Friday, April 5, 2013

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (1941)
Dir George Waggner
Written by Curt Sidomak
Starring Claude Raines, Patrick Knowles, Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi “And Lon Chaney, Jr.”

Man, Chewie was kind of an asshole back in the day.

I would have sworn to you, sworn, that I had seen this one before somewhere back in the foggy haze of my distant past. I even saw Joe Johnson’s ill-conceived 2010 remake and felt confident enough that I has seen this one to criticize what I saw as major thematic deviations from the subtext of the original. But going back and watching Waggner’s 1941 version, now I’m not so sure I ever saw it. Maybe I just read so many summaries, allusions, and parodies as a kid obsessed with monsters that I got the false impression I’d actually seen the whole thing. Or maybe I’m just older now and different things stand out. Either way, this is a pretty great one, but also a surprisingly strange film.

The film begins by introducing us to Lon Chaney Jr, as affable lug Larry Talbot. He’s Welsh by birth, but every bit the bumbling, good-natured American in style, and somewhat bashful in the face of his imperious (but tiny) father Claude Raine’s European high culture opulence. He’s back home due to the untimely death of his brother (which interestingly we never hear much about since stoic Claude Raines doesn’t seem too torn up about it) but he doesn’t seem to have anything specific to do with his time except hang around his spartan childhood room. So he fills his time by trying to charm a pretty local girl (Evelyn Ankers) into going on a date with him. She’s engaged, but he’s lonely and his Dad is kind of shitty company, so he persists in trying to get her to come with him on a date. Chaney has a genuinely endearing aw-shucks nice guy quality, completely believable as the nice guy who never quite gets the girl but at least enjoys the chase. Even by 1941, audiences had surely seen enough movies to know that the arc here is that the good-hearted hero eventually wins the fair lady away from her asshole fiance who for some reason she never noticed is an asshole, because women are dumb.

That seems like where this is headed. In fact --despite all the exposition about the werewolf myth which seems to be the talk of the town despite the fact that ha ha, we all know that’s total superstitious nonsense-- there’s kind of a romantic comedy vibe going here. Larry and Pretty Local Girl (PLG) exchange banter, she rebuffs him but he persists, there’s a wacky misunderstanding where he explains that he’s been watching her dress through his dad’s gigantic telescope (Claude Raines is a man of science, long story). And finally she relents, she’ll go on a date with him if she can bring her boring friend. Next stop: montage-ville!

Take this plot device, it will contribute nothing.

Unfortunately, Larry is as bad at picking dating spots as he is at not being bitten by a werewolf (spoiler). His idea of a fun time is to go get their fortunes read by openly stereotypical gypsy Bela Lugosi, who has some werewolf problems of his own. Next thing you know, Larry saves PLG’s friend from a wolf attack, only to be bitten himself in the process. Uh oh.

What’s weird about all this is that it causes the movie to suddenly and radically change directions. The whole rest of the movie is about Larry wolfing out and slowly coming to understand exactly what’s happening to him. PLG doesn’t really show up again until the very end when wolfie tries to eat her and Larry’s diminutive asshole father has to step in and save the day. Meanwhile, Larry becomes a ineffectual victim, gradually realizing the truth but unable to do anything about it until someone else intervenes. There’s no question of burgeoning romance, no lesson to be learned, just suffering and eventual death for all concerned parties. It’s actually an insanely bleak story: our affable hero is turned into a brutal killer by means utterly beyond his control, lives just long enough to learn that his situation is completely hopeless, and has to be [SPOILER] put down by his distant, uncaring father simply to prevent him from harming the only other person who ever treated him decently so she can go on to marry some other dude. Jesus fucking Christ, no wonder the remake ended with a ludicrous werewolf-on-werewolf smackdown.

