Thursday 8 December 2011

1,001 Films: "The Wolf Man" (1941)

"A wolf, a gypsy woman, a murder - what is this?" The Wolf Man is a key film from the Universal horror series of the 1930s and 40s, even if it does start from the implausibility that hulking Lon Chaney could have sprung from the loins of Claude Rains. Chaney's Talbot returns to his Welsh home upon the death of his brother, establishes his susceptability to the perverse by spying on a local shopgirl, and is then bitten on the moors by a lycanthropic fortune teller. Director George Waggner holds off on the inevitable until midway through a shortish, pacy film, instead teasing us with signs of Talbot's incipient hairiness: a dog that takes umbrage at him, his unwillingness to shoot a cardboard wolf at a fairground, muddy pawprints on the carpet.

Curt Siodmak's otherwise savvy script (where the exposition-line "lycanthropia, it's a form of schizophrenia" can yield the response "it's all Greek to me") doesn't do much to develop the suggestion its wolf men are being controlled through hypnosis (by whom - Maria Ouspenskaya's gypsy lady? By Rains? And what's the brother's death got to do with all this, anyway?). You can, however, revel in the film's multiple transformations, from the Jack Pierce make-up that turns a man into a monster (or a Dave Lee Travis lookalike, which may be the same thing), to Waggner's ability to conjure up on a Hollywood backlot a sense of Wales at its most atmospherically superstitious.

The Wolf Man is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

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