To answer the question atop this post: Yes, I have serious nostalgia for the 1941 version of The Wolf Man. I used to watch it on Saturday-afternoon TV when I was growing up, along with other werewolf movies, like the looney-tunes sequel Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and what I remember best is that when a Wolf Man movie came on, the thing you waited for, the real money shot, was the transformation sequence – one of the earliest examples in Hollywood monsterdom of what could truly be called special effects. I’m not saying that the fully evolved (or devolved?) Wolf Man stalking his way through the forest wasn’t majorly scary-cool, even if his hair did look a bit… puffy, and the sight of him bounding around did bring to mind the image of a very unkempt ballet dancer. Yet the reason the transformation scenes, with their melting lap dissolves – the rapid-fire sprouting of hair and fangs, the wild, drooling attitude – were so exciting to watch is that they made morphing into a werewolf look convulsive and painful at first, and only after that a form of release. As the beast within was liberated, you really got the feeling that this was an innocent dude in the grip.
The fact that the beast was sprouting out of Lon Chaney Jr. had its own crazy-melancholy resonance. He was, of course, the son of the great silent-film horror chameleon, and that hint of nepotism only added to his slightly crestfallen aura: I mean, really, how else could this guy have ever become a star? Chaney, the son, played numerous monsters in his day, from the Mummy to Dracula to Frankenstein’s hulking creature. But the one role that remains quintessentially his is the Wolf Man, and part of it, ironically, is that in George Waggner’s cheesy-spooky 1941 Universal horror classic, Chaney always seems just a little bit out of his depth. As Lawrence Talbot, the heir to a Welsh dynasty who returns home, after 18 years, to the castle of his father (played by Claude Rains, who hilariously appears about five years older than his son), he’s a big, sad lug with a boxer’s physique and the dog-faced look of a lunch-bucket Stanley Kowalski. When he woos the girl who works in the town antique shop, he’s so unsuave that we’re honestly not sure if we’re supposed to be rooting for him to succeed. Wandering into the tent of the movie’s kitschy old gypsy fortune teller (Maria Ouspenskaya, who turned acting into an eerie form of sleepwalking), he’s like a depressed Boy Scout master who got bit by the wrong wild animal.
But Chaney’s awkwardness, his whole potato-sack vibe of sluggish disappointment, works beautifully in The Wolf Man, since he’s playing the one classic Hollywood monster who doesn’t get off, with a beastly dash of ego, on his dark side. The film’s famous poem, which I’m pleased to report is revived in the Benicio Del Toro remake (“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”), basically says: The Wolf Man isn’t evil – he’s just cursed. From the beginning, he was a middle-aged misunderstood kid, the melancholy Dane of monsters. Chaney, morose yet poignant, makes you feel for this guy who, unlike Dr. Jekyll or Dr. Frankenstein, or the high-handed sensual aristocrat Dracula, doesn’t secretly long to feel the power of the night. He just wants that power to go away.
As a Famous Monsters of Filmland vision of The Id Run Wild, the Wolf Man was never much more than a silver-bullet knockoff of Dracula, a Mr. Hyde with less human complexity. He was hairy, and he chomped people to death. That’s about it. But he was always deeply upset about it the next morning (he could almost have used a support group), and he did one thing better than anyone else: He transformed. He showed you what it looked at the exact moment when the beast within…came out.
So does anyone else have nostalgia for The Wolf Man? Or its sequel? Or any other Wolf Man movies? Which ones, old or new, are your favorites?