The Wolf Man (1941) is considered to be the third big Universal monster film, even though it wasn’t released until a decade after Dracula and Frankenstein, when there had already been several sequels to those first two films. This makes it even more impressive that the monster captured the imagination so much.
The opening credits show us some clips of the characters, so that we know who’s who. Claude Rains (of The Invisible Man fame) plays Sir John Talbot, while Lon Chaney Jr plays his son Larry. This is slightly bizarre casting, as not only do they look absolutely nothing alike (Chaney is about a foot and a half taller than Rains, for a start), there doesn’t seem to be much between them in age. (There were actually seventeen years between the two actors, but Chaney had not aged well and hence looks nearly as old as his ‘father’!)
Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi plays a gypsy called Bela, which is fairly unoriginal naming. This is quite a minor part, and a fairly big step down from playing the lead in Dracula a decade earlier.
We open with a shot of the dictionary definition of lycanthropy. This isn’t really necessary, as werewolves will be thoroughly explained within the film.
The story opens with Larry Talbot arriving home to his father, Sir John Talbot, at the family country pile in England. Larry has spent the last eighteen years in the US, a plot point that is presumably meant to explain his accent (there are some fairly poor attempts at British accents in this film, but I guess Chaney didn’t fancy being one of them).
Sir John has been building a telescope. Larry has been working for an optical company in California, so is able to fix some minor problems with it. He immediately makes use of the telescope by perving on the girl in the house across the street, which is super creepy now but was apparently fine and dandy in 1941, as it’s presented as nice normal harmless fun for young men to partake in.
The costumes scream early ’40s, placing the film in a setting contemporaneous to its release. This is quite refreshing after the vague faux-Victoriana of all the other old films I’ve been watching during this horrorthon.
Larry goes to the shop below the girl’s house to meet Gwen Conliffe in person, and engages in more creepy flirting, telling her he’s psychic and hence knows what earrings she has in her room upstairs. Gwen’s not having it, thankfully. Larry buys a creepy cane with a wolf head on, causing Gwen to launch into a rhyme about werewolves, and insists on picking her up at eight despite her refusal.
Back at the Talbot house, the cane is shown to be far too short for Larry, unintentionally providing the film with a rare bit of comedy! Sir John, after reciting the werewolf rhyme at the sight of the cane, appears to encourage his son’s interest in Gwen, which is slightly uncomfortable.
At eight, Gwen shows up for the date, despite having refused Larry earlier…but it turns out it’s just because she wants to bring her friend Jenny along, as Jenny wants her fortune told by the gypsies who have just arrived in town.
Jenny recites the same rhyme about the werewolves. Why does everyone in the locality know this rhyme? ‘Everyone knows about werewolves!’ says Gwen, but it’s not explained why.
While Jenny is consulting with Bela, the gypsy fortune teller, Larry and Gwen go for a walk, and Larry confesses to having spied on Gwen with the telescope. Gwen is only marginally annoyed by this revelation, but explains she’s engaged to Frank Andrews, the gameskeeper for the Talbot estate.
Bela has a very ominous reading for Jenny, with lots of accompanying overacting. He sees a pentagram sign appear in her palm, and tells her to run. She does so, but is soon killed by a wolf in the woods. Larry, hearing Jenny’s scream, chases after her and kills the wolf, but not before getting bitten himself. Gwen soon finds the unconscious Larry, and an old gypsy woman comes to their aid. As they arrive back at the Talbot estate, the news comes that Jenny’s been found murdered. Bela is also dead – murdered using Larry’s cane.
In the morning, Larry’s wolf bite has disappeared. Resident police chief constable Montfort and family doctor Dr Lloyd at first seem to be fairly certain that Larry killed Bela, but this is soon forgotten for plot reasons. Larry follows Bela’s hearse to the crypt and looks inside the coffin, but is interrupted by the gypsy woman arguing with the priest, as she wants a traditional gypsy funeral celebration. Larry overhears her speaking some words over the coffin about Bela now being at peace from his suffering.
