Do you dare enter the lycanthropic steel cage match between THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE WOLF MAN?! Two seemingly normal men will enter but under the light of a pale full moon, both will undergo a hideous transformation into snarling man-beasts, seized with an uncontrollable blood lust! Price of Admission? Your soul!
Sitting snugly in our seats, seemingly protected from the lupine fiends ready to rend the flesh from one another in a torrent of rage, let us consider “the why and how” of this epic battle.
Reboots and remakes of classic films are nothing new under the sun. Yet, the very first Universal horror film to delve into the horrors of lycanthropy was not THE WOLF MAN but THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON in 1935. The grimy back streets of a soot ridden London torn apart by a hairy fiend ultimately launched the werewolf movie phenomenon and set in motion the werewolf mythos for all the ages.
Desperate to add another monster to create a trinity of terror after FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON actually takes its cues from director Rouben Mamoulian’s version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE. Starring romantic leading man Frederic March garnered an Oscar for his dual role.
The pre-code flick is lurid, sexually wanton and violent with shocking makeup effects. Hyde appears as a Neanderthal brute whose repugnant sexual desires lead to vicious murders. The cause of his affliction is a concoction whipped up in his lab to split apart the duality of man into separate entities and Jekyll succeeds beyond his wildest dreams!
In WEREWOLF OF LONDON, a repressed botanist Dr. Glendon (Henry Hull) is in Tibet searching for a rare flower, the mariphasa lumina lupina, which blooms only under the moonlight. Entering a forbidden valley purportedly guarded by demons, he is suddenly jumped by a vicious man-like beast that bites, claws and scratches Dr. Glendon before it scampers off howling into the unholy night.
Back in jolly old England, the austere Dr. Glendon shows no effects from the Tibetan attack. Ignoring his wife and social life, he probes the mysteries of the moon flower in a home-grown lab that Henry Frankenstein would feel right at home in — electricity crackles from Tesla Coils and a colossal Art Deco Klieg light that will soon replicate the vagaries of lunar luminescence.
The somber doc is soon disturbed by an uninvited guest to his scientific domicile — the enigmatic Dr. Yogami (Warner Oaland best known for playing Charlie Chan). Yogami covets the mariphasa, and for good reason. He claims two cases of werewolfry may be afoot in London and the moon plant is the only antidote.
“The werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a satanic creature with the worst qualities of both,” Yogami explains, adding that the mark of the beast-man is passed on from the bite of another werewolf. Scoffing at Yogami’s “medieval unpleasantness,” the botanist refuses to share a bud or two with the Easterner and has him bodily removed.
Meanwhile at a garden party, the stiff-necked doc’s wife (Valerie Hobson) is playing footsies with an old lover foreshadowing a future domestic dispute by way of Oscar Wilde: “Yet, each man kills the thing he loves.”
Despite the doc’s newfangled televisor security system, the wily Yogami sneaks back into the lab and snips two of the moon flower’s buds to prevent himself from transforming.
As the full moon rises, a deeply disturbed Dr. Glendon sits in his study with a cat napping nearby. Suddenly, the feline begins to hiss and shriek in abject terror as Karl Lajos’ score crescendos. Gripped by the sudden transformation, Glendon staggers out in the courtyard. In an amazing feat of cinematic legerdemain, the camera tracks Glendon as he moves past stone pillars and in a seeming single shot… he changes. Teeth become fangs! Fingers become claws! Man turns into beast! The first full-fledged werewolf in movie history is on the loose!
Universal’s make up maestro Jack Pierce had originally designed a makeup that resembled his later creation THE WOLF MAN, but Hull insisted that he be recognizable as the monster. Hull went over the heads of both the director and producer for a showdown with Universal boss Carl Laemmle to get his way. His features are recognizable but as a satanic hellhound-human hybrid.
As the moon rises the next night, Glendon dons cap, scarf and coat during the next transformation and goes slumming in the fog strewn slums of London — howling and baying as he unleashes a reign of murderous terror.
Locking himself away to no avail, Glendon begs, “Oh God — don’t let this happen to me!” but he once again becomes the blasphemous beast. Stalking a couple, he comes face to face with a brother wolf at the zoo, frees it and promptly kills the girl.
After being denied by the police to seize the mariphasa, Yogami breaks into Glendon’s lab (again) only to be confronted by the werewolf-in-progress who savagely rips him to shreds!
As Were-Glendon leaps up the stairs to kill the missus, Scotland Yard shows up in the nick of time to put a plain old slug in the depraved manster. In the Universal tradition, as he lies dying, he reverts to human, asking for forgiveness.
While THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON is a taut, memorable thriller with imaginative moments, ultimately the audience doesn’t identify with his plight. Unlike Colin Clive’s FRANKENSTEIN, Henry Hull’s Dr. Glendon seems unsympathetic and standoffish. He’s best when he’s “under the influence” — capering, leaping, peering through keyholes, smashing through windows and letting loose unnerving howls.
But with THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON underperforming at the box office, Universal played it safe with money-making FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA sequels until Lon Chaney, Jr. finally lumbered onto the screen in the star-making vehicle THE WOLF MAN (1941).
From his first appearance in the film, the melancholic Chaney’s portrayal of the doomed Larry Talbot firmly enshrined him in the pantheon of horror greats.
Imaginatively scripted by Curt Sidomak, THE WOLF MAN establishes all the genre conventions for all the lycanthropic terror to follow. Reimagining the traditional plot of Greek Tragedy of a doomed hero cursed by the gods who is sent to a predestined death, coupled with the transformative nightmare of puberty, Sidomak literally wrote the play book for all the werewolf films to follow — be it SHE WOLF of LONDON (June Lockhart!), I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (Michael Landon!) or AN AMERICAN WERWOLF IN LONDON (John Landis!). They all followed the rules of the game as set forth in cinematic stone by THE WOLF MAN.
None of the supposed folklore was based on any known legends, but was typed out word-by-word by the visionary writer. Even the so-called classic lore recited by no less than three characters in the movie comes from the mind of Siodmak, who invented the adage, “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.”
The slick production by producer/director George Waggner is laden with doom and gloom right from the onset. On hand to pass down the mantle of Horror King is DRACULA himself, Bela Lugosi, who takes a bite out of Lon — turning him not into vampire but the titular lupine terror. That old gypsy son-of-a-bat was a werewolf himself! Bela is barely onscreen for five minutes before setting the tragedy in motion. For his troubles, he is promptly killed by Chaney with a silver wolf-head cane.
Under investigation for the murder, Chaney claimed he killed a wolf, not Bela. The ultimate outsider in his own home faces disdain, disbelief and ridicule — from not only the police, but his own father (Claude Rains, THE INVISIBLE MAN). When Chaney’s wolf-bite wound mysteriously disappears, the family doc thinks Lon might be more than a bit balmy. The woozy Talbot may be cracking under the stress, susceptible to the old gypsy woman’s hypnotic influence.
As the full moon rises, Chaney finally transforms, and it is here that Jack Pierce’s makeup mastery is unveiled as the furry fury roams the moors in search of prey. Chaney’s features are all but unrecognizable beneath the fearsome façade; stalking on tippy-toes through the murky Universal backlot, the Wolf Man is the embodiment of pure unadulterated Id: the beast within unleashed.
To undergo the rigorous makeup transformation, Chaney’s hands were kept in place by a series of nails hammered into the wooden makeup chair as registration marks. Wolfen appliances and yak fur were applied step by arduous step to Chaney, and shown onscreen in a series of quick camera dissolves.
Reawakening from his moonlighting menace, Chaney’s daytime is not without strife either; the girl he loves, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), is engaged to a taciturn game warden with feudal issues, the family doc wants him committed and the local cops want him cuffed.
After Lon tells him he’s a werewolf, an incredulous Rains — hoping to cure his son of the delusion — straps Chaney to a chair in a locked room. That doesn’t hold Chaney long, as he soon metamorphoses, leaping onto the moors to hunt his predestined victim: the lovely Gwen.
As the Wolf Man brutally attacks his beloved, Rains brandishes Lon’s silver walking stick, delivering a fatal blow to his trans-species son. Dying, Lon is a man-wolf no more.
“The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over… now you will find peace,” the old gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya) intones as the monster slowly dissolves back into Talbot.
But there was no rest for Lon Chaney as THE WOLF MAN was a smash hit! Chaney then played the doomed Talbot in all of his subsequent screen appearances — FRANKENSEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF DRACULA, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. THE WOLF MAN’s bombshell success quickly spawned a lycanthropic cottage industry of wanna-be wolfies, but only Chaney rose above his hairy heirs to become legend.
Deservedly, both THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE WOLF MAN inspired a lycanthropic anthem for the ages. Here to close out tonight’s horrorshow smackdown — the one and only Warren Zevon!
Arrrrooooooooooooooooooooooo… “Werewolves of London!”