With the highly anticipated Benicio del Toro remake of Universal's The Wolf Man on the way this fall, the time is ripe to take a long, considered look at the history of one of the horror genre's most venerable and beloved sub-categories. Although not quite as popular as its cousin the vampire, and perhaps not as thoroughly explored cinematically, the lycanthrope has nevertheless provided us with some of the most terrifying films ever made.
A beast whose origins go back nearly to the beginnings of Western civilization, the mythological being who can transform from man to wolf under the influence of the full moon has gone through its fair share of Hollywood-ization, much like its blood-drinking brethren. And in general, the history of werewolf films can be divided into three major eras. Today we will take a look at the first.
The earliest known werewolf movie would be the 1913 short film, The Werewolf, unfortunately now lost. Following that was the 1923 French effort, Le loup-garou. But unlike the vampire subgenre, which can be found alive and well even in the earliest silent era of film, in order to find the earliest major werewolf film, one must jump ahead to the 1930s, and a time when talkies were already in full bloom. The year is 1935, and Universal, the studio which has made a name for itself producing films about Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Mummy, has turned its attentions at last to the legend of the werewolf.
The movie is Werewolf of London, and for some connoissuers of vintage horror, it remains the high watermark of lycanthrope cinema. Henry Hull stars as Dr. Glendon, and English botanist who falls under the curse of the werewolf after being bitten on an expedition in the Himalayas. The vast bulk of cinema's take on the werewolf legend is already established in this one film: the transmission through biting, the transformation under the full moon, the beast's desire to destroy that which its human half loves most.
The makeup created by Jack Pierce is striking, and Hull's humanoid, intelligent portrayal of the creature is quite unique, giving us one of the only talking werewolves of the silver screen. The film also puts the transformation scene front and center, a tradition that would continue throughout the history of the subgenre. Werewolf of London remains one of the most influential, and yet also one of the most underrated horror films of the Universal canon.
And yet, for whatever reason, in its own day, Werewolf of London did not resonate with audiences to the same degree that previous Universal efforts had. A sequel was never produced. Rather, six years later, when Universal finally returned to the subgenre, it would be with an entirely unrelated film, starting from scratch with an entirely new continuity and character. The result would be the single most famous werewolf film ever produced--a work that would afford the creature a permanent place in the horror movie lexicon.
Lon Chaney Jr., son of the world-famous silent horror movie megastar, was hired to play the ill-fated Lawrence Talbot, the son of a Welsh nobleman who is bitten on the moors of his native land, and suffers the subsequent curse of the werewolf. In the role of his father, Universal alum Claude Rains returned to the horror genre. And completing the trifecta was the one and only Bela Lugosi, who portrays the wolf that turns Talbot in the first place.
The reasons for the film's endurance are many. A taut and layered script by the great Curt Siodmak, and one of Jack Pierce's most iconic makeup creations are among them. But it is Chaney's tragic and sympathetic portrayal of the doomed soul Talbot that anchors the picture and lends it the pathos that most likely helped the film become the success that Werewolf of London was not. We feel for Talbot as he struggles hopelessly with the monster within him, yearning for nothing more than death.
The Wolf Man was Universal's first major success of the 1940s, a decade which saw the studio lose a step or two in its horror output from its golden era in the 1930s. Chaney's monster was such a popular one that it took its place in what would come to be known as classic horror's "holy trinity" of sorts, alongside Lugosi's Dracula and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein Monster.
Chaney's portrayal was so appreciated, in fact, that the actor would be brought back on four more occasions to play the Wolf Man, making the creature the only one in the Universal pantheon to be played by the same actor in every one of its appearances. The first return of the character came in 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which was also the first of the "monster team-up" movies to come out of the movie studio, marking a distinct evolution of the category from genuine fright films into more fun, juvenile, comic book-style fare.
After doing battle with Bela Lugosi's Frankenstein Monster, Chaney reprised his role in Universal's two mega-monster blowouts of the mid-1940s, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Alongside John Carradine as the Count and Glenn Strange as the Monster, Chaney's Talbot continued his seemingly never-ending search to either cure or kill himself. In the meantime, much innocent monster fun was had. Interestingly, it is Chaney's Wolf Man storyline which holds these two late entries together, providing the backbone of the narrative.
