One year ago, I wrote my first old film movie review on “The Night of the Living Dead.” The movie is an all-time classic that ponders human frailty, fear and uncertainty with a hefty dose of horror and violence.
This year, I chose to watch an equally philosophical but more traditional Halloween flick: the 1941 rendition of “The Wolf Man.”
“The Wolf Man” is arguably one the most influential werewolf movies ever created. Though it was not the first full-length werewolf movie — that honor falls to “The Werewolf of London,” which was released six years earlier — this film established the “rules” of lycanthropy. Audiences far and wide became familiar with silver bullets, the pentagram that appears on the palm of the beast’s next victim and the full body transformation into a wolf during the full moon.
Lon Chaney Jr.’s portrayal of Larry Talbot, the prodigal son of a wealthy Welsh baron who becomes a werewolf, proved to be so popular he went on to reprise the role in four more movies. When comparing famous movie monsters from that era, perhaps only Boris Karloff’s enactment of Frankenstein’s Monster or Bela Lugosi’s Dracula were more popular or influential.
The film starts when Talbot returns home from America, where he worked for 18 years, following news of the death of his older brother. He is intent on restoring his relationship with his estranged father and eventually taking over his family’s lands.
Soon after his arrival, Talbot becomes infatuated with local girl Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). For their very first date, he takes her on a walk through a foggy nighttime wood to have her fortune read by a traveling gypsy. Talbot was clearly a man of great taste. During the jaunt, the couple stumbles upon a wolf in the middle of mauling Conliffe’s friend.
In a vain attempt to save the girl, Talbot uses a cane to kill the wolf, which is actually the gypsy fortune teller in werewolf form. During the struggle, the wolf bites Talbot on the chest.
Later, Talbot begins having spells of amnesia, often waking in his room covered in dirt with strange footprints on the floor. After nearly every spell, a local person is found mauled to death in the woods. Talbot begins suspecting he has either gone crazy or become a werewolf.
The rest of the film consists of Talbot struggling with his condition while the townspeople desperately try to track down the wolf terrorizing the community.
Aesthetically, “The Wolf Man” is a horror movie in every regard. Talbot lives in a large mansion nestled between a small Welsh town and a dreary forest. The villagers worship at a small but regal church with a sufficiently creepy cemetery fit with an old grave digger, who tragically falls victim to the werewolf. A roving band of gypsies set up camp in the wood. An old gypsy lady is the only one who seems to understand Talbot’s predicament and routinely shows up at the darkest moments of the film to offer guidance or charm.
Like many good works of fiction from the 1920s to ’40s, “The Wolf Man” is dripping with a bleak, Modernist outlook. The film suggests many times Talbot’s condition might merely be a form of mental illness instead of something supernatural.
In the opening credits, the film describes lycanthropy as “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.”
Throughout the film, the local physician and Talbot’s own father insist he is suffering from a tragic mental disorder that runs in his family. At one point, they even consider electric shock therapy and full body restraints to treat his hysteria.
The question of whether the disease is supernatural or psychological in origin is never definitively answered, but Chaney does a superb job of appearing disturbed and afflicted at the same time. I often found myself flip-flopping between the two answers. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter because the consequences of Talbot’s illness are real and lead to tragedy for himself and everyone around him.
Philosophical ponderings aside, “The Wolf Man” is simply a good horror movie. When the Halloween spirit strikes and you decide to curl up on the couch to watch something scary, this movie should be on your list. You can find “The Wolf Man” on Amazon Instant Video for $2.99 to rent or $8.99 to purchase.
Andrew Akers is a columnist for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.