Monday, February 11, 2013

The Wolf Man (1941)

Director: George Waggner                                     Writer: Curt Siodmak
Film Score: Hans Salter & Frank Skinner               Cinematography: Joseph Valentine
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers and Bela Lugosi

The Wolf Man is one of the best films in Universal’s series of monster pictures from the 1930s and 1940s, and one of my favorite films of all time. There is so much to recommend it that it’s difficult to know where to start. Though he would have a long, if marginal, career in films, this is easily one of Lon Chaney Jr.’s best films. There is also the brilliant work of writer Curt Siodmak in creating a cultural icon to rival Dracula and Frankenstein. The music of Hans Salter and Frank Skinner is some of their most inspired work, and would be used to bolster half a dozen other later Universal films. Finally, the tremendous talents of Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, and the unforgettable Maria Ouspenskaya were used to their fullest in a way they never reached again in a horror picture.

The story begins innocently enough, with Chaney returning to his ancestral home in Wales after the death of his brother. Father Claude Rains vows to mend the rift between them that sent Chaney away in the first place. After becoming smitten with Evelyn Ankers she and Chaney, along with Fay Helm as chaperone, go to have their fortunes read by Bela Lugosi. Chaney and Ankers sneak away while Helm’s fortune is being read but when she is heard screaming Chaney rushes to the rescue, battles with a wolf, is bitten in the process, and Helm still dies. The rest of the film is masterful, as Chaney begins to realize he is turning into a wolf and night and killing unsuspecting villagers.

The film benefits tremendously from George Waggner’s considerable abilities as a director. There is a palpable sense of quality in the film that is absent from every other horror film from the period. To get a sense of this one only has to look at Ghost of Frankenstein, which began production immediately after The Wolf Man, and with much of the same cast and crew. Directed by the decidedly pedestrian Erle C. Kenton, Ghost has horrible interiors, cheesy exteriors, bad direction and none of the polish of Waggner’s production. The Wolf Man, however, has gloriously rich exteriors, with fog and glistening tree trunks. And the interiors are even better. Ornately decorated, the mansion, the antique shop, the church, everything is incredibly realistic and beautifully filmed.

There is also an amazing script by Curt Siodmak that not only creates a new werewolf mythos, but was so convincing that for decades many of his inventions were taken as actual mythology. The film score by Hans Salter and Frank Skinner is instantly recognizable and, though cranked out by the composers in a frenzy of writing music for dozens of films a year, is still tremendously evocative and easily the best horror score after Franz Waxman’s Bride of Frankenstein. Jack Pierce’s makeup for Chaney was also inspired, his best since the James Whale directed Frankenstein. Finally, the supporting cast is extremely good. Lugosi has only a bit part, but a crucial one, and he is great. Forrester Harvey’s Twiddle is really the only character that harkens back to the earlier Universal films. The Wolf Man is a film whose reputation has grown tremendously the past twenty years, and with good reason. For me, it’s the best horror film ever made.

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