Looking back on the start of this series, I’m wishing we’d done these reviews in chronological order instead of random selections. Tracking the progression of certain characters now that we’re in our twilight hours of Universal Monsters in Review, it is becoming quite difficult. Considering especially Frankenstein’s monster, which has already appeared on film four times since the original 1931 fright flick. AND, ole Frank-in-monster has also changed hands twice already, from the granddaddy, Boris Karloff (who defined the role as Monster), to Lon Chaney Jr. (who played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein) and now with Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, and the more questionable of choices for Universal Studios, Bela Lugosi. Later on, Glenn Strange will also don the endless hours of makeup and prosthetics in future Frankenstein movies. As for the Wolf Man, his progression is much easier to follow. In fact, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is considered to be a direct sequel from the original 1941 The Wolf Man. It ALL can get rather confusing. Oh well. What is done is done. Perhaps moving forward in our discussion here, we should consider Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man has not a direct sequel from Ghost of Frankenstein, but rather, a sequel for The Wolf Man. And besides, most of these movies are basically stories in and of themselves, holding only quasi connections to the originals. As I will be your host for the evening, shall we begin our review?
Here’s a synopsis so that we’re all on the same page:
Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) grave is being robbed, but strangely, despite the passing of four years since the events of The Wolf Man, his body is remarkably preserved. And covered with blooms of Wolfs Bane. The grave robbers soon realize that perhaps Mr. Talbot is not as dead as they originally believed. The next scene, we find Larry in an asylum, recovering from an operation performed by good natured yet strictly scientific Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles). Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey) finds him there, too, wanting to question him about a recent spate of murders. Talbot escapes and finds Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who knows his secret: that when the moon is full, he changes to a uncontrollable werewolf. She travels with him to locate the one man who can help him to die – Dr. Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor proves to be dead himself, but they do find Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey). Talbot begs her for her father’s papers containing the secrets of life and death. She doesn’t have them, so he goes to the ruins of the Frankenstein castle to find them himself. There he finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi), whom he chips out of a block of ice. Dr. Mannering eventually catches up with him only to become tempted to to use Frankenstein’s old equipment to fully power the monster.
Before this series, in the long ago, before I had ever dreamed of becoming a published author and creating my own tales of fright, Frankenstein meets the Wolfman was the first Universal Monster movie I had seen. I’d watched bits and pieces of the other movies before, scenes made infamous and those that became direct inspirations for other movies that I had watched. But this one, this was the first. Gathered together with a group of buds for a “guys movie night.” The host’s dogs, Bear and Willie, begging at our feet and scheming for morsels of popcorn. Displayed on the big screen of some monstrous TV birthed from the late 90s, my eyes beheld for the first time, in its completion, a Universal Monster movie. Later on, inspired by this film, would go on to watch The Wolf Man, and then later Dracula and Frankenstein, and so on and so on. There is not much that I remember from that first screening, only that it did ignited a desire to see the others, to return to the past of cinematography. And my History in Film classes in college certainly helped with that desire too. Going back and watching the movie again, for this review, after consuming most of the others, all of the originals, the story played out a little more defined in my mind. And at bottom, I have to say, this is not a Frankenstein movie, at all. This is a Wolf Man movie. And it is a movie about certain ideals and the dangers of obsessive behavior and mob mentality.
The story focuses almost/nay exclusively on Larry Talbot’s quest for an end to his life. The movie opens at the Talbot crypt four years after the events of the original Wolf Man film. And Larry is still somehow alive, though seriously injured. The place on his skull where his father had struck him with the silver cane is fractured. Next, we see Larry’s collapsed body being discovered by police and ushered quickly to the hospital. The doctor, a very scientific minded Dr. Mannering, is shocked at how fast Larry recovers from his surgery. Its all very supernatural. Keep that word in mind while watching this movie. Screen writer, Curt Siodmak, the creator of The Wolf Man character, is taking us on a journey in which the ideals of supernaturalism and science (logic) will clash, head to head. I found it somewhat thought provoking that Larry is completely obsessed with ending his life and that the monster, representing science, is a misunderstood creature…well, until the end in which he becomes an unstoppable machine. There’s a quote from Siodmak that I used in my debut novel, Reinheit, it goes, “You’ll find superstition a contagious thing. Some people let it get the better of them.” And while watching Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, you get a sense of what he’s saying. The villagers on the stage of this idyllic Germanic town, full of song, wine, and good cheer, also harbor anger and resentment, not just to the Frankenstein name, but also strangers and gypsies, mostly fueled by antagonists who insight the rage of the community by reminding them of the injustices that had transpired in the past. Is all this starting to sound familiar? Considering Curt Siodmak was a Jew escaping the growing threat of Nazi Germany, it ought to sound familiar.
The deeper meaning in Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man is commendable, but there are still some unresolved issues with the movie itself. I felt like the entire movie was brilliantly set up and had a wonderful progression as we followed Larry on his quest toward suicide. The end felt tacked on. Dr. Mannering’s character did not feel fully vetted nor relatable. His motivation seemed very sudden. From wanting to take Larry back to the hospital to becoming obsessed with seeing how powerful he could make the monster. Everything until then was golden. And like with most Universal films of this era, the final scene was very abrupt. With the manic villager blowing up the dam, releasing the river, destroying Castle Frankenstein, along with the Wolf Man and monster, and the town itself, presumably, all happens within a span of 60 seconds. Boom. Boom. The End.
Judging the film as a whole, yes,while Mannering’s character did feel very unbelievable regarding “re-charging” the monster, and with the ending being rushed to its final conclusion, the other meanings are hard to dismiss, how our obsessions, be it science or superstition, will ultimately destroy us in the end. Its a powerful message, especially when considering the history of the screen writer and the decade in which the film was made. Looking at the film as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man was an excellent continuation in the story, introducing new branches to the werewolf mythos. The casting couldn’t have been more perfect. Except for perhaps Bela Lugosi as the monster. To me, despite trying very hard to be a dim witted creature, he still sounded too suave. Watching Bela as Frankenstein’s monster was too disconnecting and his mannerisms seemed desperate to separate himself from his more iconic role as Dracula. Honestly, some actors just aren’t built to play certain roles. One could surmise the same about Chaney and how he should never have played the Mummy. My favorites for the film were Maria Ouspenskaya, who was was once again wonderful, as was Lon Chaney, likewise at his best as the very tragic and sad Larry Talbot, both utterly magnetizing and wonderfully depressing.
My rating: 4/5
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.