Universal Monsters in review: The Wolf Man (1941)
The Wolf Man has become over the years one of my favorite Universal monsters. Larry Talbot has to be the single most tragic character to ever grace the silver (no pun intended) screen. Curt Siodmak, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, wrote the screenplay for The Wolf Man and several other monster movies and even into the 1950s science fiction era. Given the times and his heritage, I wonder if he had more than a few themes in mind for this horror story. The Wolf Man mythos has Greek tragedy written all over. An innocent, somewhat oblivious, man is cursed with lycanthropy, an uncontrollable transformation from man to wolf. He’s as much a victim as he is a monster. There’s a book written by Siodmak, which I have shamefully not read yet, detailing his creation of the Wolf Man. I am curious how the events of Nazism and WWII and being forced to immigrate to the U.S. impacted his perception of freedom and of humanism. But I’ve yarned on long enough. We’ve got a special guest writer today to tell us a bit about this amazing and haunting movie. Shall we see what Mr. X has to say about The Wolf Man?
When the Wolfbane Blooms
By: Jeffery X. Martin
There’s not a whole lot you can say about a 75 year old movie that hasn’t already been said, but The Wolf Man, a movie which has spawned more bastard children than Mick Jagger, remains so vital, so heart-wrenching, that it deserves to be seen by everyone who has grown up with only Landis and Dante’s version of lycanthropy.
George Waggner’s direction is solid and downright artsy in some scenes. His gorgeous shot inside the town church is utterly breathtaking in its contrast and shadowplay. Who needs color? This black and white work is sublime. He also has an almost symbiotic bond with low-lying fog, a standard element of every werewolf picture to follow.
It’s also right and proper to pour some out for Jack Pierce, the pioneering make-up artist who created the werewolf makeup. He also created the original make-up work for the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy. He may not have been well-liked around the studio, but he was responsible for the looks of almost all of what we think of as the “classic” monsters.
But the heart of The Wolf Man is Curt Siodmak. I know… of course, the writer is going to give credit to the writer. Blood sings to blood and all that. The fact is Siodmak, who was sort of the Rod Serling of his time, wrote a rock-solid script. Lon Chaney pulls off the role of Larry Talbot, who really is just a poor lunkhead, with great aplomb.
There’s stuff in this movie you couldn’t get away with now, like how Larry spies on the girl he likes with a telescope. Stalker! But he’s such a schmoe, such an awkward guy, you can’t help but root for him. You want him to take some power for himself and not be such a noodge.
When he finally gets a bit of that power, and becomes a werewolf, he’s shocked at his own behavior. He doesn’t want to own that kind of personal growth. If Larry has a fatal flaw, it isn’t that he becomes a werewolf when the wolfbane blooms and the gypsies come to town. It’s his humanity that makes him a classic tragic character. He realizes that he’s doomed. He always has been. In a world where the attitude is, as Richard Nixon said, “Fuck the doomed,” he’s never going to get what he wants. No sweetheart, no place as a pillar of the community, no joy. The old gypsy woman was right when she said, “Tears run to a predestined place.”
That gorgeous line is true for all of us. We’re all doomed. We’re all Larry Talbot, awkward and weak in some areas. If we really had some crazy power, would we use it the best way we could, or would we just wish it away? The real question The Wolf Man asks is not, “What is it like to be a werewolf?”
The Wolf Man asks all of us, “What does it mean to be human?”
Jeffery X. Martin, or Mr. X to you, is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elder’s Keep universe and Tarotsphere. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work on Amazon. When Mr. X is not writing creep mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and blogs, including, but not limited to, Pop Shiftier and Kiss the Goat.