Even a Man Who is Pure in Heart: The Wolf-Man (Monster Memories)

By Last Updated: February 28, 2024Views: 3134

By 1941 Universal had been making monster movies for over a decade. It had now become a well-oiled machine and while not quite formulaic just yet was well on its way to becoming so. The Wolf-Man still retains the moodiness and the harsh shadows emblematic of German Expressionism that characterizes the earlier films. But gone now are the jarring camera angles and steep, claustrophobic architecture in favor of steady wide shots and spacious interiors. But more than that there are tantalizing themes brought up, bandied about and just left hanging.

Still there is something about this film that is compelling. This is a movie that I loved, and I mean loved, as a kid. In fact my favorite monster was- and remains –  the werewolf

“I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything.” – Doctor Lloyd

What I Remember…

When my friends and I would play monsters (yes, we played monsters. You didn’t? Sad.) each of us would assume the role of a famous character and act it out while the others would chase him/her around pretending to be the angry villagers. One day someone would be Dracula, another would be Frankenstein, or the Mummy. I would always be the Wolf Man.

My mother had a collection of floppy brown wigs that I would abscond with; blacken my face with a marker or charcoal, wear plastic fangs and a flannel shirt. I would run wild and uninhibited through the countryside (or as we called it, a backyard) tearing up the land in a frenzy while the others chased me down.  With other characters we portrayed the ‘villagers’ would attempt to talk to the monster, to capture it peacefully. Not with the werewolf.

The werewolf was always to be destroyed.

What It’s About…

Larry Talbot returns to his ancestral home in Wales to reconcile with his estranged father. While there, Larry becomes romantically involved with a localin a local girl named Gwen who runs an antique shop where he buys a walking stick to impress her.

Whenever the subject of werewolves comes up (which is surprisingly often) the vilagers recite a poem:

“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.”

That night after a county fair, Gwen’s friend Jenny is attacked by what looks like a wolf. Larry attempts to recue her and he kills the animal with his new walking stick – which happens to be made of silver in the shape of a wolf – but is bitten on the chest in the process.

A gypsy fortuneteller named Maleva reveals to Larry that the animal which bit him was actually her son Bela in the form of a warewolf. She also tells Larry that he too will transform into a wolf as well since he who is bitten by a werewolf and lives will turn into one himself.

Larry transforms into a wolf-like creature and stalks the village, first killing the local gravedigger. In the morning larry retains vague memories of being a werewolf and wanting to kill, and continually struggles to overcome his condition. He is finally bludgeoned to death by his father with his own silver walking stick after attacking Gwen.

His father, Sir John Talbot, watches in horror as the dead werewolf transforms into his son’s human form.

What I Think Now…

The most frightening thing about the werewolf is you can’t reason with it.

There is nothing heroic about the werewolf. You will never find the bloody romanticism of the vampire or the childlike sympathy of the Frankenstein monster. The werewolf is just fierce, wild and hungry. It is a complete loss of control, and there lies the terror.  Someone, usually in the wrong place at the wrong time or, as in the case of the character Larry Talbot, trying to help another, gets bitten. Bitten. Not a gentle, seductive bite on the neck, but the rabid attack of an animal attempting to eat you but not quite getting the job done.  And the victim, torn and broken, now finds himself at a complete loss of his own humanity. Helpless, reduced to base instinct; hunger and the search for blood.

And this is where the film shines. It is the slow breakdown of Larry Talbot (played by Lon Cheney Jr.) that is the heart of the film. First in doubt, then in confusion and finally complete and total panic knowing that he no longer controls himself or his actions. And Cheney plays this well. Now, there are many who may disagree with me, but Lon Cheney Jr. is not one of your more, let’s say, well rounded actors. As in the beginning of the film where he attempts to be suave and debonair but just comes off as smarmy and just a little creepy  (unless of course you find stalking a woman in her bedroom with a high-powered telescope to be ‘charming’). He does, however, play sensitive and vulnerable well. And to be fair the film does play this up more than anything else. It plays to Cheney’s strengths as an actor more often than not.

And there is something missing.  It has all the classic elements you need for a horror film: Boy comes to strange town. Boy meets beautiful woman. Boy becomes a horrendous killing machine before being killed by estranged father. It’s all there. What is missing I guess are the elements that are just hinted about.

For instance, the idea that lycanthropy is a psychological disorder rather than a physical one. The very first shot is that of a book being pulled from a shelf showing the audience a definition of lycanthropy as “a disease of the mind in which human being imagine they are wolf-men.” And Larry’s doctor, when asked if he believes in werewolves, says to him, “I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything.” All of this is moot of course because most of this is said after we have seen Larry’s transformation and know that he is, in fact, a wolf. There is no suspense or doubt in our minds, but it could have been played quite differently.

And there is the sense of Larry’s alienation from the others around him, his family, the town (a quaint little Welsh town where everyone seems to have American accents). This is brought to a head in the scene in a church where the parishioners turn to stare him down as if he were not welcome, forcing him to stalk off in embarrassment.

This leads into Larry’s relationship with his father, played with great subtlety by Claude Rains. Estranged and aloof, he cares more for the family honor than the wellbeing of his son. That is until it is too late.

All of these themes could have been, and screamed out to be, explored further in subsequent films. Which makes it all the more upsetting that the Wolf Man never got a sequel all to himself; he would appear again several times but always in second billing and have to play off the likes of the Monster, Dracula and Abbott & Costello.

Despite its flaws, the Wolf Man is still a wonderful little film. It inspired me as a boy, both consciously and unconsciously, to play and to think. And I hope that somewhere there is still a kid in a flannel shirt and a floppy wig and plastic teeth exploring the wildness of their own nature by the light of a full moon.

Original Trailer

Monster Memories is an ongoing feature that looks at classic horror films and TV from the perspective of how I remember them as a child and comparing them to how I see them today as an adult. It is not meant to be a detailed critique of the film/show but rather a nostalgic look back on a genre I love.

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