NOTE: Today’s film and some of the clips in this article include the use of pejorative language toward Romani people, which may be offensive to some readers. While my analysis does make note of the film’s terminology, I have attempted to use appropriate terminology whenever possible.
Even a man who is pure in heart And says his prayers by night May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms And the autumn moon is bright...
When it comes to werewolves on film, there are really just two basic eras that all the other sub-eras fit into: before The Wolf Man and after The Wolf Man. We inevitably name Wolf Man right after Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature when listing the most famous classic monsters. And like those other two icons, his story has been told again and again through countless remakes and reimaginings. To put it simply, this guy is another big deal.
But Wolf Man was not Hollywood’s first attempt at a werewolf film, as we have learned. Our dear old Dr. Glendon tried to show us the way to the future and stumbled flat on his face. So what was different this time? Why was Wolf Man the film that became enshrined in pop culture and launched a whole horror subgenre?
It’s a complicated answer, of course. But I think it lies in digging down deep and analyzing just what kind of horror movie The Wolf Man is. And if you’re not familiar with this film, the answer may surprise you. Because what I think we have here is not just another spooky yarn, but a moving tragedy and a groundbreaking example of psychological horror.
The Plot: After his twin brother’s death, Lawrence “Larry” Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) reluctantly moves from America back to his family’s ancestral estate in Wales. His modern, cosmopolitan attitude puts him at odds with the rustic locals, as well as his estranged father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Despite his initial awkwardness, Larry soon finds himself reconnecting with Sir John and striking up a romance with Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who runs the town antique shop. She sells him a silver-tipped cane with an unusual design: a pentagram next to the head of a wolf. Or a werewolf, as Gwen claims. That very night, a trip to the forest turns deadly when a friend of Gwen’s is attacked by a wolf. Larry rushes to help and kills the animal with the silver cane, getting bitten in the process. In the morning, however, the authorities don’t find the body of a wolf. Instead, they find the body of a Romani fortuneteller named Bela (Bela Lugosi), right next to Larry’s cane. Larry is visibly disturbed by the discovery, even as he continues to insist that he isn’t a murderer. But the truth, revealed by Bela’s mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), is even worse: Bela was a werewolf, and he infected Larry before he died. Larry refuses to believe her, of course. But as he grapples with his changing body and his changing place in the world, it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter if he believes or not — there’s no escape from the curse, or from his guilt.
So, what behind-the-scenes names should you know this time around? The big one is Curt Siodmak, who gets the sole writing credit here. I mentioned back when we first met him that he was going to be a big deal in Universal Horror, and The Wolf Man is the reason why. Out of all his work, this is by far his most famous and influential. Later on, we’ll get into much more detail about Siodmak’s contributions to modern werewolf folklore, as well as other aspects of the modern horror film. The other big name to remember is Jack Pierce, who is still Universal’s go-to makeup guy at this point. It should come as no surprise that we’re going to talk at length about makeup since we’ve finally reached another one of Pierce’s iconic creations, probably his most iconic besides Frankenstein’s Creature. And the last behind-the-scenes name for this one is George Waggner, our director. Waggner had only made his directorial debut a few years before this, and he would eventually become known for his work on westerns and action films as well as horror. This wasn’t even the only Universal Horror film he made in 1941 — more on that in just a bit.
Our cast is made up of both familiar faces and new ones. We’ve already met Bela Lugosi and Claude Rains, of course. Warren William, who was a popular and prolific actor at the time, has a key supporting role here. But the most important name you need to know from this cast is Creighton Tull Chaney, better known as Lon Chaney Jr. You remember the first Lon Chaney, who played Erik in The Phantom of the Opera and was responsible for that wonderfully gruesome makeup job? This is his son. Originally discouraged from going into show business, he began acting after his father’s death in 1930. He was unknown throughout most of the following decade, playing bit parts in westerns and Republic serials. His first big role was in 1939, when he played Lennie Small in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Two years later, he made his horror debut as the lead in Universal’s Man-Made Monster, also directed by George Waggner. While not really remembered today, that film was enough of a success that Universal offered Chaney a long-term contract. We can therefore draw a line from Man-Made Monster directly to The Wolf Man. Chaney wasn’t originally set to play the title character in Wolf Man: Universal allegedly developed the film with Boris Karloff in mind and later cast Dick Foran (AKA Steve Banning from The Mummy’s Hand), who had to drop out. Bela Lugosi was also campaigning hard for the role. So Chaney, who was only somewhat known at the time, was a bit of an underdog choice. But Universal had made horror icons out of unknowns many times before, and it was about to happen again.
