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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Retro Review: The Wolf Man

The unveiling of the admittedly impressive trailer for the remake of The Wolf Man today has put me in the mood to take another look at the classic Universal original, so that will be the topic of this week's Retro Review. A daunting task, to be sure, but I'm up to it.

Where to begin? A highly enjoyable and iconic horror film, The Wolf Man is nevertheless not quite of the caliber of its 1930s predecessors Dracula and Frankenstein. By 1941, Universal had already relegated its horror films to the B-unit, meaning that they were no longer given quite the same level of attention as they once had been. Nevertheless, The Wolf Man is most likely the finest Universal horror film produced during the entire decade of the 1940s.

Unlike Tod Browning and James Whale, the directors the other two aforementioned classic monster pictures, George Waggner, the man behind The Wolf Man, was more of a craftsman than an artist. An efficient and competent workhorse who had made a living directing B-horror and B-westerns after a failed career as a silent movie actor, Waggner would later settle into a long and comfortable career as a TV director during the 1950s and '60s.

It is not so much Waggner's touch that distinguishes this film as it is the men responsible for its unique and unforgettable look. Joseph A. Valentine, the man behind the camera, would truly make his mark with this movie, and it's no accident that he was soon picked up by Alfred Hitchcock, who made him cinematographer on such flicks as Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, and Rope. Art Director Jack Otterson was the man responsible for the look of films like Dressed to Kill and Arabian Nights, as well as Universal chestnuts like She-Wolf of London, The Mummy's Tomb, Invisible Agent and The Ghost of Frankenstein. Set decorator R.A. Gausman also worked on Spartacus, Touch of Evil, The Incredible Shrinking Man, This Island Earth and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Together, these three very gifted individuals came up with a finished product which, for my money, makes The Wolf Man the memorable film it is. Just checking out the new trailer today, I can already see some telling homages to their work--including a redo of the famous expressionistic scene in which Gwen hides from the Wolf Man in the woods.

That's not to take anything away from the acting, because there are some very solid performances here. Although he would never be confused with his father, Lon Chaney Jr. is nevertheless suitably sympathetic as the guilt-ridden Larry Talbot, forced to bear the curse of the werewolf. This would be long before his hand-wringing routine would grow old and stale after repeated appearances in later sequels; here he is a figure of true pathos.

Claude Rains also brings a great deal of gravitas--as he always did--by now a mainstream celebrity returning to the genre that made him a star nearly a decade earlier with The Invisible Man. Bela Lugosi has one of his unforgettable cameos as the gypsy werewolf who passes on the curse to Talbot. And of course, there is the one and only Maria Ouspenskaya as the old gypsy woman who schools Larry in the lore of the lycanthrope. An early proponent of the Stanislavsky method and a drama coach for many years, Ouspenskaya steals every single scene she's in.

German expatriate Curt Siodmak provided the script, most noted for its legendary and oft-repeated "werewolf rhyme". Siodmak was a prolific author of mainly horror scripts, who had previously penned Vincent Price's The Invisible Man Returns, The Ape, and The Invisible Woman, and would go on to write Invisible Agent, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie, Chaney's Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, The Beast with Five Fingers, Creature with the Atom Brain, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, and countless others. He practically invents the modern werewolf mythos here, and needless to say, the actors are in very capable hands.

And what can be said about Jack Pierce's landmark makeup that hasn't already been said? Although some may argue that he did a better job with Henry Hull's makeup years earlier in Werewolf of London, the fact remains that it's his Chaney makeup that is instantly recognizable to this day--and, in my opinion, his most frightening monster creation of them all. As a kid, no Universal monster freaked me out as much as the Wolf Man, and it was as much due to the animalistic abandon with which Chaney played the part as it was Pierce's demonic work.

The Wolf Man is a revered classic from the golden age of horror, and with good reason. It may not be the unassailable masterpiece that Frankenstein, and to a slightly lesser extent Dracula are--but it's still the mother of all werewolf movies, and one hell of an entertaining viewing experience.


gord said...

Great review B.

And don't forget people the Universal Legacy Series version is released on September 15th. Although that date could be changed now with the remake being pushed back.

Also, glad you enjoyed the trailer it does look fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Great, great review. Thanks for providing more in depth context an background to an already beloved classic.

Didya, didya know? Gene 'The Tongue' Simmons is providing the wolf man howl in the movie?

B-Sol said...

Thank you very much, guys. And no, I did not know about Simmons providing the howl--that's awesome!!

Brian said...

You are dead-on about Ouspenskaya stealing every scene she's in here. That's saying a lot given Chaney's brilliant and tragic performance as Larry Talbot. Ouspenskaya is simply unforgettable.

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