Sunday, January 18, 2015

Werewolf of London (1935)

Director: Stuart Walker                              Writer: John Colton
Film Score: Karl Hajos                              Cinematography: Charles J. Stumar
Starring: Henry Hull, Valerie Hobson, Warner Oland and Lester Matthews

This film had a long and arduous genesis, beginning first as a story for Boris Karloff to follow up his success in Frankenstein. Eventually the idea passed through the hands of several writers before John Colton’s version was green-lighted. Director Stuart Walker is not a well-known name because he died in 1941 at the age of fifty-three. Werewolf of London was his second to last film and came on the heels of a pair of Charles Dickens adaptations for Universal, Great Expectations with Henry Hull and The Mystery of Edwin Drood with Claude Rains. The commercial failure of the film at the time of release was probably due to its marked similarity to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Less of a monster movie, the story focuses on the scientific research of Henry Hull, whose obsessions are the real cause of his doom. He neglects his wife, nearly pushing her into the arms of her former lover, and yet is furious with them when he thinks about them being together. At the same time his is angry towards his colleague, when if they had worked together they might have been able to invent a cure. In the end, it is the scientist’s own hubris that ends his life, almost identical the Robert Louis Stevenson story.

The film opens in Tibet, in the middle of an expedition. The camera follows two of the crew to the tent of Henry Hull. The natives do not want to go where Hull is heading, and when priest Egon Brecher comes through the pass the natives scatter in fear. Hull is looking for a rare plant that only blooms in the moonlight, and Brecher tells him he should not seek it, but wishes him luck as he goes anyway. Once Hull finds the flower, however, he is attacked by a man who looks like a beast and is bitten before he can fend him off. But he gets his flower and returns it to England safely. There his neglected wife, Valerie Hobson, is throwing a party and one of the guests is the mysterious Warner Oland. After Oland tells him that they are both werewolves, Hull ignores him and goes about his work until he sees his artificial moonlight has a curious effect on him, causing hair to sprout from his hand. The Tibetian flower, however, is the antidote to the symptoms, but Oland steals the blossoms, leaving Hull helpless to the curse. After the change he instinctively heads for his wife, but foiled there he kills an anonymous woman in the streets. This leads to the inevitable battle between the two werewolves over the remaining blossoms of the flower.

The most obvious impediment for the film to overcome is the screenplay. It is full of obvious references to men and beasts and stilted dialogue, especially when it comes to the jealousy of Hull toward Lester Matthews. The thing is, it’s not a bad story, but the execution is poorly done, in particular the way any suspense about Oland being the original werewolf is given away in the beginning of the film. The actor tells Hull that they met briefly in Tibet, in the dark, and turned him into a werewolf. This is one of many aspects of the film that The Wolf Man would greatly improve upon later. Though the screenplay may have failed him, Stuart Walker has a distinctive style and makes full use of the moving camera to great effect, first in the opening as he tracks the men to Hull’s tent, and later throughout the rest of the film. The technique is a vital one for his unique transition scene as Hull turns into a werewolf. Walker tracks the actor as he walks behind a series of columns. When Hull is behind a column the camera stops and makeup is applied, then the camera rolls again. Though it’s obvious on film, it is still a terrific sequence and one of the high points of the film. The other high point is the music by Karl Hajos, which adds another artistic dimension to a somewhat flat film.

What’s fascinating in watching the film is how similar it is to Stevenson’s novel. The overt sexual overtones of Mr. Hyde are nakedly on display in the film, as he attacks only women. While the trigger for Hull’s transformation seems to be the moon, the jealousy he exhibits toward his wife’s former lover appears just as powerful, and his rage propels him forward. And in the same way that Hyde finds himself an outcast in a society with rigid rules of conduct regarding sexual expression, the juxtaposition of Hull’s animal nature with the civilization he is trapped in is presented in the stark visual symbolism of him donning his hat and coat after the transformation. Hull’s performance has been criticized for his seeming distaste for the part, and along with Valerie Hobson’s stereotyped role they combine to weaken the narrative. Ironically, Warner Oland is the actor who appears most invested in the film. The only other actors of note in the picture are the wonderful Spring Byington as Hobson’s aunt, used for comic relief, and Hull’s lab assistant, J.M. Kerrigan. While it lacks the artistry and magic of The Wolf Man from six years later, Werewolf of London nevertheless holds an important place in the pantheon of Universal monster films as the first werewolf film produced in the sound era.

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