Sunday, October 18, 2009

Duel Reviews - "The Wolf Man" (1941)

Robby: For our next duel review, Bryce and I will be reviewing one of my favorite films: "The Wolf Man". 

"The Wolf Man" is a "fang"tastic horror film with characters you really care about. Just look at the cast list! Claude Rains, Patrick Knowles, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskya, Evelyn Ankers, and of course Lon Chaney, Jr. How could you not like these characters? Besides Lon Chaney, Jr.'s role in "Of Mice and Men", this is his finest acting performance. You really sympathize with Chaney as Talbot. The film begins with Chaney as a happy go lucky guy, as he tries to win the love of Evelyn Ankers. After Chaney is bit by the werewolf, he falls into a deep depression. His eyes say it all. By the end of the film, you really feel bad for Chaney. Even though he is a monster, he is also the hero of the film. Lon Chaney's lycanthropy in the film is actually a very realistic and personal parallel to the life of the troubled actor himself. Lon Chaney suffered from alcoholism. When sober, Chaney was the nicest man. When under the influence, Chaney could be a horror to be around. 

Bryce: I was actually really looking forward to revisiting this one. From a young age I was a huge horror buff, but I also had fairly protective parents so the ratio of horror movies I was actually able to see rather then fantasize about was quite low. For whatever reason the original Wolf Man was one of the few that was deemed suitable, and so the VHS copy the library had got worn out thanks to my dozens of repeat watches (For some reason the cover of this copy was dominated by a picture of Gene Shallit which was infinitely more terrifying then anything in the movie). Still once I got my own damn Video store account and started to branch out a bit, I stopped revisiting The Wolfman, and it’s probably been over ten years since I’ve seen it. So I was primed. 

It’s great revisiting a film you’ve forgotten about (I didn’t even know Lugosi was in this) and The Wolfman didn’t disappoint, a great example of old school craft. Still out of the big three of universal monsters I have to judge this movie the weakest. While George Waggner does a fine job directing the film, he’s just not the borderline insane visionary genius that James Whale and Tod Browning where. Same goes for the leading man, Lon Chaney Jr. does a decent job, but compared to Lugosi and Karloff, he just doesn’t match up. Still when judged on it’s own merits, The Wolf Man’s a great slice of universal horror, who could ask for anything more? 

Robby: I disagree with your point that "The Wolf Man" is the weakest out of the big three monsters. True it is no "Frankenstein", but I think it is much better than "Dracula". "Dracula" is great and one of the most important horror films, but it has its problems. The film takes a huge downward spiral after the first 15 minutes. I'll review "Dracula" more another time. 

I do agree with you on Lon Chaney, Jr.'s acting. He is great in this role, but he is no Karloff or Lugosi. He can't compete. 

Another thing I want to mention about "The Wolf Man" is the great musical score my Hans Salter. It has a very distinctive three note theme that is very memorable. Hans Salter did nearly all the Universal Monster films in the 1940s, but "The Wolf Man" is by far his best. 

But what made "The Wolf Man" a success was the incredible make of Jack Pierce. Pierce's first attempt at a werewolf make-up was in "Werewolf of London", which came out six years before "The Wolf Man". Pierce originally had plans to do a make-up much more like the Wolf Man's, but Henry Hull, who played the werewolf, could not stand that much make-up. Fortunately Lon Chaney, Jr. did not mind it. The make-up is one of Pierce's best. Pierce did an even better job with the make-up in the sequel: "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man". 

Bryce: Pierces’ designs are great. I’ve heard that the film was originally supposed to be more of a Val Lewton like movie, where you never saw knew for sure whether or not Chaney was really changing. Do you know? Salter’s score is also top notch, reminds me of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme in some places (Dun dun dun duuhhhh dun) 

I still really like Chaney I just can’t help but imagine his father in the roll. The whole film is really cast perfectly. Claude Rains is great playing every scene with just a hint of an aristocratic sneer. What Chaney lacks in his father’s subtlety and grace he makes up for with his size. Even before he’s cursed he’s a huge beast of a man towing over his father in a way that’s almost comical. He LOOKS like the kind of guy who could club a wolf’s brains in. You bring up an interesting point with his alcholism, he plays the morning after his first transformation, like a man waking up after a black out drunk. Lugosi makes the most of his cameo role as the original Wolfman. He’s only on screen for about a minute, but manages to invest his character with a real sense of tragedy. 

Robby: Yes all of the acting is excellent and lets not forget about Maria Ouspenskya as Maleva the old gypsy woman. She was perfect and this became her signature role. 

"The Wolf Man" remains a classic of horror and for good reason. Universal will be releasing a remake soon with Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. I'm a little suspicious about that one, however... 

If you have not seen "The Wolf Man" do yourself a favor and watch it. Watch it at night under the full of the moon. And remember: 

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. 

Bryce: Yeah I was excited about that one until it became a synonym with disastrous production. Let's face it good Werewolf movies are few and far between, and The Wolf Man deserves its classic status.

Visit Bryce's blog at: Things That Don't Suck.

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