Universal Monsters in review: Werewolf of London (1935)
Diving deeper into the chambers of Universal Classic Monsters, today we bring to you a strange and unusual tale of a botanist who, while researching a mysterious flower in Tibet, is bitten by a cursed and lowly creature. Coming from last weeks dreadful The Mummy’s Hand, I’m pleased to once again find myself pulled into a movie with directors, producers, and actors that’ve taken a story so fantastic as the Werewolf of London and created something phenomenal. Much as many of the Universal classics, and unlike the famed 1941 The Wolfman, we are torn into a battle between the supernatural and the discoveries of modern science. A reoccurring theme, I think, especially among these earlier films. Fears of the things man dabbles in, and the repercussions of progress and so-called modernity. I found Werewolf of London a wonderful film and wish I’d seen it sooner. I’m a fan of werewolf tales, as much as our guest writer I think. With Werewolf of London, its interesting to see a take on the lore set within the confines of science. Very interesting. But enough of that. Let us see what our esteemed guest has to say!
Werewolf Of London
A look back at a Universal Classic
By: JR Park
Werewolves have always held a fascination for me. At the tender age of six I watched Michael Jackson scream “Go Away” to Ola Ray in the Thriller video as he transformed with excruciating detail into a monster. It terrified and excited me. Thirty years later and I have still not recovered.
Vampires, ghosts, zombies and undead serial killers have all provided me with horrific delights since I was bitten by the horror bug all those years ago, but no monster has held the same intrigue to me as the werewolf. The development of cinematic lycanthropes have certainly been a rapid one in the hundred years since they’ve appeared on film, and as we look back to their origins we find a creature oh so similar, and yet very different from the beast that stalks the moonlit world of the modern era.
Werewolf of London was Universal’s first werewolf film, released in 1935, six years before the much more successful and remembered Wolf Man. The critical reaction was unfavourable at the time, calling it out dated, and given unflattering comparatives to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a film that had been released only a few years before and became a hit.
The plot to Werewolf of London involves a British botanist venturing to Tibet in search of a flower that grows and blooms only under moonlight, known as the mariphasa. Keeping to the horror film standard for which we all know well today, the good botanist, Wilfred Glendon and his companion are warned against his quest. ‘Somethings are best not to bother with,’ is the vague caution they are offered, as they causally ignore the rumours of demons in the valley. It’s not long into their descent down said valley before they encounter the strange bloom. And it’s not long again after that that a snarling wolf-like beast attacks the doctor, leaving him wounded and scarred.
Back in London and Wilfred has managed to bring home a specimen of the plant, but is irritated that the fake moonlight he projects onto the bloom causes it no reaction. Then it’s a cut to a party scene with laboriously long dialogue that doesn’t seem to go anywhere until we meet fellow botanist Dr Yogami who seems to know an awful lot about werewolves.
From the knowledge of Dr Yogami, and Wilfred’s diligence research in text books, we encounter the mythos for this film’s lycanthrope sufferers, and the driving plot of the film: 1) a person bitten by a werewolf will turn into a werewolf themselves during the full moon, 2) the plant, mariphasa, is not a complete cure, but is an antidote to stop each transformation, 3) the werewolf must kill at least one person per night of the full moon or become permanently afflicted.
We got that so far? To make matters worse we are left with the lingering words from Dr Yogami, ‘The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves the best.’ Bummer.
Eventually the first transformation scene comes around, and let’s be honest, that’s the bit everyone’s waiting for in any werewolf movie. The scene is handled well with Wilfred stumbling through his laboratory passing pillars as he goes. Each pillar he passes, he comes out the other side more horrific. It’s nicely handled and a good piece of drama that doesn’t disappoint.
But what of the monster itself?
This is a very different design to the snarling, furry faced Lon Chaney Jr of the Wolf Man. Although both sets of makeup were created by the same man, Jack Pierce, his original design was toned down, the studio asking him to make it more human in appearance.
But it’s not just its physical form that makes the creature in this film more human that its savage successor. This monster has the decency to pick up its hat and coat before it begins prowling the dark streets of the city; and even manages to speak in the final act of its death throes.
The influence of Jekyll and Hyde is apparent in these scenes, and it’s interesting to think that this monster would only become popular when it shook free of the chains of another creation and fully relished in its own monstrous mythos.
But back to the plot: Wilfred, now as a werewolf runs to the plant, knowing it will cure him, but as he stands over the strange flower a memory of his wife pops into his head. The monster takes over, filling him with the desire to kill the thing he loves the most (remember the words from Dr Yogami?). This attack fails and so he satisfies his bloodlust with a random woman wondering the streets.
Ashamed of his actions, Wilfred rents a room in an Inn to hide away. This is the first time we get to see the wolf man as a tragic figure, something we’ll see a lot more of in the films that follow. But the four walls provide no prison and he’s back out again, killing, this time in a zoo. There’s a fun little twist in the movie that I won’t spoil, but ultimately the monster sets himself upon his wife before being shot. Mortally wounded, Wilfred rolls to face the policeman holding the gun and thanks him for the bullet, before apologising to his wife (how very British of him).
So is the film any good? The werewolf make up is okay, and the transformations are pretty effective; the first one handled well and the rest being made of dissolving stills, which is something us modern viewers would expect from a Universal werewolf movie. Its major problem is the long periods of dialogue, which in themselves would be okay if they were handled well, but sadly the acting is poor. To begin with I blamed the time period, but a shining light in the film not only gave me some much needed entertainment, but it also highlighted as a comparative, how starch-like stiff the other actors were.
During the scene where Wilfred looks to rent a room he enters a pub and meets two ladies with whom to rent from. These two characters had fast, snappy dialogue, were forever drunk or drinking, and played with a comic melodrama that stole the show. In fact the performance of these two were so strong that I’d recommend watching the movie just for these two, despite how fleeting their appearances are. Good acting is good acting, no matter which period the film is made; just as funny is always funny.
So Werewolf of London helped birth the cinematic werewolf we know of today. It had the changing by moonlight, the tragedy of the affliction and the fascination of the transformation. And although it in itself is not a great movie, it helped pave the way for something far, far better. To quote a line from the opening scenes of the film, ‘Without fools there would be no wisdom.’
And I got through the whole thing without mentioning Warren Zevon. Almost.
JR Park draws from the crazy worlds of exploitation cinema and pulp literature for his literary inspiration. His family are both equally proud and disturbed by his literary output, dragged from a mind they helped to cultivate. He resides on the outskirts of Bristol in the UK and hopes one day they’ll let him in. Mr. Park is the author of several twisted tales of morbid doom, includingUpon Waking and Terror Byte and Punch. He was also featured with a horrifyingly wonderful short in the horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. Besides giving his readers terrifying nightmares, Mr. Park is also one of the founding members of the up and coming UK Publishing team, The Sinister Horror Company, active in promoting other writers and attending numerous conventions.