I’ve always taken umbrage at those who say that they hate old movies. Black and white movies. Movies that look too grainy. Movies that clearly look like they’re from another time. I can’t stand people who say that any old movie is a dull movie.
One of these people is my best friend. He does not conceal his feelings on the subject. He is quite open about his feelings towards “old movies,” all of which are, in his mind, unequivocally dull. Every time he suggests such a thing, I want to hit him over the head repeatedly with a sled and yell “Rosebud! Rosebud!” That’ll show him.
And yet… Unfortunately, every once in a while, old-movie lovers like me have to make a concession. Yes, not every old movie is dull. Far from it! And, surveying today’s cinematic landscape, I don’t think anyone could argue that every dull movie is old. Ah, hell no!
But sometimes, an old movie, even one you’ve heard very good things about, can be very, very dull. “The Wolf Man” is just such a movie. It is both old (Universal, 1941) and it is as dull as a sad, rusty knife covered in layers of yak’s hair.
The Duality of Man Can Be Boring Sometimes
If you’re wondering, the yak’s hair used in the metaphor above is a reference to the yak’s hair applied to star Lon Chaney Jr.’s hands, feet, and face to turn him into the “dreaded” Wolf Man. Chaney would sit in a chair for hour as hair of yak was applied to his face and limbs. He hated it, but it made him a famous part of the Universal canon of great movie monsters.
This film — released in 1941, almost a decade after the heyday of Universal movie monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein — was the first of five films to feature Chaney’s take on the werewolf. That werewolf became exactly the popular third wheel Universal needed to get that last bit of juice from their older, better monsters in a series of sequels that brought their three biggest stars together in one tricked-out plot. (So if your wondering, that would make the Wolf Man the Chris Bosh of Universal movie monsters. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula — brilliant, independent and flashy — would be Dwayne Wade in this metaphor, and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster – villainous, misunderstood, a monster created by those around him – would be Lebron James. We could take this farther – Mike Miller as the Invisible Man, anyone? – but we’ll leave it there.)
In those subsequent sequels, Larry Talbot (that’s the character’s name, like it matters) is wolfed out MUCH MORE than he is in this movie. In this movie, which clocks in at an astonishingly short 69 minutes, we see Chaney in the famous Wolf Man makeup for about two minutes total… He kills one guy we don’t even know. The only Wolf Man transformation is not, as I suspected, a close-up of the face but, absurdly enough, a lap resolve of, of all things, the feet! The little Welsh hamlet Larry terrorizes feels so small in scale and so unthreatened by the idea of a wolfman that there never seem to be stakes for anyone but Larry. So don’t come to this movie expecting a bunch of wolf-like awesomeness. There’s barely any wolf in it. Just a lot of talk about the notion of the wolf representing the creature within us. There are more wolf metaphors than actual wolves.
The whole rest of the film, Chaney — who is not the strongest actor out of makeup (you know, when he is allowed to actually speak in sentences and not just growl) – whines, frets and, oh yeah, stalks the living daylights out of a girl he kind of likes who is already engaged to someone else. (Seriously, I recommend this film just to see what passed for flirting back before Pearl Harbor made us all paranoid freaks. Talbot tells his crush he first saw her through a telescope aimed at her window, and he admits he enjoyed the view so much he had to come down to her store and hit on her. She is perfectly okay with this!) Talbot is a pathetic, put-upon character I can’t imagine anyone would like and definitely can’t imagine anyone would want to see more then a werewolf! It’s kind of sad to see him go through this horrendous transformation, but the film vastly miscalculates how much we feel the pathos of its torured protagonist. The answer: not a lot.
You see, this film is what we would call an “origin story” today. And, as we all know after a decade of Marvel and DC movies, unless your name is Tony Stark, the things you do as a superpowered/deformed being — after you are changed from human to something else — are way more interesting then how you got those powers. Way more interesting.
“The Wolf Man” is a movie that profoundly misunderstands this truism. In a better world, the story we get here is the first twenty minutes of a much better two-hour-long film. In that better film, we meet silly, little human Larry Talbot who is soon bitten by a werewolf gypsy, we get a bit of necessary exposition, Larry scares off the girl he loves, and then he is killed and turns, upon his death, back into a human. But then he rises from the grave twenty minutes in and wreaks total havoc for the next 100 minutes of furry mayhem! Mayhem!
Alas this is not what we get here (and I hear that the very bad 2010 remake does not improve on this at all). There in no havoc in this film. No mayhem. It is all very restrained and dignified. The most tense scenes come in a well-furnished study (a study!), where a bunch of men with stiff upper lips and sort-of British accents discuss the nature of evil and the duality of man. Larry Talbot sits there during these scenes and contributes to the discussion. I am being totally serious. This happens a few times during the film. I’m sorry.
Enough Stalling. Were You Scared?
No! I would have loved to have been. I was pulling for this movie. But there was nothing darkly creepy about this movie like a Castle Dracula, or beautifully, profoundly creepy about this film like everything in “Frankenstein.” This film doesn’t seem to understand what horror is and what makes “horror” different from “exposition.” Granted some of that exposition set up much of the werewolf mythology we have today (much of the myth of the werewolf was invented for this screenplay, although the idea of the transformation corresponding with a full moon did not catch on until this film’s sequel), but it is that same exposition which holds this film back from being, umm… good, interesting, scary, or worthwhile. This one’s a classic for what it created, but it’s surely not a classic for what it is – a dull, static, overly-staged movie that lends credence to every argument my stupid best friend levies against old, black-and-white movies.
- Scariest Scene: Ha! Ha ha! Sigh.
- Best Scene: I know I ragged on this film’s expository nature, but one scene stands tall above the rest. It’s the scene you’ve probably seen a million times (I know you saw it in “The Sandlot”), and there’s a good reason. The gypsy woman explains to Larry Talbot the curse he now bears. It’s good. The rest of the movie… not so much.
- Did Any Black Guys Die First? This film is set in Wales. It was made in 1941. What do you think? We’re still at Convention 1, Black Guys 2.
- To be clear, I like the idea of Larry Talbot as a character. I find the notions introduced in this film fascintating. The duality of our character. The introduction of the other. The notion of Larry Talbot as innocent victim. All of these things are fascinating, as the legacy of this movie can attest — they have lived on to define decades of monsters and movies. I just don’t think this movie is as fascinating as it thinks it is. It presents interesting ideas blandly.
- Hopefully this film hasn’t soured me on other horror classics. So far, 80’s gore-fests have been the best in my opinion, but I’ll keep sampling from the Universal canon to see if anything catches my eye. I will prove yet that a black-and-white film can kick a modern film’s ass any day!