One of the key successes of The Wolf Man is, I think, the way it brings Universal Horror back to its roots. What do I mean by that? I mean that for the past few years, especially after the three-year gap, Universal Horror has leaned toward a more modern, urban feel. They tend to deal with science rather than magic, and they draw more from popular film genres of the time rather than Gothic horror traditions. I mentioned how The Mummy’s Hand was trying to be an adventure serial, and I talked at length about how The Invisible Woman was a screwball comedy rather than horror.
The Wolf Man, however, has other priorities. From the opening moments on, the script and direction are seemingly trying to recapture the gloominess that made Dracula and Frankenstein so captivating. It’s a story about modernity clashing with something other, something old and powerful and steeped in folklore. Hell, the movie tries to immerse us in folklore from the very first shot after the credits. A hand pulls a leather-bound book out from a shelf and opens it, and the camera focuses in on these words:
LYCANTHROPY (Werewolfism). 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. There is a small village near TALBOT CASTLE which still claims to have had gruesome experiences with this supernatural creature.
We fade into the story proper after that, as though we’re now hearing the tale of the “gruesome experiences” mentioned in the book. It’s not quite an explicit line between story and reality like we got in Bride of Frankenstein, but I think it creates a similar effect. Like that earlier film, Wolf Man has a sense of timelessness, becoming a sort of dark fairy tale rather than staying tied to the real, familiar world.
A big element of this otherworldly feel is how the film looks. After a string of less visually extravagant projects, Wolf Man is the first Universal Horror film in a while that’s actually felt large and spooky. The rural setting of the story is brought to life through some stunning, meticulous set design. There’s the elegant grandeur of Talbot Castle, illustrating the family’s status and traditionalism. There’s the antique shop run by Gwen and her father, packed full of rare treasures. There’s the shadowy, candlelit crypt where Maleva says a solemn goodbye to her deceased son. And of course there’s the forest, a maze of gnarled trees covered in a layer of fog. It’s honestly a beautiful-looking film, and the gloomy, austere visuals really enhance the Gothic themes of the story.
Another thing that feels very Gothic about this film is the script. I honestly think this might be among the best scripts of any Universal Horror film we’ve seen so far. Siodmak’s writing is brisk and intelligent. He knows what themes he wants to explore in this story and how to convey those themes in the most striking ways possible — more on that later. But most of all, the script is distinctive. There are a lot of wonderfully quotable lines here that really illuminate something fundamental about the characters saying them or the world of the narrative. Take the austere and philosophical Sir John Talbot, for example, who makes pithy remarks like “You policemen are always in such a hurry, as if dead men didn’t have all eternity,” and “All astronomers are amateurs…when it comes to the heavens, there’s only one professional.” Then there’s logic and reason personified in the character of Dr. Lloyd, who believes that “a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything.” On the other side of the divide between fantasy and reality, you have the bits of werewolf folklore that crop up throughout the film, like the famous “pure in heart” poem I quoted at the top of this article. Some people actually don’t realize that it was made up by Siodmak and not a pre-existing poem. I think that’s part of his talent for horror, especially in folklore-based horror like this: he can take ideas that are his own and make them feel old, like you read them in an ancient book pulled off the shelves of a creepy library. Another great example of this is the speech/incantation that Maleva says to the deceased werewolves twice during the film:
The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own. But as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over. Now you will find peace.
There’s a scene about halfway through The Wolf Man that I think really cuts to the heart of what makes the movie work so well. Larry Talbot has just had an awkward encounter with Gwen Conliffe and her fiance, Frank Andrews. After Larry leaves the antique shop, Frank says this:
There’s something very tragic about that man…and I’m sure that nothing but harm will come to you through him.
