Trace the path of the iconic werewolf through the early years of cinema…
Here’s a little something I wrote leading up to this past Halloween. Enjoy!
The ancient Celts used to celebrate what they called Samhain as their Night of the Dead (so to speak), the one night of the year that they believed the Veil separating the World of the Living and the Otherworld, the world of spirits, was at it’s weakest, and the spirits could cross over. The very origin of dressing up and painting one’s face, was actually originally done not to ward off evil spirits, as in the later Christianized “All Hallows Eve”, but rather done deliberately so that spirits friendly to the clan, and the souls of deceased loved ones, might recognize them. It was basically an invitation to come party with them, because they would celebrate by having a huge feast and games and dancing, storytelling and music, all around huge bonfires, and this would last from sunset til dawn the next morning. Fun stuff, and honestly something I’d love to go back and be a part of. But I digress.
So what better way to celebrate such a “Dark and Mysterious” night, than to talk about one of the most “Dark and Mysterious” pieces of literary and folkloric subject matter of the last few centuries? That of the cursed beast: The Werewolf.
Or to be more specific: Early examples of Werewolves in film.
Most people familiar with the concept of werewolves, are fairly familiar with the more modern films that feature them, such as the 80s films like “An American Werewolf in London”, “Wolfen”, “The Howling”, “Silver Bullet”, “Teen Wolf”, and the 1994 Jack Nicholson film simply titled “Wolf”. And certainly, even more familiar with the more recent bullshit like “Underworld” and “Twilight”. So I’m not even going to bother covering anything that recent here. No I’m here to talk about older films, the first in fact, and many of those that followed, up into the 1960s even.
By all accounts, the very first film to feature a werewolf was, in fact, titled “The Werewolf”, a 1913 silent film, which now, sadly like the semi-infamous “London After Midnight”, is a lost film. For the uninitiated, a “lost film”, is simply a case of no one back then bothering to take good care of the only prints of a movie, seeing as it was the early days of film and no one apparently saw the value in preserving these treasures for future generations to enjoy. In fact this problem persisted even into 1960s, where the (cheap ass) BBC in England, didn’t feel it necessary to properly copy or preserve many episodes from the first two versions of the famous “Doctor Who” series. A fact that really sticks in the craw of most classic Who fans to this day, trust me.
But back on point, there seems to have been a few early silent era werewolf based movies. There was “The Werewolf” (1913), the above pictured “Le Loup Garou” (1923), and “Wolf Blood” (1925, which you can find on Youtube). Moving into the “talkie” era, the first werewolf film with sound seems to be another movie titled “Le Loup Garou”, also known as simply “Werewolf”, a German film which also appears to be lost.
After that, it gets to smoother sailing, as the first available and known werewolf “talkie”, is a great little movie called “Werewolf of London”. This movie is notable for a few reasons. The first being, again, that it’s the first known surviving werewolf movie of the sound era. Second, it is the first werewolf movie to feature the now more famous notion of the creature, that of an anthropomorphic bipedal “Wolf Man”, instead of merely a man who transforms into a real wolf. A 1935 film by the burgeoning Universal Pictures, this was part of their original early-to-mid 1930s cycle of horror/monster movies, following such early hits as “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, “The Mummy”, and “The Invisible Man”. The story centers around a wealthy botanist who travels to Tibet in search of a rare plant, and while there he is attacked and bitten by a creature that later turns out to be, in fact, a werewolf. It turns out the rare plant provides a temporary antidote against transforming yourself, but having a limited supply turns out to be a rather obvious problem. Thematically, the film bears a strong resemblance to the great 1931 Paramount film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, which featured a fantastic performance by Frederich March. While the werewolf make-up was done by the famous Jack Pierce, the man responsible for creating the most iconic of Hollywood’s golden age monsters, and though it features a good story and strong acting, this film wound up being forgotten amidst it’s more popular contemporaries, and most especially in the wake of what would come next.
What wound up coming next, makes it easy to see why such a good movie like “Werewolf of London” could be overshadowed and forgotten by so many. What wound up coming next not only catapulted the career of one Lon Chaney Jr., but it also transformed the image of the werewolf from quaint folklore into a cultural icon. What wound up coming next, as you can see on the poster above, was 1941′s “The Wolf Man”. Now, if one were to simply judge the film by the title alone, admittedly, it’s not the strongest or most ominous title of a horror/monster film. However, to judge it simply on that basis, would be foolish indeed. For upon deeper inspection, what you get is quite frankly one of the all-around best movies ever put to film. It starred the son of the eponymous Lon Chaney Sr., an icon of the early silent Hollywood era, whose nickname was “The Man of a Thousand Faces” due to his bringing to life of such enduring classics of the time as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera”. So Lon Chaney Jr. certainly had a massive shadow to try and move out from under, but by all accounts he did a great job, as to this day “The Wolf Man” is his most iconic movie, and role. It also starred Claude Rains, star of 1931′s “The Invisible Man”, as Sir John Talbot, father to Chaney’s character Larry Talbot, as well as Bela Lugosi as a gypsy performer also conveniently named Bela. It is from Bela, upon a trip to visit the gypsy carnival, that Larry, who has just come home from many years spent away in America (to account, no doubt, for Chaney’s American accent), eventually winds up getting bitten in the dark moonlight. It isn’t long before Larry uncontrollably transforms by moonlight himself in the beastly “Wolf Man”, and so the story goes.
