Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. In honor of Body Horror Month here on Nightmare on Film Street, we’re exploring the ultimate classic werewolf movie. Werewolves are among some of the original examples of body horror in folklore, after all. So we’re diving into the monster movie that established the werewolf genre as we know it today, 1941’s The Wolf Man!
A Legend is Born
In horror, the werewolf is as iconic a monster as vampires and zombies. By now, we all know the legend by heart. Much like vampires, you don’t even need to have seen a single werewolf movie to understand the rules of the creature. An innocent victim is attacked by a wolf. After being bitten, they are cursed to transform into a wolf every full moon, losing their human mind and wreaking havoc. Only a silver bullet can kill them.
But much like vampires, werewolf lore was previously highly divergent depending on where and when the story was being told. It wasn’t until a piece of popular media set the basics of the mythology in stone that the modern concept of werewolves won out.
In the case of vampires, Bram Stoker was responsible for finalizing the modern lore of the creature, with the publication of Dracula in 1897. But despite the ancient and prevalent nature of the werewolf myth, it took until 1941 for the creature to take its most famous form.
Not only is The Wolf Man an excellent monster movie and a rare highlight of 40s era Universal Horror, it’s a true genre maker. It creates the legend of the werewolf with such confidence, it convinces the audience that the rules were always in place.
Reviving the Horror
The Universal Monster movies dominated cinemas in the 1930s. The studio pulled itself out of the threat of depression-era doom and solidified horror as a viable money-making genre in Hollywood. But the 1940s brought not only the start of a new World War and the end of the Great Depression, it saw cracks in Universal Studios’ previously indestructible parade of horror hits.
In fact, Universal dropped monster movies from their production schedule entirely by 1936 after the box office failure of the first major werewolf film, Werewolf of London (1935). But in 1938, a theater re-released Dracula and Frankenstein as a double feature. The films were such a massive hit that Universal decided not to abandon horror after all.
Universal’s hopes for their return to the genre were pinned on the name recognition of Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. The son of the legend of silent horror and monster makeup was just what Universal needed to revive their horror empire and, they hoped, create a new star of the genre in the vein of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Lugosi himself lobbied for the title role, but Universal gave him a mere cameo as the cursed fortune teller who sets off the events of the film. Universal had a sad habit of refusing Lugosi’s wish for better parts since Dracula, and they were on the hunt for fresh star power. While Chaney had previously earned acclaim for his portrayal of Lennie in the stage and ‘39 film version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, The Wolf Man was the role that would tie him to horror for the rest of his career.
When the Autumn Moon is Bright…
The Wolf Man tells the story of Larry Talbot (Chaney) who returns to England after living in America for eighteen years. He has come to claim his place as the heir to the Estate of his father (Claude Rains), after the unexpected death of his older brother.
While there, Larry becomes romantically interested in Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who works at a local antique shop. When he asks her about a cane with a silver handle depicting a large wolf, she relates to him the legend of the werewolf.
Later, Larry, Gwen and her friend Jenny visit a newly arrived group of Romani people to have their fortunes told. While there, Jenny is killed by a large wolf. The animal bites Larry when he tries to save her, and he eventually kills it with blows from the silver-handled cane he purchased from Gwen.
After the attack, Larry begins to experience strange symptoms and repeated visits from the Romani woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) from the camp. She tries to warn him that he is becoming a werewolf, and the increasingly paranoid Larry begins to believe her. All the while, he struggles with his father, who believes his son is merely mentally delusional.
The picture was helmed by director George Wagoner, a director with one other foray into genre under his belt, Man Made Monster, another 1941 Universal horror/SciFi film starring Lon Chaney Jr. The Wolf Man would be the most famous film of his career. More of the lasting power of the film can be attributed to screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who was almost exclusively dedicated to horror and SciFi throughout his prolific career of novels and screenplays. His script weaves werewolf mythology with the confidence of long existent folklore. The power of his world building is largely to thank for the staying power of the film’s lore.
The Wolf Man was not the first werewolf depicted on screen. But he was the incarnation that solidified much of the lore as we know it today. Throughout the film, villagers speak with authority on the myth and recite the poem “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.”
“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.”
