The Wolf Man (1941)

If there’s one famous movie monster I can’t stand, it’s the Wolf-Man. I don’t know, his appearances in both of Universal’s grab-bag House of… movies (Frankenstein and Dracula) left much to be desired. Lon Chaney seemed less of a famous master of facial contortions and more of a whiney bitch dressed up like a greaser mechanic. The Wolf-Man in both those movies being the “good” bad guy. Lyle Talbot is cursed, after all, and doesn’t mean to kill. So he cries about it a lot. But Paxton from the Cavalcade of Awesome highly recommended the series, and who am I to argue? Plus, the Wolf Man is one-third of Universal’s unholy trinity! Frankenstein represents man vs. God, Dracula is a vengeful, inhuman beast, and thus the Wolf Man plays to our humanity. Showing how easily we can be caught between the two.

Plus Bela Lugosi plays a character named “Bela!” How cool is that? Lon Chaney, Jr.’s name might be bigger on the marquee, but he’s still relegated to playing someone else. Not our drug-addled, egomaniacal Bela though. First he wouldn’t play Frankenstein’s monster, and now he won’t even act! Make no mistake, there’s a reason Bela’s first line is “I will not disappoint, my lady.” Man has ego for miles.

What we’re greeted with after the infuriating Bela teaser is some of the worst matte painting “special effects” seen in awhile. Soon followed by the worst exposition heard in awhile. Setting up the Talbot background: Larry (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is the younger Talbot brother, who, angry that he wouldn’t inherit the estate, gallivants around the US. Until his brother dies in a freak hunting accident. Yes, a freak hunting accident. I guess Universal hoped the bizarre hunting accident talk would placate the American audiences who were wondering what all this “Lord of the Manor” talk was.

Soon followed by another bout of exposition on the nature of werewolves. Gypsies get no backstory, we’re just to assume that everyone knows they’re psychic, probably because everyone’s too busy talking about werewolves!

Bela, playing Gypsy Bela, has a small but pivotal role. He marks Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) with the deadly mark of the pentagram, while Larry is busy hitting on Jenny’s engaged friend. Jenny, frightened by the news, runs off into the marsh. Where she is promptly attacked by a wolf cleverly disguised as a dog. Larry eventually puts it back in his pants long enough to… err, find Jenny’s corpse. Maybe this, Talbot’s secret shame, is why Larry’s so morose in the subsequent films. He also gets bit by the dog/wolf; ending Larry’s life as a happy-go-lucky millionaire bachelor and starting a long life of painful to watch angst.

Maybe all the exposition wasn’t for us, the viewing audience, but instead for Larry Talbot himself. ‘Cuz Larry ain’t all that bright. Frankenstein may have made a mockery of God, but he never threatened a crowd of concerned mothers like Larry! When Jenny’s mom, and a group of her friends, wonder why Jenny was left alone in a strange Gypsy camp, they’re met with utter contempt. Larry arrives, starts waving his silver-headed walking club around, and then has the audacity to later ask what the mother was so upset about. Her daughter’s dead because you were too busy trying to get to second-base with an engaged woman in the middle of a scary swamp, Larry.

Speaking of which, after Bela, the star of this film is really set designer R.A. Gausmam. When you think of the old black-and-white Universal films, you’re thinking of these sets. The lighting on the night scenes is perfect, and there’s always that fine white mist snaking across the ground.

The Wolf Man’s opening special de-fects, not to mention its lackluster story, may be more forgivable now that it’s apparent that all the special effects budget went into the scenery.

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