Larry is a memorable and compelling protagonist because, like Frankenstein’s Creature, he’s something of a tragic hero. But this is a different sort of tragedy from what we saw in the Frankenstein films. The Creature was a character who started out with nothing and quickly lost what little gains he made. Larry’s story, on the other hand, is about him gradually losing what he starts out with: his family, his friends, his sense of self, his humanity, and ultimately his life. And Siodmak’s script is preoccupied with just how that process happens, particularly the mental aspects of it.
Here’s a fun piece of trivia for you: in Siodmak’s original Wolf Man script, there was no Wolf Man. Or rather, you were never meant to see the Wolf Man up close. There was supposed to be a genuine mystery about whether Larry’s transformations were real or imaginary. That’s because Siodmak envisioned the story as being a more subtle kind of horror rather than a typical monster movie. He was apparently inspired by his experiences of living in Nazi Germany and eventually fleeing the country in 1937: just as his normal life was destroyed by a monstrous change in the world around him, Larry Talbot’s life is destroyed by a monstrous change that he perceives within himself.
This, as you may expect, was all a bit too complicated for the executives. They reasoned that the audience would want to see a monster, and so there had to be a genuine monster onscreen. But that mandate only hampers the final product slightly, if at all. You can still tell exactly what Siodmak was going for, and at its heart, the film is an excellent portrait of a man whose own guilt drives him to madness.
You can pinpoint the exact moment where Larry realizes he’s a cursed man, and it’s not his first transformation. Rather, it’s the morning after he gets bitten, when he’s informed that the body of Bela the fortuneteller was found at the spot where he killed the wolf. Even after he starts killing more people in his wolf form, this first death is the one that seems to haunt him the most. Possibly because he chose to kill Bela, even if he didn’t realize what he was doing. In fact, Larry seems more disturbed by the idea that he intentionally killed another person than he is by the werewolf curse. His rational mind can’t accept the supernatural explanation — that Bela was a werewolf, and now he’s one too — but the more real explanation is the awful truth that he can’t bear. It’s under the weight of these two forces that he starts to break down.
And that breakdown is brought to incredible life by Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance. There’s a lot going on with Larry Talbot just on paper, making him a difficult character to pull off, but Chaney Jr. knocks it out of the park. You can tell how Larry is a guy who’s trying to overcome the pain and mistakes of his past, how he’s got this simultaneous hope and awkwardness when he comes home to these people he hasn’t seen in almost twenty years. And then he’s confronted with this horrible truth and the knowledge that he’ll never have the chance to start over and make things right, and you see that hope gradually drain away. It’s like a trainwreck that you can’t look away from, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. You get standout moments like Larry silently weeping over Bela’s coffin, meeting with Gwen one last time or begging his father for help as the village men go out hunting for the werewolf.
Another fascinating thread that runs parallel to Larry’s internal turmoil is how the village’s opinion of him gradually changes. Most of the drama in the first two-thirds of the film doesn’t involve any of the supernatural elements: it’s all about how the shock of this murder ripples throughout this isolated community. Suspicion immediately falls on Larry, not only because his cane was found in the woods but because he’s an outsider. Gwen gets shunned by the village for multiple reasons: she’s hanging out with Larry while engaged to someone else, and it was her idea to go to the woods in the first place, leading to the wolf attack that got two people killed. Meanwhile, Sir John is finding it harder to deal with the law enforcement when his son and heir is the most likely suspect in an ongoing murder investigation. There’s a complicated social structure at work here, and though it doesn’t get a whole lot of focus, you feel its weight on the story and characters. For example, there’s a great wordless moment late in the film where Larry finds himself unable to step into the church on Sunday morning: not because of his lycanthropy, but because the cold stares of the other churchgoers are driving him out.
The story works not only because of the strong writing, but because of the stellar cast. Chaney Jr. overshadows everyone else, of course, but that doesn’t mean the other actors aren’t giving this material their all. Claude Rains gives a restrained and sympathetic performance as Sir John, showing off just how much range he really has as an actor. You can’t sell the familial relationship between John and Larry on appearance alone, but the actors manage to give their characters this real sense of history and estrangement. Evelyn Ankers has top-notch chemistry with Chaney Jr. that helps with the aspects of Gwen and Larry’s romance that have not aged well (more on that in a bit). Bela Lugosi’s role is just a quick first-act cameo, but he still manages to stand out and do a great job with what little he’s given. We get the sense with Bela and Maleva, as we do with Larry, that these characters have already lived fascinating and detailed lives before we meet them.