The poem was written for the film but has become so iconic that it is often mistaken for actual folklore in popular culture. It’s been featured in every sequel to the film since 1941 and in later films like 2004’s Van Helsing. Later uses of the poem change the final line to say “when the moon is full and bright,” solidifying the accepted concept that werewolf transformation occurs under the full moon. Interestingly, the full moon is never a factor in the Wolf Man. The transformation seems more tied to the blooming of wolfsbane and the season than the phases of the moon. The full moon didn’t take on its transformative role until 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman, where the poem was retconned for the purpose.
What The Wolf Man did feature was silver as the only element that can kill a werewolf, the bite of a werewolf as the manner by which the condition is transmitted, the sign of the pentagram as the mark of the werewolf and their next victim, and the tragic, involuntary nature of the transformation of man to wolf.
While the silver antidote began to emerge in folklore in the 18th century, it was not universally accepted as the werewolf’s weakness until The Wolf Man. The pentagram was first linked to werewolves in the film as well. The power of the bite and the involuntary trap of transformation were both introduced in 1939’s Werewolf of London, but Chaney’s affecting performance, an optimistic Everyman increasingly falling into guilt and paranoia, made the concept stick. His performance would cement the characterization of werewolves in all horror to come.
Prior to both films, werewolves were said to have greater control over their transformations, and it would generally be a power acquired voluntarily, usually connected to witchcraft from the medieval period onward.
The influence of The Wolf Man on werewolf lore is powerful, and its imagery is just as memorable. The moody, fog covered moors, craggy trees and shadowed landscapes fill each frame with haunting dread. Cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine drew on the German Expressionist inspired imagery of earlier Universal horror films to stunning effect. The vision of the transformed Larry creeping through fog draped, craggy trees is unforgettable.
A Difficult Production
All this brings us to the film’s most famous achievement, the makeup! This is where the body horror of The Wolf Man really comes into play. The film didn’t have a full-blown transformation scene in the vein of many modern werewolf movies. Rather, we get a transformation focused on Chaney’s feet slowly becoming covered with hair, and then shifting into large paws. A full facial transformation didn’t occur in the franchise until 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. But the makeup and smaller scale transformations of The Wolf Man were still difficult for Chaney to endure.
Chaney went into horror with the intent to emulate his father’s innovative makeup looks. So he arrived on the job willing to sit for hours as Universal monster maestro Jack Pierce worked his creature makeup magic. Pierce covered Chaney with rubber prosthetics and Yak hair in a painstaking process that Chaney came to resent. The actor knew such processes were key to living up to his father’s legacy, but he lacked the borderline masochistic zeal of Lon Chaney Sr.
The challenging makeup effects weren’t the only struggles faced by the production. Chaney was reportedly very difficult to work with. He destroyed Universal Studio property during a drunken episode. As punishment, his co-star Evelyn Ankers was given his dressing room. He resented her for it and took to pranking and belittling her during filming.
Ankers not only struggled with Chaney during production. Her entire experience was a horror film in itself. At one point, a trained bear escaped its handlers and chased her. She escaped up a technical ladder, and the bear’s scene was eventually cut. At another point, the chemicals used to create the copious fog on set caused the actress to pass out. The distracted crew didn’t notice her lying there until the set was being broken down!
A Classic for the Ages
Despite the rocky production, The Wolf Man was a surprise hit for Universal. The film got a mixed reaction from critics, but audiences loved it. It put Universal back in the horror game, spawned several sequels, and made Lon Chaney Jr. the studio’s go-to horror star for the decade.
However, none of Universal’s horror outings would match The Wolf Man in quality or cultural impact until 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. Together, they stand as the only monster movies made by the studio since the 30s to remain stand-alone classics in their own right.
The Wolf Man has grown in critical esteem over time, now considered one of the best Universal horror films and werewolf films ever made. Its simple story carries an air of Shakespearean tragedy that has permeated the genre since. Chaney’s performance, along with Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya as the mysterious Romani woman, is truly excellent.
The gruesome werewolf transformations that would push the genre firmly into the realm of body horror would come later. But The Wolf Man’s emphasis on the tragedy of lycanthropy paved the way for those later films and remains moving to this day. It will certainly make you think twice about venturing onto a misty moor under an autumn moon. And isn’t that what werewolf movies are all about? Until next month, stay classy fiends, and enjoy those Silver Screams!
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