Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween Monster Memories: The Wolf Man

Every horror geek has one: the movie he or she can point to proudly and say, "This is it. This is the one. THIS is the movie that made me love horror movies." The movie might be an inarguable horror classic like The Exorcist or The Evil Dead; it might just as easily be a cheesetastic throwaway like Ghoulies or The Howling 3: The Marsupials. Many disparate factors come into play, all bearing an influence on the horror fan's experience of the movie and its ongoing effect on his or her movie-watching life. How old were you when you saw it? Who were you with? What was going on in your life that made the flick speak to you in a way others didn't? What did it tap into in your psyche in order to cement itself so indelibly in your brain, and weave itself into the development of your very personality?

I was six years old, maybe seven. I was with my older brother, Ronnie, a voracious fan of old movies of every genre: musicals, noir, romantic comedies, period pieces, and yes, horrors. Because I idolized him in the all-consuming hero-worshiping manner that is perhaps unique to younger brothers and their older same-gendered siblings, I too developed an interest in the black-and-white flickers that occasionally graced our tiny television screen. It made me feel older, more mature, more knowledgeable--more like him. I don't remember what time of year it was, but I like to think it was autumn, almost Halloween, and we'd stayed up late on a Friday night to watch the Creature Feature and get in the spirit of the season. Drinking chocolate milk, eating popcorn, basking in both the cold silver glow of the television screen and my brother's warm affection and camaraderie, I saw for the first time the movie that would turn me into the horror fan I am today.

No points for guessing, especially since I've already given it away. Of course the flick was, and is, and will continue to be as long as I draw breath: Universal's 1941 werewolf classic, The Wolf Man.

Original (Awesome) Poster Art

I've seen the movie so many times since--it's easily the movie I've watched more times than any other, ever--it's difficult for me to recall my exact feelings as a small child, watching for the very first time. Later life experiences and feelings get all jumbled up with it; the movie is so much a part of my life, of my being, that it's hard to recall a time when it was new. I know I was fascinated by Jack Pierce's amazing make-up; I was chilled by the fog-shrouded moors, the exotic carnivale of the gypsy camp. I was moved even then by the tragedy that befell Larry Talbot, a good man cursed for no grievous fault of his own, punished for doing what he thought was the right thing. His subsequent ostracism, his disbelieving family, the final heartbreaking tragedy of his death at the hands of his own father--heady stuff for a grade-schooler, perhaps, but it stuck. I was hooked.

In the subsequent years I scoured library books for information on the movie--how the transformation was accomplished, the biographies of the stars, the ins and outs of the story. In this way I learned about the other Universal classics, and started scouring the TV guide every week in the hopes that one would be shown on my local affiliate. When it did, I planned my whole week around it, taking naps so I could stay awake late, reading up on the night's offering. My older brother indulged me, agreeing to stay up with me while my parents slept, cementing our movie-loving bond.

Of course over time we drifted apart--our ages and differing school experiences ensured that--but I kept going back to horror movies, the classics as well as the new, eventually including poetry and literature in my obsession, furtive attempts to create my own tales of terror, my development into an all-out horror geek. But every time The Wolf Man rescreened, Ronnie stayed up with me again; maybe because he just liked it, or maybe because he sensed, even then, how important it was to me, how wrapped up the film was in our brotherly relationship.

"Her THROAT, Lon! Keep your eyes on her THROAT!"

And now, the requisite recap: prodigal son Lawrence "Larry" Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his rural Welsh home-village after an absence of many, many years. The reason for his return: his twin brother John (seen only as a portrait) has been killed in a hunting accident. Now the sole heir of the estimable Talbot estate, Larry tries to reconnect with his stuffy, undemonstrative father Sir John (the incomparable Claude Rains) and an aristocratic lifestyle he barely remembers.

It took me years to realize it, but it's easy to see now how Larry Talbot is a character smothered in tragedy from the very beginning. It's clear from his wounded expression and childish deference in the presence of Sir John that Larry feels himself somewhat less than his heritage. The expression on Chaney's face as he regards the huge portrait of his dead brother--the good brother, the one who stayed, the one who spent all those years in his father's confidence--speaks volumes. He wants desperately to measure up to John, who was after all his father's namesake and most favored son; however, you can also tell he doesn't believe he can ever do so. After all, as James Joyce and others have artfully reminded us, no one can live up to the perfected memory of the beloved dead.