What strikes me as particularly odd for a film of this time period is the notable lack of moralizing. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of irony or justice in what happens to Larry, nor does it change him in any way (either for better or worse). Actually the whole film is completely lacking in character arcs, making it really inscrutable exactly how this scenario is meant to be interpreted. Is Larry being punished for wanting to bone some other dude’s fiance? Seems unlikely, since he’s portrayed quite sympathetically and in fact ends up bitten while heroically trying to save someone he’s just met. In fact, the old gypsy woman (a great Maria Ouspenskaya) eulogizes the werewolves’ passing with “...the way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own.”

The original grumpy cat.

Fair enough, so it’s not a tragic punishment. Is this supposed to be a parable about the capriciousness of fate, then? If so, it seems strange that this is never discussed or even acknowledged, nor does Larry seem to have much luck to begin with (even his wealth is an embarrassment for him, not an advantage). There may be an element of cruel fate here, though, because the fiance takes one look at Larry and gives PLG a concerned “There’s something very tragic about that man, and I’m sure nothing but harm will come to you through him.” He turns out to be correct, granted, but it seems like a kinda convenient thing to say about a guy hitting on his girlfriend.

In fact, the only thing that people seem interested in discussing about the werewolf myth is how it works as a psychological metaphor. People struggle to accept the savage nature of man and so invent myths to explain this duality of nature, explains Claude Raines. When Larry starts telling everyone he’s a werewolf, they brush him off and seem to imply that he’s delusionally trying to impose this legend on his life to help him deal with the very real trauma he experienced recently (“Most anything can happen to a man in his own mind,” his father tells him). Claude Raines, a man of science, scoffs at the very idea of werewolves, but explains how it makes a fitting folk explanation for lycanthropy and, importantly, as a symbolic means to help ignorant locals understand how killers can live amongst us, seemingly normal but occasionally possessed by a murderous side (“the dual personality in all of us,” says Raines). In fact the very first image of the film is an encyclopedia entry on Lycanthropy, which is specifically defined as “A disease of the mind.” Why so much talk about the legend and its place in modern science? I mean, not since season 6 of the X-Files has there been so much labored skepticism about something which we can all plainly see is obviously really happening, right?

If this ice was any drier it would be a Doonesbury punchline. Hey-o!

And that’s where things get sticky, because all this obviously begs the question about what actually is going on. Does 1941’s THE WOLF MAN understand how meta it is for a story about a wolf man to go on and on about what the story of the wolf man actually represents, but then also depict it as a literal true story about a wolf man? I’m tempted to say no, but there’s a small part of me which can’t help turning over the evidence that maybe Claude Raines is right, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

From the camera’s perspective, Larry’s story checks out. We see Bela exhibit signs of werewolvery, see Larry transform --hour upon hour of painstaking makeup-- and see him venture out into the night looking for victims in various remote, foggy soundstages. We see animal tracks turning into human tracks at his window. Seems kind of overwhelming. And yet, maybe there’s reason to doubt, too.

For one thing, the initial werewolf attack that gets Larry bitten is oddly coy for a movie which is literally called THE WOLF MAN. Most of it occurs behind a tree and in the shadows, but not only is the animal Larry fights clearly a wolf (or large dog) --and not any sort of wolf man-- but we also see a few frames which clearly depict Bela Lugosi, and not a dog or a man in makeup. Wha? Since when does being bitten by either a dog or a heroin-addled Hungarian ham result in a hybrid man/wolf killing machine?

But OK, maybe you can chalk that up to an odd artistic decision which was intended to create a perception, not be analyzed frame for frame on DVD. But that still leaves you with surprisingly little evidence that a transformation happens to Larry’s body and not just his mind. His victims are all alone when he sees them, and none of them says or does anything which would conclusively prove they’re seeing a wolfman. In fact, the only person who sees him as a wolf and comments on it is the old gypsy woman, who was already a believer and even seems to plant the seed in Larry’s mind as to what’s happening to him. While he’s unconscious, she transforms him temporarily back to a human, so that when a pair of hunters come across him moments later, they just see Larry. Is this starting to seem suspicious?

There, by tying you to this chair every time the moon is full, I'll prove you're not crazy!

