Monday, 14 January 2013

The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man
Horror movies do not age well.

It is simply put a matter of technology. Horror movies to a large extent rely on the scare and chock special effects provide.  We need to jump out of our seats or feel revulsion at what we see (or hear) for a horror movie to be, well horrifying. Unfortunately we are a jaded lot. Generations of horror movies have immunized us to horror effects to an extent that the producers really have to get out of their way and be frontline to make it work and this is where the old horror movies come out short. The effects are just too unimpressive.

Lacking the chock effect they must have some other quality to be at least interesting today. “Frankenstein” has got it, a perfect gothic atmosphere. “King Kong” tells an interesting story. “Vampyr” is arty enough to make it work, somehow. Unfortunately “The Wolf Man” has not.

No doubt this is technically a better movie than the above. That is quite natural as it is much newer. But it lacks ambience. The foggy night is just not scary enough and a furry man bouncing through the woods is just comical. In fact it looks like amateur theater. Maybe at the time this was convincing, but not today.

Some TV shows use clips from old horror movies for their kitschy and comical effects and “The Wolf Man” is one of their favorite victims.

There is an attempt at creating that necessary spooky atmosphere. Hints are dropped now and again about werewolves and the two gypsies (Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya) are doing their best to create an otherworldly feel to the movie, but they have difficult conditions to work with.

On the one hand this English town seems to have a history with werewolves. On the other the original werewolf is the old Gypsy man, a traveler who is only passing by. If lycanthropy is coming from the outside why is this town steeped in folklore on it? It does not add up.

The psychological element is what is left to save this film and the setup is interesting. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, jr), the returning son and heir to the local manor has become a werewolf himself, but everybody tells him it is a mental disease and he is facing the conflict that what he sees and experience is not supposed to be real. This could have been played out a lot more. I would have loved to see the doctor or his father watching Larry turn into a werewolf (Leisure Suit Larry) in a “do you still believe I am crazy” scene.

Instead the film yaps quickly through the story (1h8m) to resolve unsatisfyingly in a simple showdown in the forest. I have no idea how Larry escaped the ropes, apparently Gwen’s pentagram was useless and Larry’s father John Talbot (Claude Rains) had little trouble wresting Gwen free of Larry’s claws and knock him down with a cane. Apparently werewolves are only dangerous to women and old men like the gravedigger. In this sense Larry’s lycanthropy is merely a mental state with extra fur.

Sorry folks, this picture is only really interesting for historical reasons. This is where all those werewolf films started (more or less) and there has been quite a few of them over the years. Most of them have been better than this one.


  1. There's a particular joy to older horror films for me. Rather than being scary, they come off as nostalgic and almost sweet. With this one, I still don't understand why a guy with claws and fangs needs to strangle his victims, but what do I know?

    What makes this one noteworthy is the unfairness of it all. Poor Larry doesn't do anything to deserve this fate, but it happens anyway. There's something very existential about this film. That, and Chaney's very sympathetic performance make it worth a watch for me.

    1. That is true, all of it. I just do not think this one bring it along so well. It seems rushed and forced and the part which could be interesting is skirted too briefly. I think the fact that Larry did not deserve his fate just emphasze the pointlessness. It is just too bad, tough luck mister.

  2. I agree with Steve in that I sometimes prefer older horror films. As you said, modern ones seem to try to go to extreme lengths to shock people. Horror films aren't really about the shock, but the dread. Modern horror films mostly bore me because they are all about how to most graphically eviscerate a human body and not about being scary.

    Now I'm not saying that The Wolf Man is a wonderful film; I considered it middle of the road at best. The part that amused me was when he goes to introduce himself to the young woman and tells her it's because he was watching her through her window with his telescope and thought she was really pretty - and she isn't the least bit bothered by this.

    1. That dread is much better conjured up in Frankenstein or Vampyr. I do not feel that dread, only mildly amused at their feeble attempt at dread.

      I was wondering about that part too. That is a creepy guy who spies on pretty girls with a telescope. But no reaction from her except that she reminds herself to draw the curtains. But maybe that is how thay do it in that town.

  3. Aw, I like this one. Larry is so sad and sympathetic. And, as you say, there's good psychology there.

    "Larry's lycanthropy is merely a mental state with extra fur."

    I know you meant this as a knock against the film, but I actually agree that this hints at more. Is Larry REALLY turning into a werewolf, or does he just THINK he is? Is it all in Larry's head? It's *possible* to read the film this way. Is it likely? Probably not, but I find it an interesting possibility.

    Is this movie scary? Oh lord no. But it entertained me. (I can, however, see how one might not be as entertained by it.)

    1. If it is all in his head, it certainly explains why he strangles people instead of savaging them.

    2. That is exactly my point. There is a potentially interesting story there that could have been explored. Give the movie 20 minutes more and let them explore that theme instead of rushing for a quick climax. I am afraid that that direction was not intended, but we consider it because of the flaws of the film.