, being scared, and trying to tell a disbelieving Abbott. Finally Abbott does believe him—when he gets abducted and he rescues him in the end. There is one inspired scene—a Halloween party, making for amusing confusion between real and costumed monsters. But most of it is pretty irritating.