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.