Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night / May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright
Arguably one of the most memorable lines in horror movie history, this poem stays with you long after the film has ended. Much like the line, The Wolf Man is one of the most enduring and memorable films that has come out of Hollywood (and definitely out of Universal). Not only has this film set the trend for other werewolf movies to follow, but it takes a smart look at the mythos that is refreshing even to this day.
Lawrence Talbot (Chaney Jr.) returns to his home town due to the death of his brother. Here we see a strained relationship between Talbot and his father (Rains), a strain that drifts the two farther and farther apart. Talbot, using his father’s telescope, espies Gwen (Ankers) putting on jewelry and becomes bewitched by her beauty. He rushes across the street to the antique store that Gwen’s father owns and charms his way into meeting her (and her friend) to going to a carnival put on by travelling gypsies.
In the process of wooing Gwen, he purchases a cane with a silver wolf etched on the handle. A pentagram is also etched on the cane. Thus, Talbot learns the lore of the werewolf.
Gwen and her friend go to get their fortunes told by a gypsy named Bela (Lugosi) and his mother (Ouspenskaya). When reading the palm of Gwen’s friend’s hand, he sees a pentagram in her palm. Bela immediately panics, sending the woman in a flight from the tent. Bela, who runs from the tent as well, changes into a wolf and proceeds to kill his victim.
While walking in the wilderness next to the festivities, Gwen and Larry hear the screams of their friend. Talbot runs off into the woods to help and watches as a wolf mauls the unfortunate victim. Larry uses the silver headed cane to kill the wolf, but is attacked and bitten himself.
Gwen and “the gypsy woman” helps Larry back home. When he awakes the next morning, he retells his incident to his father, who dismisses it as stress from a harrowing ordeal. However, the police take a more suspicious line of thought. They find the body of Bela and the cane that was used to kill the “wolf”. Putting two and two together (as we see in many horror movies) the police come up with a logical answer that it was Larry who killed Bela and Larry’s ravings of a wolf committing the murder is inaccurate.
Of course, when the full moon appears the following night, we witness Talbot’s metamorphosis into a werewolf. By night, Talbot stalks the lands killing anyone that comes into his path. Once he finds out what he is, he warns those who is close to him. He even seeks the gypsy woman, who offers her a pendant to ward off the curse. Instead, he gives it to Gwen, and dooms himself to the life of the wolf.
One fateful evening, he is stalked by the townspeople, who have grown enraged by the murders of the wolf, stalk the creature into the woods. When Lawrence Talbot’s father, joins the posse to prove his son’s ravings wrong, he is confronted by the creature…and kills him. Thus, freeing his son from his curse.
The Wolf Man shows us that the story of the werewolf is a tragic one. Even though this is arguably one of the first werewolf films to be made, it takes a fresh approach to the genre. Very few films delve into the psychology of such films. Lycanthropy is not a curse, but a disease, a disease of the mind. Sir John Talbot (Rains) thinks of his son as a schizophrenic, or at least someone with Disassociative Identity Disorder.
Lon Chaney Jr. shines and reminds us why his will always be “The Man of a Thousand Faces”. The transformation scene (albeit nowhere near the work of Rick Baker), is amazing for its time. If you watch closely, you can see the acting Chaney does in each shot. The more fur that is plastered to his face, the more feral his facial features become.
The moody, foggy atmosphere creates a very surreal landscape, creating a creepy ambiance that reminds us just what classic horror is all about.