#143. The Wolf Man (1941)

I’ve mentioned already that back in I think 2004 I had this allowance of $100 a month and there was a month where I spent most of that money at Borders buying these Universal Monsters collections on DVD, one for the Wolf Man and one for Frankenstein and one for Dracula, each box set featuring four or five movies (sequels and spin-offs like Dracula’s Daughter and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), loaded up with special features, and all tying into the release of Van Helsing. Anyway. I tried for years to watch Dracula but kept falling asleep, and I really liked Frankenstein without being much a fan of the sequels, but The Wolf Man was far and away my favorite of the bunch because, being thirteen years old and really intimidated by black & white movies, it somehow seemed like the most accessible one. Had the most action, and sort of a storybook quality with the legends, curses, antidotes. I also watched it with my dad, who I think favored it best as a kid as well, which may’ve been an influencing factor in how much I liked it over the others.

But now I’m watching it again fifteen years later and I don’t really like it at all. Mostly I think I just dislike Lon Chaney Jr. — about whom I was totally indifferent up until recently, when I was listening to an episode of Karina Longhorn’s amazing podcast, You Must Remember This, wherein she was chronicling the life of Bela Lugosi and, in turn, of cinematic Draculas. She references the performance of Chaney Jr. in the role (Chaney wears the cape in Son of Dracula) and describes him as being this idiotic lumbering oaf with zero charisma. Also, when I was reading the second volume of James Kaplan’s biography of Frank Sinatra last year I was surprised to find that Chaney Jr. hung out with the rat pack for a while, drinking like a sailor, womanizing. The works. Also, his Larry Talbot character in Wolf Man sports a “charm” in picking up the female lead that hasn’t aged well. Just seems smarmy. And I know I should divorce the character from my conception of the actor but, along with those other factors, it’s hard to do here.

But so I don’t know which impression of The Wolf Man to trust: my adolescent love for the movie or my grown-up disdain for Lon Chaney Jr.

wolf man 1As I research the movie I’m finding that, while the Wolf Man’s face is definitely up there in Universal’s Rushmore of monsters (makeup achieved by the legendary Jack Kirby), there isn’t nearly as much written about the film or the character as there is about Dracula or Frankenstein, whose narratives I guess invoked questions about sexuality, God, fate and creation whereas the story here, of Talbot (Chaney) returning home to visit with his father and thereupon finding himself victim to a savage bite, can I guess be said to work as a commentary on…man’s duality? On beastliness? Ahdunno. I guess the cigar’s just a cigar.

wolf man 2
Lon Chaney, Jr., living in the shadow of his father — the makeup wiz and star of The Phantom of the Opera and, a hidden gem, Tod Browning’s The Unknown

While it’s obvious that both Dracula and Frankenstein were made as cheap horror flicks, with director James Whale maybe trying his hand at weightier themes than the genre usually explored (especially in the immaculate, eccentric, wonderful Bride of Frankenstein), they lend well to different types of interpretation. Sexual stuff, parent-child stuff, god stuff. The Wolf Man, though it’s cut from the same cloth, somehow just doesn’t’ have any false airs about profundity. It isn’t trying to explore the soul or anything. It’s just a fun horror flick. And, having just read and written a whole lot about those other two movies for this Project, I guess I was expecting a similar load of reading to be done for Wolf Man and, not finding


anywhere near the same amount of commentary, I’m disappointed.

But if you wanna get heady about Wolf Man, at least insofar as it completes the Holy Trinity of Universal Monsters, you can say that these opening installments of the three franchises all depict creation. Dracula bites his prey and, in so doing, turns them into creatures of the night; Dr. Frankenstein assembles his monster out of human remains and gives it life; Mr. Talbot here is bitten by a wild monster and, accordingly, transformed into something new. What’s distinct about this story is that it’s being told from the perspective of somebody who’s have the transformation forced upon him. He isn’t the person biting victims, or assembling cadavers. Larry’s just a guy who doesn’t want to change, but has to.

John Landis argues that all monsters are victims and, yeah, that can even be applied to Dracula — who, though very much a demonic murderer, was surely, at one point, just a guy who got bitten by a vampire. Bride of Frankenstein depicts the Monster with way more sympathy than the first installment, and finally makes him the hero, but as concerns the debuts of these monsters, Talbot’s Wolf Man is the only one we’re really made to sympathize with.

And I guess if you wanna look at it within the context of what was going on in the country: both Dracula and Frankenstein were released in ’31, two years after the stock market crash, and feeding into the fears of people who had lost everything overnight, or who’d lost a lot but were seeing the people around them lose more, are two monsters who creep around and snatch the life out of you. Ten years later, on the eve of our involvement in World War II, we get a story about a man who doesn’t want to be a vicious beast, but is nonetheless forced into the role.

But I do have a feeling that The Wolf Man is a great movie, and that a testament to its greatness is probably the fact that it hits you a different way at different times in your life. The fact that it’s endured for almost eighty years has to be a testament to something. I’ll definitely be watching it again at some point, see how I feel about it in 2021 or 20205. Maybe that love I felt for it at thirteen will come back.

It did for my dad.


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