Larry Talbot, desperate for his father's approval

Despite Sir John's insistence that he wants to bridge the gap between himself and his youngest son (it's never spelled out, but I always read an Esau/Jacob-type analogy here, picturing Larry having been born just minutes too late to ever claim favored-heir status), it's clear that the old man is unused to displaying affection, and as the movie goes on he proves himself incredibly bad at the enterprise. Rains is not a tall actor--certainly nowhere near Lon Chaney Jr.'s imposing physicality--but it's a testament to both actors' abilities that in their scenes together, Rains seems to tower over the younger man. Sir John is dominant and strong, Larry cowed and deferential. This is a relationship based in respect, admiration, and fear--and very little of what might be called love. One can't help thinking Chaney's own famous discomfort living in his famous and universally revered father's shadow helped inform his performance.

(I think it's significant that Larry's brother shares Sir John's name; another mark of favored status that clearly informs Larry's feelings.* Also, the boys' mother is never mentioned; one presumes from the family dynamic that she must have died when they were young, leaving Sir John the sole caretaker--another thread in the rich tapestry of tragedy that is Larry Talbot's character.)

*Nota bene: my brother Ronnie also shares our father's first name. Coincidence?

"I don't care if you were genetically identical: John was still handsomer than you!"

Larry is delighted when he can make himself useful to his father by calling on his considerable mechanical skills to install a new lens in the telescope in the manor's observatory. While adjusting the lens, Larry happens to glimpse local beauty Gwen Conliffe (the beautiful and talented Evelyn Ankers, who would be a frequent costar of Chaney's throughout the rest of their careers) in the window of her father's antique shop. Showing the first indication of a probably-innocent but nonetheless worrisome problem with personal boundaries, Larry heads down to the shop and impresses the girl with his "psychic" knowledge of the earrings she'd been wearing in her bedroom. Laying on the that old American stalker-charm thick and heavy, Larry buys a silver-topped cane from Gwen and gets his first exposure to the local legend of the werewolf, as Gwen recites the now legendary refrain:
"Even a man who is pure at heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
And the Autumn moon is bright."
Even though the poem was created out of whole cloth by screenwriter and later sci-fi novelist Curt Siodmak, it has had such staying power that it's almost become an accepted part of the werewolf mythology. It probably helps that in the span of about fifteen minutes it's recited several more times by just about every character in the movie--but that's okay, don't mind the repetition: this shit is IMPORTANT.

"Boy, with this, pimping will be EASY!"

Not taking no for an answer, Larry nearly bullies Gwen into a date that night to go to the gypsy carnival that's rolling through town and have their fortunes told. Of course Gwen could have said no, but she doesn't--she shows up outside the shop right on time, wearing the earrings he liked. (Our grandparents were much more accepting of stalkerism-as-courtship than later generations, apparently.) She's not a complete trollop, however, and surprises Larry with a third wheel/chaperon, her good friend Jenny (Fay Helm), who also wants to get her fortune told. Larry takes it in stride and goes to the carnival with a girl on each arm and his pimp cane in hand, a true playa.

At the carnival we meet Bela the Gypsy, a wonderful short performance by Bela the Lugosi. Marked with the pentagram, the sign of the werewolf, Bela sees the same sign in Jenny's palm, which marks her as his next victim. (Twisting the knife, Jenny twitters excitedly with questions like "Who will I marry?" while Bela sees the terrible truth, the tears running to their predestined end; another infusement of tragedy in a movie already sopping with it.) The girl runs away in horror while Bela looks balefully at the moon--which you'd think he'd have known would be full that night and taken steps to avoid, but let's not split hairs.

"I zese flowers. My mozzer......vill explain..."
(thanks to Doomed Moviethon!)

Meanwhile Larry is out on the moors further invading Gwen's personal space. They stop by an old gnarled tree in the fog, and Chaney looms over Ankers, smiling and friendly, but a bit *too* close. Again, I tend to think this is highlight Larry's physicality--the way he towers over her, the way she draws back from him, half coquettishly and half fearfully, will be repeated later much more horrifically. Still, I never get the sense that Larry means any intimidation or harm--he's a big guy, an open guy, a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, and he likes her. She reacts to this--despite being engaged to local wet sock Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles), and they're about to kiss when tragedy strikes.

The wolf is at prowl on the Welsh moors, and Jenny lets loose a bloodcurdling scream as it attacks. Being a strong, upright, heroic sort, Larry immediately rushes to her aid, beating the carnivorous canine to death with his silver cane, but not before being horribly bitten by the beast. He's too late to save Jenny, however, and soon collapses in Gwen's arms.