Gwen is disturbed by Jenny’s death and won’t take her father’s advice to rest. As Gwen sits in the parlour, Jenny’s mother shows up at the shop, and turns out to be a right moralising cow, accompanied by a gaggle of similar-minded women. She has a good go at Mr Conliffe about Gwen being out with a man who’s not her fiancé, and blames Gwen for Jenny’s death. Larry then arrives and gets rid of the women, as he wants to see Gwen. Before they can talk much, Frank shows up, also wanting to see Gwen, and his dog starts barking manically at Larry. Larry correctly realises it’s time to leave.
That evening, everyone in town goes to the gypsy carnival. At the shooting range, Frank challenges Larry to a game, but Larry finds he can’t shoot the wolf image that pops up. Weirdly, Larry is being observed by his father, who’s accompanied by Montfort as usual.
Larry goes to see the gypsy woman. She explains that Bela was a werewolf, and that the wolf Larry killed was Bela in wolf form. Larry doesn’t believe any of it, but the woman gives him a charm to protect him. As Larry leaves the tent, Montfort is shown watching a crowd of gypsy women hurriedly preparing for something.
Gwen is wandering the carnival by herself when Larry finds her, as she and Frank have apparently had a quarrel. Larry gives her the charm, then kisses her, because who cares that she’s engaged to someone else, right? Gwen runs away when they’re interrupted by the gypsy chaos, and Larry then has a weird montage vision of lots of strange images.
Larry gets home and transforms into the Wolf Man, with the transformation effect shown through his feet gradually getting hairier. I guess it was the best they could do in 1941. As a wolf, he kills the graveyard worker Richardson. Dr Lloyd and Montfort find the body, along with some animal tracks leading away from it.
Larry wakes up in different clothes (why did the Wolf Man bother to change clothes?) and finds his wolf bite is now visible, but looks like someone has drawn a star on him in biro. He hides the evidence of the muddy tracks in his bedroom, and shrinks back from the window when he sees Montfort looking at the tracks in the garden.
At the local church, Jenny’s mother is now spreading the rumour that Larry is the murderer. There’s then a slightly unnerving sequence where everyone stares at Larry when he doesn’t sit down in the pews. Instead, he leaves the church building.
Later that morning, Sir John, Montfort, Dr Lloyd and Frank are having a debrief about the wolf killings. Larry comes in and tells the other characters that it’s a werewolf. Frank and Montfort are sceptical and go off to set traps in the woods.
That night, the Wolf Man is caught in one of the traps, but the gypsy woman casts a spell to turn him into Larry again and releases him from the trap before the police dogs can find him. When the estate staff ask him what he’s doing in the woods, he claims to be hunting the wolf too, which is a pretty poor lie seeing as he’s barefoot and disorientated. Nevertheless, they don’t question him, because apparently the son of Sir John Talbot can do whatever he likes.
Larry throws a stone at Gwen’s windowframe to get her to come downstairs, and tells her he’s running away. She wants to come with him (poor Frank! I think he needs a better fiancée), but he sees the pentagram sign in her palm: the sign of the next victim. Larry runs back home, and Sir John tries to ease Larry’s mind by tying him to a chair so he won’t escape. Larry begs his father to take the cane with him when he goes out to the woods, so as to protect himself.
The gypsy woman is out in the woods doling out sensible advice, but nobody listens to her. The Wolf Man inevitably gets out and attacks Gwen, who is looking for Larry; Sir John then beats him to death with the cane, and in front of him, the gypsy woman casts the same spell she did over Bela’s coffin to turn the Wolf Man’s body back into that of Larry. (This is a huge plot hole – Bela turned back from a werewolf into his usual self after he died, because when his body was found, nobody noticed anything out of the ordinary. So why did the gypsy woman need to cast the spell over the coffin? And why does she need to cast the spell now to turn Larry’s werewolf body back into a human one?)
Displaying the same kind of logic he’s been doing all film, Montfort arrives on the scene and declares, ‘The wolf must have attacked her [Gwen] and Larry came to the rescue. I’m sorry, Sir John.’ The End! It’s a bit of an abrupt, confusing ending, so I’m quite interested to see if the sequels provide any further explanation.
Back to the ’80s tomorrow!