So closely associated with the character was Chaney, that he was brought back one last time for what wiould be the ultimate stage in the evolution of Universal's stable of classic monsters: the 1948 horror-comedy classic, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Once again, Chaney provides the heart of the narrative, playing sobbing straight man to the bumbling genius of Bud and Lou. Particularly memorable is the famous scene in which Lou Costello comes within a hair of being mauled by the beast while sneaking into Talbot's hotel room to steal a fruit.
Although cherished today, at the time A&CMF was looked down on by "horror purists", and even Chaney himself later deplored the film for bringing an end the Universal monster cycle. One thing was for certain, and it was that the Wolf Man had finally run out of steam. Chaney's hand-wringing routine had, at last, worn thin.
Only one other film was produced during this time by Universal, or any other studio, that made any attempt to keep the werewolf alive. It was the somewhat obscure She-Wolf of London, starring a young June Lockhart as the screen's first female lycanthrope. Made a year after the final "serious" Wolf Man picture, She-Wolf of London can be seen as something of a last-ditch attempt to capitalize on the name value of the previous decade's Werewolf of London, although the two films are narratively unrelated.
Horror films in general went into something of a tailspin following World War II, and werewolf films were no different. A new approach was certainly required, and it took Hollywood nearly a decade to finally recover and come up with some fresh ideas.
Finally, in 1956, B-movie impresario Sam Katzman reopened the book on the subgenre with the rather straightforwardly titled, The Werewolf. Although heavily influenced by The Wolf Man, as can be seen in Steven Ritch's portrayal of the ill-fated Duncan Marsh, the movie is very much a product of the atom-age terrors that dominated the new style of horror then emerging. Much like the giant monsters of the era, Marsh's lycanthropy is brought on by scientific experimentation gone terribly wrong--specifically atomic experimentation.
Gone are the trappings of the supernatural that had always been a part of the werewolf legend--this film's creature was a creature rooted in science, exploiting the fears which then gripped much of the American public. It was an interesting take on an old gimmick, and proved that the subgenre did indeed have legs. The film is also notable for its breathtaking location shots at California's Big Bear Lake.
The following year brought audiences one of the most well-remembered cult movies of the era, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, starring a very young Michael Landon and produced by another giant in the realm of B-movies, American Internation Pictures' Samuel J. Arkoff. Continuing the theme of science gone wrong, and also capitalizing on the rising youth movement that had overtaken popular culture, the flick proved a major drive-in success, and led to such follow-ups as I Was a Teenage of Frankenstein, and I Was a Teenage Mummy.
It was right around this time that Hammer Films, a studio from across the pond in Great Britain, was beginning to make waves with their own innovative takes on traditional Universal monsters. The late 1950s saw Hammer's versions of Dracula and Frankenstein launch into horror immortality, bringing a much more garish, gory and sensational approach than had ever been seen before. Attention to period detail, over-the-top English scenery-chewing, and more blood and outright sexuality than had ever been previously seen in cinematic horror were among the hallmarks of the new studio's attention-grabbing output.
It only made sense that eventually, Hammer would have to make its mark on the werewolf subgenre. And so, in 1961, Hammer gave us The Curse of the Werewolf, starring the dashing Oliver Reed as the titular lycanthrope. Set in 19th century Spain, the film is much more visceral than any werewolf movie yet seen--this wolf draws real blood, and his predatory nature is explained rather explicitly as having a sexual subtext. It is without question one of the absolute gems of werewolf cinema.
And yet, much like Universal's first attempt some 25 years earlier, The Curse of the Werewolf was something of a flop for Hammer, which came as a shock following the resounding success of films like Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy. As a result, the Terence Fisher-directed Curse would be Hammer's one and only werewolf-themed production, thus making it all the more special.
Following Hammer's box office failure at continuing the tradition established by Universal, the werewolf effectively went into mothballs. It appeared as if there was nothing new to say, and no new way to breath life into the old boy. It would take a full 20 years, and an entire remaking of the cinematic horror landscape, to finally bring the beast out of its hibernation. And when it finally did return, it marked the dawning of what many would consider to be a golden age of werewolf flicks.
London would be the setting once again. But this time, the werewolf would be American.
Soon to Come: Part 2 - "Bad Moon Rising"
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