Larry receives his destiny

Of course the wolf was Bela, and because he survived the attack Larry has inherited the curse of the werewolf. For the next several nights he prowls the moors in half-man, half-wolf shape, killing off villagers and confusing the police. When Larry learns the awful truth from Maleva the Gypsy Woman (Maria Ouspenskaya), he starts to fear he's going mad. When he tells Sir John his fears, the old man shames him for believing such nonsense, and pretty much tells him to buck up and be a man. Of course this tough love leads to a tragedy that Larry has hardly earned. And thus, the definitive werewolf movie was born.

(Wolf Man is not the first Universal werewolf movie of course--that distinction belongs to Werewolf of London (1935), a talky, unexciting flick in which Henry Hull plays a snobby upper-class twit who gets the werewolf bug and needs a rare flower to cure himself; for my money the flick is notable mainly for the makeup that would later inspire the look of TV's Eddie Munster.)

It's my considered opinion that a lot of what's wrong with modern horror movies that use old school monsters is that the filmmakers often don't stop to consider just what it is that makes the monster scary. For instance, sure it's scary to think a zombie or ghoul might jump up and start chewing on your arms, but it's even scarier to think that zombie might be your brother, your mom, or your husband or wife, their personalities obliterated by the monsters they've become. What's more frightening: the hordes of faceless zombies attacking the Monroeville mall, or Barbara getting dragged out the door by her no-longer human brother? It's that loss of personality, of individuality, of humanity that I would argue is the real terror of the zombie, over and above any flesh-eating. (And if you go back to voodoo zombies, the extra terror of being made to continue a slave even after the promised respite of death.)

He didn't wanna do it, he didn't wanna do it...

I think one reason there have been so few really good werewolf movies is that filmmakers get all caught up in the "Oh, the wolf is coming to get you!" and forget the real horror of the werewolf legend--which is of course not that you'll be killed by the werewolf, but that you'll BECOME HIM. Larry Talbot is a good man, a loving man, a sensitive man--he wants to be accepted and loved by his father, by Gwen; he wants to do good things and help people. And yet he knows that every full moon he will go out and kill some innocent, and there's nothing he can do to stop it--he is tortured by this knowledge, and by the added knife-twist that in trying to prevent it, he's convinced those very loved ones that he is insane. Morally, emotionally, and physically--and through absolutely no fault of his own--Larry Talbot is a soul in the depths of the cruelest hell. THAT is what's scary.

I'll be the first to admit that Lon Chaney Jr. was not the most talented actor ever to strut across the screen, but he had a sweet spot, a certain type of role that was right in his limited range and that he could consistently take out of the park: the strong but vulnerable galoot, big-hearted and barrel-chested, but emotionally fragile and easily hurt. Chaney could get into such a character fully, use his expressively tragic face and imposing physicality to play the contradictions off one another and make them work. He got raves for his performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939) for just this ability. Larry Talbot is right there in that sweet spot, and Chaney totally nails it.

Hetero as Fuck: Chaney with Burgess Meredith in Of Mice and Men.

Over the years I've noticed more and more nuances to Chaney's performance that keep amazing me at his ability (or else the direction of George Waggner). For instance, while Larry Talbot is a sensitive soul, there are scenes that hint at a suppressed violent streak he must struggle to keep in check. For instance, when he confronts the gossips in Conliffe's antique shop, or when he snaps at the police for their disbelief. The idea that the werewolf frees this animalistic streak in a way the conscious Larry would never allow is an intriguing one to me.

It seems almost redundant to talk about Jack Pierce's amazing makeup at this point, but let's be honest here--the Wolf Man is absolutely iconic. Pierce famously attached small tufts of yak hair to Chaney's face bit by bit over the course of hours in order to achieve the famous effect. As good as it is, Chaney further sells it by becoming the hunched, beastly killer as he stalked the moors, growling and snarling, ripping and tearing, the destructive death instinct unleashed.

"Don't talk back."

I won't claim that The Wolf Man is a perfect movie--it has some continuity and pacing problems, and probably could have got to the point a little quicker--but it never fails to thrill me, and I literally mist up every time when Larry begs his father to take the silver cane, almost as if he knows it will be the instrument of his death. I guess there are just some movies a person can't talk about in an unbiased way, so I'm not even going to try. I love it, every single bit.