Lon Chaney went on to play the role of the “Wolf Man” throughout it’s entirety, in a total of five films. Which, by the way, makes him a real trooper, because the Jack Pierce make-up was a real bitch to sit and have put on, especially in later films where they used a “camera dissolve” effect that meant having to sit still for hours while bit by bit of additional hair and make-up was applied to give the illusion on screen of him transforming. That shit’s hardcore, and what you had to do back in the days of real (not CGI) special effects. The other four films featuring the “Wolf Man” character, were “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (1943), “The House of Frankenstein” (1944), “The House of Dracula” (1945), and finally, one of the greatest comedies of all time, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948). This was part of Universal’s second monster film cycle, and Lon Chaney Jr. was arguably the biggest star of that second wave, even next to the greats like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The first Frankenstein crossover was in fact a great film, but ultimately, the first “Wolf Man” movie, in this case, remains the best.
Now, during this same time period in the 1940s, several other studios put out werewolf films as well, no doubt in an attempt to cash in on the smashing success of “The Wolf Man”. These included titles such as “The Mad Monster” (1942), Cry of the Werewolf (1944), and Universal’s own “She-Wolf of London” (1946), which was actually a sequel (in spirit at least) to the original “Werewolf of London”. There was even a rather good werewolf appearance in Columbia’s 1944 film “The Return of the Vampire”, a Bela Lugosi film which is actually the only other horror film where Mr. Lugosi plays a real vampire, in fact he basically plays Count Dracula in all but name, because only Universal had rights at the time to the “Dracula” name. But for my money, out of all the non-Chaney ’40s werewolf movies, the best one, hands down, is a little-known gem entitled “The Undying Monster”. In this 1942 classic by 20th Century Fox, a mystery is afoot in a remote coastal English town, with unexplained deaths and sitings of a strange creature that hunts under veil of the fog at night. A wealthy British family has allegedly been cursed since the time of the Crusades, with family members dying or even committing suicide under mysterious circumstances. Not as iconic as Universal’s films, I would honestly say that this film stands right up there with “Wolf Man” regardless, and in fact brings many unique aspects to the table, as it combines elements of a murder mystery, the “Old Dark House” genre, as well as traditional horror.
After the 40s, things start getting a bit more sparse, and they also start slipping in quality. In the 50s, things more often took a science fiction turn, as was the craze with mad doctors and (well founded) fears of nuclear energy out of control. There was “The Werewolf” (1956), directed by Fred F. Sears, who also helmed “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” and “The Giant Claw”. There was “I Was a Teenager Werewolf” (1957), another, even hokier tale of science gone wrong. There were also several very cheeseball, low budget Mexican werewolf films made, some of which would go on to be released in the states under new titles, with footage spliced from several different films that together typically made no sense whatsoever. But really, the last quality, classic styled horror film to feature a werewolf, actually came in 1961, from Hammer Films. It was titled “Curse of the Werewolf”, and had a “gothic horror” tone (something that Hammer became famous for). Set in 18th century Spain, “Curse” took a bit of a unique spin on the genre, as it dealt heavily with political and social intrigue, instead of merely just being a “monster movie”. I wouldn’t say the film has anything TRULY of note, though it does feature spectacular werewolf effects, but it is notable in my mind for being the last truly decent werewolf film of the “classic era”.
After that, it really does slide right downhill rather quickly. Meaning, it slides sharply from “classic” to “shit” in no time flat. Let’s see, you’ve got gems like “Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory” (1962), “Werewolves on Wheels” (1971, I shit you not a movie about werewolf bikers), and a television film entitled “The Werewolf of Woodstock” (1975). Great stuff, eh? They obviously made a comeback in the 80s, in fact there were four werewolf films released in 1981 alone. And there have been many since. Some of which, I’m sure, fans of more modern styled horror films just might adore.
But to me, the greatest ones were the old black and white classics. And looking at what the mythical creature has been reduced to in garbage like “Underworld” and “Twilight”, it’s just rather sad that you’ve got a whole new generation of kids growing up thinking that THAT is what a werewolf is or is supposed to be. I tell ya….we gotta learn them kids right! You want to do your good deed for the week? Sit a kid down and make them watch one of the old classics. My personal recommendations for “must see” werewolf films of that era, would have to be:
1. “Werewolf of London” (1935) – Creepy, and good fun.
2. “The Wolf Man” (1941) – Lon Chaney Jr., the best known, the best period.
3. “The Undying Monster (1942) – The darkest of the three, but also an underrated gem.
If you’re going for FUN points, throw in “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman”, and ANYBODY should be required to see “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”. Cheers!