Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)

Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.

I feel bad because I sort of not gotten around to actually making a large enough (at least my eyes) of horror movie posts in time for October for a horror movie buff as I am, but in my defense, I never made any promises (in fact, I diverted any expectations) and I was quite busy with a handful outside of blogger. Ironically, October happened to be my most fruitful month and I expect to pull the same and more for November.

Let's begin with an old classic, shall we? Most people should be familiar in one way or another with the werewolf legend. While The Wolfman is certainly not the movie to create it, but especially given the failure of Werewolf of London, it was the first movie to introduce the lycanthropy legend to mainstream and especially influencing future cinematic depictions of the beast.

Unfortunately, that happens to be the sole benefit of the plot itself. While well paced as it is with a beginning, middle and end, the general outline of the story of The Wolf Man is not very dimensional, thematic. It's only conflict is in Lawrence Talbot (the extraordinarily underused Lon Chaney Jr., son of the horror movie master actor/make-up artist)'s fear of himself and in the entirely inconsistent attitude of the people of Llanwelly. At one moment, they hate him (and his family's unexplained reputation? - unless I missed something, please feel free to correct me in the comments section), then they don't believe him, then they are fearful of him, then they will happily hang around him, then they don't believe him again... It's weird...
Especially worse is the abruptness of the ending. When I praised the ending in An American Werewolf in London, it was because the movie had a frequent mood of the protagonist being outright doomed to lose, there was no hope. The Wolf Man felt like it couldn't decide to use the gypsy aspect as a chance to save Chaney's life or to keep his paranoia as well-founded. And when it did try to seem very downbeat, it instead went as a hokey as the introduction of a Republican serial villain. Sorry, but the music didn't help.

Fortunately, rather than in the plot, the movie is carried by the very good acting of its two lead stars, Chaney and Claude Rains. I think as of recent I've been getting into Claude Rains' skills as an actor, and he almost always pleases me. Casablanca, Notorious, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Lawrence of Arabia, so on... The dynamic in father and son attempting to come closer together through a family tragedy is well-fed by the intensity and mastery of Chaney and Rains' treatment of their characters. It leads to a grim irony in the actions of the movie's closing act, however.

The larger strength in the movie is the introduction of legendary Jack Pierce's design for the Wolf Man, originally intended for yet scrapped during production of Werewolf of London. Pierce, in his innovation during the 1930s and 40s horror hierarchy of Universal Studios, created iconic pieces for most of the monsters we now remember in nostalgic and classic movie reverence, The Wolf Man being now exception. These days, most werewolf pictures tend to reject the human aspect of the monster, but the Wolf Man is still unique in many ways for its balance of man and monster, a mythological uncontrollable force dwelling in the hearts of most people, now brought out to our faces. It's a frightening and yet fascinating study come to life visually solely by Pierce's work.
For all intents and purposes, Universal Studios owes much of its legend to Jack Pierce alone.

Moving on, the final aspect of The Wolf Man that makes it so rewatchable is the dream-like atmosphere of the sets, namely when they are at the fair or at the moors. Valentine's cinematography has a very small haze for every outdoor scene, accented by the sets hint of German Expressionist basis. Add in a little fog and BAM! The shots end up absolutely hypnotizing and it makes The Wolf Man more of a visual treat than it is given credit for. I especially enjoy shots like the wide of Sir Talbot (Rains) at the observatory or the shop of Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers)'s father. But the shots in the woods during the Wolf Man's rampage are excellent.
I can't talk down even the exotic design of the gypsy's cart.

All said and done, I give the movie a 7.5 out of 10. Watch it at least once in your life, it is very rewarding especially among the other Universal Classic Monster pictures.

When I had heard about the remake of The Wolf Man (2010, Johnston) early in its development, which I had eventually seen before I saw the 1941 original, I am ashamed to admit. I got really excited alone by the hearing of modern maverick Rick Baker's work on the make-up and was rewarded with early concept photographs when they released this great beauty...

Look at that! That's fucking terrifying! I'd hate to be attacked by something like that. That's a perfect homage to the original grotesque beauty with a modern reality and darkness to it. Adding the casting of Benicio Del Toro and I got very excited at the idea of the movie being made. Of course, that died eventually with the frequent release date delays and I eventually saw the movie in theaters and was very disappointed, a review I'd love to make sometime. In the meantime, we always have the great original.

No comments:

Post a Comment