(There are also those who scoff at the fact that, with the exception of Sir John and a couple of supporting characters, everyone in the Welsh highlands seems to have an American accent. To those people for whom this impairs the enjoyment of the flick and the ability to suspend disbelief, allow me to take this opportunity to say: fuck you.)

Chaney went on to portray Larry Talbot in four more films, all of which teamed his Wolf Man with other monsters in the Universal stable. My favorite of the horror entries is Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which is Universal's first Monster Mash. More a Wolf Man movie than a Frankenstein movie, in this one Larry is resurrected by graverobbers who open his crypt on the night of the full moon. Fearing that he is immortal and thus doomed to his hell forever, Talbot seeks out the secrets of Dr. Frankenstein in order to achieve not life, but the sweet release of death. Chaney gets to do a lot more leaping and fighting in this one--not only in wolf form, but also getting very rough with some hospital orderlies. He manages to resurrect and befriend the Frankenstein Monster (played here by the 60-year-old Bela Lugosi), which sets up the titular battle in the film's wild last few minutes.

"A pleasure, I'm sure."

FMtWM is a lot more action-packed than its predecessor, and has some truly wild scenes--chief among them the one where the Monster crashes the local festival of the New Wine, leading Larry to steal a cart and whisk them both back to the castle, the Monster kicking barrels out the back Donkey Kong-style to deter the villagers' pursuit! It's little wonder that this movie inspired a young Jacinto Molina to devote his creative life to exactly the type of monster mashes depicted here, or to take on the curse himself as Paul Naschy. In fact, rewatching the movie recently, I was struck by how it is TOTALLY the template for nearly all of Naschy's output, or at least the ones involving multiple monsters. Check it out and see if I'm wrong, Naschy fans!

The next two monster mashes, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, suffered from the law of diminishing returns, but the farewell performance of all the monsters in the comedy classic Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein more than makes up for it. It's a near perfect horror-comedy in my book, as the monsters themselves are never played for laughs, only Lou and Bud's reactions to them. Chaney also shows some talent as the straight man to Lou's jokes, particularly in the immortal scene in which he tries to get the chubby comic to understand his curse.
Larry: "You don't understand--when the moon comes up tonight, I'll become a wolf!"
Lou: "You and three million other guys!"
The Wolf Man stalks Lou Costello.
True story: the Vicarious Dad claims that as a tender youth watching this flick at the nickel matinee, this scene scared him so badly he had to leave the theater. And walk home. Barefoot. Uphill. In the snow.

I've gone on a long time here, and could go on even longer--I could consider the tragic end of Chaney's career and life, the movies that came after (American Werewolf in London is, in my opinion, a full-on remake/reimagining of The Wolf Man, in tone at least), the fact that in early drafts Siodmak had never intended for the werewolf's face to be shown (leaving the door open for a psychological explanation for Larry's "curse") and how my love of it has complicated relationships and ostracized friends, but perhaps I'll save that for another time. The Wolf Man is my favorite horror movie, the one that made me love horror movies, the one that made me the fan I am today. Thank you Lon, thanks Claude, thanks Jack and George and Mr. Laemmle.

But most of all: thanks, Ronnie. I love you.

My Next Tattoo. Seriously.


Samuel Wilson said...

That's a fine piece of writing, and I agree that Wolf Man is a film that reveals more of itself over time and multiple viewings. For my part, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is probably the first horror movie, or at least the first Universal horror, that I saw as a child, and the opening business of Talbot coming back to life in the mausoleum has always been a special moment for me. Happy Halloween

The Duke of DVD said...

A masterful write-up, sir! The Wolf Man was very influential for me, as well. Everything about it just oozes craft and dedication. Bravo sir!

Love that Costello screencap!

Anonymous said...

Hats off to you, Vicar! And a laudable choice of topic. I'm sure many of your readers share similar memories of their favorite Universal classic monster -- and point to those memories as the dawning of their fondness for horror films.
For me, it was Frankenstein and Boris Karloff. Although these days I prefer the more "adult" Hammer and other Euro-horror interpretations, I'll always remember with great affection where it all came from.
Thank you, and Happy Halloween!

Gargantuan Media said...

Good article. There's something in these classics that comes from the heart (yuk yuk) - it's usually covered in fur or scales but it's enough to keep us horror audiences coming back for more.

For me, the sequel to the original Creature From the Black Lagoon - the Creature's Revenge was what got it's bony Z-grade hooks into me as a kid. It was a midnight movie and I had my own horror hostess. I credit this as beginning my own love of bad movies and bad girls.

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