Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Werewolf of London

Werewolf of London (1935)
Dir. Stuart Walker
Written by Robert Harris (Story) John Colton (Screenplay)
Starring Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson

This movie opens with an intrepid, Indian-Jones style botanist braving the dangers of cursed and forbidden valleys in the Orient and whatnot in search of a unique flower which he plans to clip and take back to England and grow in his greenhouse. When he gets attacked and mauled by a man-sized hairy monster, he basically just walks it off, just one more inconvenience in the adventurous life of a professional botanist. So far this Chainsawnukah I’ve learned the evils of Entomology and Egyptology, but damn, Botanists are hardcore as shit. You think they’re just fussy professional gardeners with their greenhouses and flowerphilia, but man, at least back in the day they were a bunch of globe-trotting wolf-punching don’t-give-a-fuck hardasses. Yet again it seems my high school career counselor let me down. Now I just need a horror movie to teach me that Geologists are all Satan worshipping baby-eaters or whatever and I’ll be set to go back to college and pick a better major.

Anyway, in the field Dr. Wilfred Glendon (veteran character actor Henry Hull), is pretty much king shit of fuck mountain, but at home not so much. His beautiful new bride (Valerie Hobson, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) is a very sweet and understanding lady, but Glendon is having a hard time transitioning from his reclusive bachelor ways. He keeps leaving his poor wife alone all day and night while he obsessively tries different lighting arrangements for his newly acquired flowers. He clearly loves her, but his work is getting in the way of him being a good husband. And this is made much worse when her handsome childhood sweetheart (Lester Matthews, JUNGLE JIM IN THE FORBIDDEN LAND?) shows up and starts dropping broad hints that if only he’d asked her first dot dot dot. While Glendon is occupied with his new flowers, the guy is showing his wife a great time out on the town, which would be pretty dickish except that pretty much everyone in this situation (including Glendon) can’t help but notice that, shit, this guy really is clearly a much more suitable partner for the gal in question.

Cue "Three is the Magic Number"

Man, can’t everyone relate to that scenario on some level? You’re trying as hard as you can to be the person you want to be, and then someone else comes along who’s just so obviously superior to you that just logically you ought to give in and hand over the reigns for whatever you’re doing. But fuck logic, you want it anyway, you fight it. But then you feel like a fraud for trying to cling onto something that you never really deserved but can’t let go of. That’s kinda the emotional core here; Glendon knows he’s not much of a husband, but what is he gonna do, just tell his wife (the only person he seems even remotely close to) that she obviously made a bad call in marrying him and ought to give up and go back to her old sweetheart? That’s some pretty painful shit. It turns ya inside out, exposes all your deepest insecurities and fears of your own worst qualities and most shameful failings. What could be more emotionally devastating than having fate push you into unavoidable comparison with someone who is simply and objectively better, especially when the comparison can’t possibly be missed by the one person you care about most?

Oh also he becomes a wolf man, I don’t think I mentioned that earlier so there ya go. Way to fuckin’ kick this guy while he’s down.

Fun fact: legendary Blues guitarist Howlin' Wolf was a lot scarier in person.

This was the first major werewolf motion picture ever made, and so there’s still a lot of that tweaking with the formula that you’d see in THE WOLF MAN six years later. The basic rules get retained: getting bitten by a wolf turns you, and the full moon brings out the beast. But there’s some other more unique stuff here, which wouldn’t persist further in the popular image of film lycanthropy; turns out those flowers Glendon lifted from Asia are the only magic/medicine* which can offer the burgeoning wolfman some respite and prevent a transformation. Unfortunately that’s all they do; they can’t cure the condition, just avert it for one night. And also, there’s only three of them in the entire Western hemisphere (the best hemisphere), and they’re all in Glendon’s growhouse. Oh, and there’s another werewolf around who’d really like to get in on that not-being-a-werewolf flower power action -- one Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland, from the Charlie Chan films). Interestingly, Yogami’s not a real bad guy either; he’s in the same unfortunate spot as Glendon, but their rivalry over the rare flowers makes them enemies and brings out the worst in both of them. Actually, come to think of it this conflict fits nicely with Glendon’s marital problems, too. He’s competing with another, arguably more deserving dude for both great loves of his life: his wife and his fancy Asian flowers.

It’s an interesting dynamic, and for my money actually makes for a more compelling narrative than THE WOLF MAN, where Lon Chaney is more or less a totally undeserving victim who gets his life ruined for no reason. Here, Glendon isn’t at fault for his condition, but has a lot stronger conflict over how he deals with it, becoming increasingly self-serving in his frantic effort to protect himself from discovery. Simply put, there’s a much clearer conflict here than WOLF MAN has, and it gives the whole enterprise a focus which is easier to feel invested in.

The one thing WEREWOLF OF LONDON kinda fumbles is the actual characterization of the wolf himself. First of all, Hull wasn’t about to spend hours on end with legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce while they painstakingly built up makeup layers, so they had to go with a slightly less exaggerated wolf face that ends up making him look like Tom Waits. Not a bad thing, exactly: the makeup looks cool even if it's not as exaggerated as Chaney's classic wolf man (also created by Pierce, interestingly from a design that he created but didn't get to use on this movie), and it has that fabulous widow’s peak that Pierce loved so much. But the problem is the movie doesn’t do a very good job articulating how much of Glendon is left while he’s wolfing out. He doesn’t seem to have much memory or control of his wolfman actions, but he’s not exactly pure animal either; he puts on a hat, scarf and coat before he leaves the house. In my opinion, werewolf movies got a lot better after the wolfmen stopped devoting so much attention to fashion. In fact, this iteration of the wolfman seems suspiciously similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the werewolf a meaner but recognizably human intelligence that Glendon simply has no control over.**

Remember that time Liam Neeson punched that wolf? This is why he deserved it.