There are other signs. Larry attributes his rapid healing to the supernatural power of being a werewolf. But wait, did anyone else even see his wounds? He comes in to the house claiming to have been bitten and covered in blood, so everyone believes his story. But the next day when they check, no wounds. Have they healed, or were they never there to begin with? If everyone is so certain that people have been dying in a series of animal attacks, why is the local constable clearly suspicious of Larry? What does he think is going on here?

There is one other person in the film who sees the werewolf: John Talbot, Larry’s father, who [SPOILERS] sees the wolf attacking PLG and bludgeons him to death at the film's end. Once wolfie is dead, though, he is amazed to watch the body transform from a wolf back into his son. Is this a physical transformation, though, or does it represent the process of Sir Talbot’s slow realization of what he’s done? After all, the whole movie is about Larry’s gradual realization about what he’s become -- maybe at the end his father finally gets to understand his son.

"Most anything can happen to a man in his own mind," right? Perhaps even a father who would rather see a ridiculous fairy tale (which he has already dismissed as bunk) than see the obvious truth which is right in front of him: his son has indeed become a monster, but the purely human kind. The veneer of the supernatural is actually a comforting lie both Talbots eventually tell themselves so they don't have to face the truth about their own inner darkness.

Obviously, this all requires a somewhat aggressively loose interpretation of a film which seems relatively straightforward on its surface. But consider: unlike Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, and so forth, the Wolf Man is one of the few Universal Monsters which does not have its roots in some discrete source of classic literature. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak (who, by the way, is the brother of classic Noir director Robert) had the leisure to make his own rules and tell the story at his own pace. It’s his choice to include so much dialogue about the legend itself, his choice to spend so much time with characters who eloquently argue against the exact story we’re watching play out. It’s also his choice to include other intriguing details (for instance, the idea --abandoned in other tellings-- that future werewolf victims are marked with a pentagram, a symbol of their fate which evokes the Nazi use of the Star of David as a marker of death) which at first seem to fold neatly into the story but later make you wonder if they’re reflections of external or internal reality. Certainly Siodmak --a Jew who fled Germany in 1937 after listening to one too many anti-semitic tirades-- probably knew all too well the horror that even being marked with an invisible star could bring. (UPDATE 10/1/2014: An interview with Siodmak from the 90's confirms that his original script left a lot more ambiguity about how much of this was real. It was changed at the behest of the studio suites who wanted a more concrete monster.)

Seriously, though, Claude Raines is like three feet tall. This frame is a LotR-style visual trick.

Whatever the truth, the thing that makes it worth discussing is that the movie (while narratively a little ambiguous) is full of classic sequences and about the most perfect example of the Universal Monsters gothic atmosphere as you can imagine. Foggy moors, gnarled tree roots, superstitious villagers, beautiful women screaming; this film’s got it all. And of course, Unlike WEREWOLF OF LONDON actor Henry Hull (who objected to having his face covered and hence had makeup designed to make him look like Tom Waits) Chaney’s wolfman makeup (by Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce, also the creator of Karloff's iconic Frankenstein look and numerous other classic horror films) is stunning even by today’s standards and earns every bit of its classic reputation, both in its technical creation and its design. But maybe the best measure of the film’s success is how thoroughly it has integrated itself into the common culture. This would be the template, and at the very least the inspiration, for virtually every other werewolf movie which would follow it, from CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON to THE HOWLING to GINGER SNAPS. Only George Romero’s reinvention of the zombie with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD can compete with Siodmak for creating wholesale a cultural icon which would go on to completely dominate and define the way we think about genres themselves, let alone movie monsters. For that alone --nevermind Chaney’s loveable performance, the poetic visual atmosphere, the spectacular makeup, the subtly mysterious themes and so forth-- this is definitely one for the record books. Ah-whooooo! I saw Lon Chaney Jr. walking with the queen, doing the werewolves of

He's the hairy-handed gent, that ran amok in Kent. Lately he's been overheard in Mayfair...

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