None of these classic monster movies are turning out like I thought they would. Shamefully, I was actually looking forward to a lot more camp with less story, but again, The Wolf Man surprised me as being a movie where the story itself was a lot more interesting than any of the werewolf activity. Although not the first werewolf movie to be made, The Wolf Man is the one that plunged the classic monster into popularity. The lore and mythology has changed from movie to movie over the years, but here we have one of the originals, as only Universal could present it.
Lon Chaney, Jr. plays Larry Talbot, a man who returns home to his estranged father after the death of his brother. He meets up with a local girl named Gwen who works in an antique store, and they and her friend Jenny go to get their fortunes told by a traveling gypsy camp one night. Jenny is attacked in the woods by a wolf and Larry manages to kill it, but he is bitten on the chest. An old gypsy woman tells him that the wolf was actually Bela, the fortune teller, and that he was a werewolf. Larry starts to transform at night and roam the woods as a wolf, terrified of what he's become and what he's going to do, especially now that the police are out hunting him.
I loves me some Lon Chaney Jr. here. I first saw him in the incredible cult classic Spider Baby but he wasn't as much of a standout in that movie. In The Wolf Man, Chaney really gets to shine as a charming, if not emotionally distant, sort-of playboy who suddenly has to deal with the horrible situation of his transformation into a monster. Chaney shows the character's true agony over the fact that he murdered Bela and later the gravedigger Richardson, and by the end he even wants the hunting party to catch him because he is afraid that he will hurt Gwen. Chaney's physical presence is also quite striking, as he towers over most of the actors, plus I just love his face. When he goes all wild in the woods in one scene, he gives the most incredible facial expressions. His physicality as the Wolf Man is obvious yet it works for the movie, and he gives the audience yet another Universal monster who is sympathetic and endearing.
But Chaney's not the only star in this flick. If you count Chaney himself as the Wolf Man, we've got three, count 'em, three classic monsters in one little movie. Claude Rains, whom I fell in love with as the Invisible Man, plays Larry's father Sir John Talbot. The great Bela Lugosi, a.k.a. Dracula, plays the gypsy fortune teller Bela (coincidence or homage? I can't decide) who is the werewolf that bites Larry. Lugosi's time on screen is short-lived, but Rains give a wonderful supporting performance. He loves his son and wants to protect and help him, yet his book-smart personality refuses to allow him to believe that Larry has become a werewolf. Of course this turns out to be a fatal mistake, revealed in a very heart-breaking and surprising ending.
Now for the not-so-awesome parts of the movie. I know that the werewolf makeup must have taken hours and was probably pretty damn uncomfortable for Chaney, but come on. He doesn't look anything like a wolf. He just looks like one of those really hairy dudes that I saw on Ripley's Believe It or Not that one time. And while we're on this, I got a question. Why did they show the werewolf Bela as actually looking like a wolf when Larry killed him and then have Larry's transformation be so much different? What, was this just he first stage of werewolf-ism or something? It doesn't make sense. Okay, so I didn't like the overall look of the werewolf. Sue me.
I also didn't like the set in the woods. It's the same patch of fake-looking woods and trees used over and over again throughout the movie and it's just campy. That forced, perpetual fog? There are other ways to make the woods look "spooky," I'm pretty sure. They do a great job on lighting Larry as the wolf while he's in these woods, though. Several good shots of him in full makeup looking through the trees and stuff. I have this weird hatred of wood or forest settings that are obviously done on stages. In some movies, I'm shocked to find out that certain scenes like this were actually not on location, but with others I can usually tell right away that those woods are not real, and it takes me out of it for a second.
Another thing I can't let go about this movie is the strange and creepy hookup of Larry and Gwen. I mean, seriously. He charms her into going out with him by admitting that he spied on her in her room through his daddy's high-powered telescope? And she never really acts like that's just a little bit weird? Anyway, all is forgiven pretty quickly and Gwen and Larry actually turn out to be quite cute together so I guess they do have some chemistry. I love how she messes with him by bringing her friend along to what he thinks is going to be their first date. She's also a playa, because she's engaged to this other dude while she's running off with Larry. I like that about her.
I guess it sounds like I didn't really like The Wolf Man all that much but I really did. It's not my particular favorite of this classic monster bunch so far (I think The Invisible Man might just win that title), but there's definitely something special about it. The werewolf has always been a metaphor for the monster or the animal that is within all of us, or the idea of man's dual capabilities for good or evil, and I love how that is represented in this movie. Chaney's performance in the title role, as well as all the supporting performances, make this one a truly surprising classic that had much more to it than I expected.