If you ask me, there’s really just two elements of the script that hold it back from being 100% great. Despite the overall tightness of the plot, there are still a few hanging threads and missed opportunities in the story. The most blatant one is how the death of Larry’s brother only gets used to kickstart the plot, and how neither of the Talbots ever mention him after the opening scene. Considering that the film opens with this plot point, its omission from the rest of the film is noticeable. The other questionable thing is really two questionable things, but you can sort of pair them together because they both reflect some of the now-outdated attitudes present in the film. Larry’s initial courtship of Gwen, while meant to be cute, is extremely stalker-y to modern eyes. Hell, it might even have qualified in 1941. Larry first spies on Gwen in her upstairs bedroom using his father’s telescope, and when they meet face to face, he starts asking her about stuff like the earrings she was trying on while she was upstairs. It’s very weird, and Gwen is visibly uncomfortable throughout the sequence.
The other part of the script that feels outdated is how it depicts the Romani characters. In some ways, the film is fairly respectful toward Maleva and Bela. Neither one is treated as a villain, and the villagers don’t exhibit the hostility towards them that you might expect. When Bela gets killed, for example, there’s a legitimate effort made by the town to bring the killer to justice. But on the other hand, we are meant to view the Romani characters as being more backwards and rustic compared to the villagers. Characters like Sir John and the local priest openly look down on their “pagan” beliefs and superstitions. There’s also the fact that the film refers to these characters as g*psies, a term that nowadays is more widely acknowledged as a racial slur. Have I seen worse racism in other pieces of horror media? Oh, absolutely. Does it still come off as a little bit sketchy here? Also yes. But Wolf Man certainly isn’t unique in having this particular flaw. It’s a less extreme example of a horror trope that’s been around for a long time, and there are plenty of people out there who are way more qualified to discuss that than I am. So let’s just leave it at that for now.
We’ve discussed why this movie is so good in terms of script and acting. How does it go above and beyond in the technical aspects? Clearly it did something right, because The Wolf Man was the gold standard for cinematic werewolves until the early 1980s. How did Universal finally manage to create an iconic werewolf?
Let’s look at the design, first of all. Way back in my Werewolf of London article, I mentioned how Jack Pierce’s original makeup design was rejected in favor of a more minimalist look for Henry Hull. Pierce saved that original design and went on to use it for this movie, and it makes for a much more striking image. In sharp contrast to the Werewolf of London design, Chaney Jr.’s face is almost completely obscured. He’s wearing a series of wigs, layers of yak hair, fake teeth and a rubber snout. And that’s just his face! He’s also wearing gloves made to look like claws and hard rubber boots covered in even more yak hair. The overall effect is that Larry is pretty much unrecognizable as the Wolf Man. Dr. Glendon in Werewolf of London was mostly human with minor animalistic elements: this werewolf looks and acts like a more genuine mix of human and animal. Simply put, it’s weirder and more impressive.
And of course we have all kinds of stories about the makeup application process and how grueling it was. Some of the claims have been exaggerated — Chaney Jr. probably didn’t have tiny finishing nails in his hands to keep them still during close-up shots — but we do know that the entire look required an application time of five or six hours. The transformation scenes themselves were achieved via dissolve effects, with the makeup being photographed at multiple stages of application. The most elaborate dissolve effect, Larry’s transformation back to human form at the end of the film, probably took about ten hours to film. The majority of the transformation scenes aren’t nearly that complicated, not only to save on time/effort but to keep with Siodmak’s original version of the story. We don’t get a visible facial transformation until the end of the film. Instead, the camera tends to focus on Larry’s feet as they grow hair and change into paws. It might sound strange, but it makes for a great reveal shot: Larry has a moment of relief as he thinks he’s just freaking out over nothing, and then he takes his shoes off…
Up to this point, we haven’t talked much about the actual werewolf lore in this film. I decided to save this section for last because it doubles as a way to talk about Wolf Man‘s long-term horror influence. A lot of “traditional” werewolf folklore that we see in horror today was actually popularized by Universal Horror, and especially by this film. With werewolves, we don’t really have anything like a Dracula equivalent — that is, there’s no key literary text that established a lot of accepted werewolf tropes, like Stoker’s Dracula did for vampires. So Universal and Siodmak had to invent a lot of their own lore, and in doing so, their work became the keystone text that werewolves were lacking.
