Monday, June 16, 2008

Jim McDermott Illustration of Lon Chaney Jr. "The Wolfman"

The Wolf Man was Lon Chaney Jr.'s second horror movie and his first appearance in the role for which he is best remembered--no doubt because his Larry Talbot, the amiable young man controlled by evil impulses he cannot understand, relies on the actor's own character to generate much the same sort of sympathy as his Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939), the gentle giant who longs to love but is condemned to kill. The intriguing conception of Larry Talbot as hero / villain is successfully achieved by the fact that Chaney is able to inject individuality into his werewolf--incongruously covered in facial fur with fangs and canine snout yet sporting black shirt and trousers, it seems less an entirely separate entity than an extension of his personality.

The film strengthens the rather weak myth of The Werewolf of London (1935) by replacing the Tibetan flower with a silver-topped cane mounted with the head of a wolf and a five-pointed star, whose implications are cleverly woven through the film. The tragic circle begins when Chaney acquires the cane from the girl he is to fall in love with, Evelyn Ankers, and ends when his own father, Claude Rains, is forced to use it to beat him to death with. At its centre is the atmospheric minatory visit to a gypsy camp in the forest where he is bitten by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi, in a minor role after being slated to play the lead), warned by a fortune-teller, and then finds the pentagram symbol mysteriously imprinted over his heart.

The Wolf Man benefits from a literate script and unusually good cast, but its trump card is the superbly suspenseful atmosphere in which Valentine's camera makes virtuoso use of fog and mist to create an eerie fairytale world out of the quaint little Welsh village, the forbidding baronial hall and the gypsy encampment in a forest clearing. Universal lavished care and money on the film and were rewarded by a box-office success that revived their languishing interest in horror and sparked off their second cycle of movies in the genre.

--PHIL HARDY, ed. from The Encyclopedia of
Horror Films, 1986