“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a werewolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
Corny? Sure. Melodramatic? You bet. And yet it still retains the ability to make you huddle a little tighter under the blankets as you curl up on the couch. The fear the best horror movies inspire springs from the power of suggestion and your own imagination, not from what you see on the screen. And so the key to getting some good, fun chills out of a silly old movie like The Wolf Man is atmosphere: Watch after midnight. Turn off the lights. Light a few candles. Don’t let your feet dangle off the edge of the couch or bed, lest a monster grab your ankle.
Consumed in daylight hours, The Wolf Man would be rather hard to swallow with a straight face. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) comes home to England after an 18-year absence — the prodigal son returns to take over the family estate, which includes Talbot Castle, in the wake of his elder brother’s death. That brother’s death goes unexplained, and no one seems at all concerned to know what Larry has been up to in those two decades he was gone, and where he acquired that unlikely American accent. Add that to the shocking lack of any resemblance — even for a movie family — between Larry, with his big, mushy face and a body that towers over everyone around him, and his father, the Sir John (Claude Rains: Casablanca), short, barrel-chested, and fine-featured, and you have to wonder whether “Larry,” if that is his name, didn’t push dear old bro off the Cliffs of Dover in order to steal his inheritance. But I kid the movie.
Sir John is some sort of research scientist — it would be convenient if his studies had something to do with lycanthropy, as we will discover, but we never really learn what Sir John is up to. He does have an astronomical observatory in the castle’s attic, however, the telescope of which Larry uses to play Peeping Tom on girls in the nearby village. Larry just keeps getting weirder and more mysterious, don’t he? But the best is yet to come.
The girl Larry spied on is Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), daughter of the antique dealer in the cobblestoned village near Talbot Castle. Gwen informs Larry, when he comes to rummage through her garbage (and by that I mean the old junk in the antique store — I kid the movie again) that she is engaged, but this deters him not in the least. Gwen, we later learn, is betrothed to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles: How Green Was My Valley), the Talbots’ gamekeeper, a tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, American-accented native of the area — which, I remind you, is in rural England — and Frank, as a wimpy Englishman, is probably right to be terrified of his huge American rival. Or whatever he is. I mean, honestly, Larry looks and sounds more like a mob enforcer than landed gentry.
“There’s something very tragic about that man,” Frank says of Larry, though, and he’s right. He has to spy on girls from a distance and drag them off into the woods to woo them, which is what he does with Gwen. Well, he invites Gwen to come with him to visit the gypsies camping in the forest so they can get their fortunes told, and Gwen, for safety and propriety’s sake, invites her friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm). And that’s when things start to creep you out, if you can give up teasing the movie and let it just wash over you.
Charms and curses intoned by a gnarled, old gypsy woman, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), might be enough to do it; likewise, the theatrical refusal of gypsy palm reader Bela (Bela Lugosi: Dracula) to reveal the horrible fate awaiting Jenny. There are mysterious pentagrams and a silver-topped walking stick. (Remember the only way to kill a werewolf?) But mostly it’s the forest, foggy and full of twisted, ancient trees and torch-wielding villagers with shotguns and hound dogs hunting the werewolf that will send a cold thrill through you. Okay, we could see that the “werewolf” that attacked Larry was a real wolf while the werewolf Larry metamorphoses into as a result of that attack is Chaney in makeup, but watching his legs turn Robin Williams-hairy before his horrified eyes is still pretty effectively eerie. And watching pretty, blond Gwen unwitting play Red Riding Hood to Larry’s wolf, walking alone through the forest as he stalks her, sent a visceral frisson of primordial fear through me.
Still, I couldn’t help it. When Larry, after his first night as a werewolf, finds evidence of his plight in the form of muddy pawprints leading from the windowsill, across the antique Persian rug, and right up to his bed, I thought, It figures — werewolves wouldn’t be housebroken, would they?