I feel like writers Harris and Colton hadn’t quite got a handle on what the concept of Lycanthropy represented yet. Werewolf tales were nothing new even then (in fact, the characters in the movie are surprisingly quick to jump to the perhaps logically dubious conclusion that werewolves are involved***) but I don’t think they necessarily thought through why the trope has remained such a compelling one. The most effective movie monsters don’t just threaten us physically, they’re also strongly symbolic of deep-seated psychological anxieties about the world and about ourselves. Vampires represent insatiable rapaciousness and sexual desire; Frankenstein represents the arrogance of irresponsible science and the fear of identity loss. Romero had zombies represent our mindless consumerism, other directors have simply had them represent the inexorable relentlessness of mortality. Obviously, it's not always a perfectly clear one-to-one symbolism, but the best uses of these ancient tropes have stayed relevant and affecting because they understand, at least on some level, that there's more to these monsters than mere teeth and claws.

Werewolves, for their part, have ultimately come to represent the repressed savagery of the human experience; Claude Rains even explicitly says so in WOLF MAN: “It's probably an ancient explanation of the dual personality in each of us,” he prattles. As I discussed in my long prelude to Chainsawnukah, the wolf man mythos plays off our discomfort with the idea that even “normal, nice” people are capable of unbelievable sadism and cruelty given the right circumstance. “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,” as the oft-repeated rhyme from THE WOLF MAN goes. “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a member of a genocidal regime when the right demagogue plays into his insecurity over identity politics,” is a tad less catchy, but that subtext is definitely buried somewhere here. Even if it's not that explicit, the idea of a person transforming into a violent, savage beast speaks for itself; somewhere deep inside this part was always there, waiting for the right circumstance to take over. In WEREWOLF OF LONDON, though, the symbolism is a lot vaguer. The werewolvery is not the result of any specific tragic flaw, and its effect doesn’t seem to really have much to say about Glendon’s inner world either. He’s a guy with plenty of flaws, but you never get the sense that random violent murder is genuinely in his nature, that’s just the wolf talking. The transformation’s effect on the story is better handled than in THE WOLF MAN, but unfortunately its psychological effect on the viewer is somewhat blunted, probably explaining why it didn’t end up being influential in the same way.

Even so, this is a surprisingly strong film. The atmosphere is suitably eerie, the makeup effects are striking (even if it’s probably for the best that Hull’s was the only werewolf to favor a three-piece suit) and the cast is quite strong as well. Hull is both sympathetic and flawed as the nominal hero, Oland is captivating as his nemesis, and, particularly, Hobson as his wife is consummately endearing; she's ebullient and adorable but somehow also conveys maturity and a kind of muted inner sadness. The wife is a totally passive victim/object as far as the story goes, but Hobson (only 18 at the time, holy shit) does a lot to bring her to life in a way which helps motivate the whole enterprise. Toss in a couple well-constructed (but bloodless; this is 1935 after all) werewolf attacks and nice lighting (and even a little comedy, courtesy of two drunken landladies) and you got yourself a genuinely top-tier werewolf movie which was unfairly dismissed at the time and deserves to be rediscovered. Besides, even if THE WOLF MAN would go on to define the subgenre more than WEREWOLF OF LONDON DID, there are at least two indisputable classics which owe a lot to this film: John Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Warren Zevon’s classic lycanthropic anthem Werewolves of London****. Between that and his legendary status as a world-class botanist/adventurer, I’d like to think Dr. Glendon has earned the right to rest in peace.

Seriously, though, parents. Talk to your kids about staying away from botany. Yes, it’s glamorous and exciting, but the danger is all too real.

*I say magic because it’s not like you have to grind them into a paste or something, or even eat them; just standing next to them will be enough.

**Audiences at the time felt the same way; the Fredric March version of that film had come out only three years earlier and arguably dulled a lot of the impact of this early werewolf tale.
***In fact, Glendon’s rival in the film immediately suspects that he’s suffering from lycanthropy. He turns out to be right, but he jumps to that conclusion (a tad convenient for him, natch) just a little too fast for my liking, asshole.

****Alas, despite the title, Zevon name-checks Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Jr, but fails to pay tribute to Hull. No respect, I tell ya.

awww, he thinks he's people.


The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: None.
  • REMAKE: No, although this one would be a good candidate.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Warner Oland, maybe? He was nearing the height of his career in the hugely popular Charlie Chan series at the time.
  • BOOBIES: Ha. Not likely in 1935.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: There is talk of mauling, but we don't see anything.
  • MONSTER: Werewolf.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Still no dolls.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Yes, man into wolf-man.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Flop at the time, but there IS a wolfman action figure featuring Henry Hull's likeness.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Don't be a botonist, the soaring highs will never make up for the crushing lows. Also, if you're married to Valerie Hobson for God's sake pay attention to her. (interestingly, her later-husband and British Parliamentarian John Profumo failed to heed that advice, resulting in a sensational sex scandal that ruined his career and helped bring down the Conservative government in 1964. Hobson stood by and and they remained married. Man, does this chick have great taste in men or what? First werewolf botanists now this.)
  • TITLE ACCURACY: There is a werewolf, he is in London. 100%.

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