Much like how Nosferatu popularized the idea that vampires are vulnerable to sunlight, The Wolf Man popularized the idea that werewolves are vulnerable to silver. It didn’t flat-out invent that trope, as some have claimed: silver as a means to fight/kill werewolves dates back to at least the nineteenth century. But Wolf Man was the first time this piece of folklore was utilized onscreen, in the form of Larry’s silver-headed cane that he uses to kill Bela and which Sir John later uses to kill Larry. You might be surprised to learn that the transformation isn’t explicitly linked to the full moon in this film, the closest we get to that being the “autumn moon” line from the poem. But Universal did use that idea already in Werewolf of London, and we’ll see them press it more in the Wolf Man sequels. If you’ve ever heard of werewolves being associated with pentagrams, that also comes from this movie. The werewolves all have a pentagram scar somewhere on their body, and they see the pentagram appear in the hand of their next victim. That, believe it or not, is another idea inspired by Siodmak’s time in Nazi Germany. Allegedly it was supposed to parallel the Nazis themselves by evoking the idea of a man who becomes a vicious killing machine and identifies his victims with the image of a star. You don’t really get any of that just by watching the film, where the use of the pentagram just comes off as generic occult symbolism. But it’s an interesting idea, and Siodmak certainly wasn’t the last storyteller to connect werewolves with Nazis.
Released in December 1941, just a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wolf Man became of the studio’s top grossing movies for 1942. After their first swing and miss, Universal finally had their werewolf hit. But that leads us back to our original question: why was Wolf Man the film that became the template for werewolf stories going forward, rather than Werewolf of London? I think it all comes down to two things, the quality of the story and the quality of the Wolf Man himself. Chaney Jr.’s performance and Jack Pierce’s makeup combine to create a compelling, visually distinct character that commands your attention and sticks in your mind. But even without the monster in Wolf Man, you’d still have a great example of classic horror. The film is smarter and has more character than its earlier counterpart, and its themes are more easily identifiable. It’s not just telling us a story about a guy who physically becomes a monster, but a story about how we perceive ourselves and others and how monstrous potential can lurk inside the best people. And that’s just a much better horror story. Wolf Man may not have the special effects wizardry that defines the modern werewolf film, but I think it taps into deeper human emotions that have helped it stay relevant through the decades — not just fear, but also understanding and sympathy.
The Wolf Man is Universal Horror’s biggest triumph since Bride of Frankenstein, and it easily reaches the bar set by the string of successes in the early 1930s. It’s a film that goes back to Universal Horror’s Gothic roots, employing a moody visual style and a rustic atmosphere to tell a story about guilt, loss and madness. The cast is superb, and Lon Chaney Jr. instantly earns his reputation as a horror star with his layered, tragic performance as Larry Talbot. Curt Siodmak’s script is smart with its dialogue and worldbuilding, and it keeps you guessing what’s real and what’s fantasy. It feels like a predecessor not only to modern werewolf films but to modern psychological horror like Stephen King’s The Shining or Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The special effects are incredible for the time, and Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup design for the Wolf Man still holds up. Like Frankenstein before it, the film succeeds thanks to a strong sense of identity, an unforgettable monster and a very human narrative. It’s undoubtedly one of the high points in our series so far, and it deserves its reputation as a horror classic.
I’ve been hard at work on Horror Is Universal for just over a year now, and I hope you’ve been having just as much fun with these movies as I have. We’re about ten years into the Classic Era, and we’re almost a third of the way through our whole movie list. So instead of just teasing our next film, I just want to thank you all for your support and wish you a safe, happy Halloween season. So let’s hope for another fun year as we explore a new decade of Universal Horror. See you next time!