Something tragic about that man: A critical review of “The Wolf Man” (1941)

There are many mysteries on display in “The Wolf Man.” Like, how is it that when Lon Chaney Jr. turns into a wolf he looks like a werewolf teddy bear, but when Bela Lugosi becomes one earlier in the film he looks like a regular small wolf (or a medium-sized dog)? Also, when Chaney starts to transform for the first time he’s wearing a white undershirt, but when he’s a werewolf he has a dark button-up. Why? Did the werewolf think it was going to get cold, or did its latent sense of decency kick in?

All right, I’m being a bit facetious. The real mystery of “The Wolf Man” is how the film cannot make up its mind. Is it a murder thriller? A Gothic fantasy? Something in between? The result is a film that, like its titular character, is slightly awkward, but fascinating all the same and more than a little tragic.

It is easy to get distracted by the makeup and forget that, at its core, “The Wolf Man” is a family drama. The plot concerns Larry Talbot (Chaney), who returns to his family’s rural mansion in Britain after spending years in California. His father (Claude Rains) remarks that it was only the death of his brother that brought him back, although the eye of local girl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) is what apparently keeps him there. However, a deadly encounter with a wolf and a Gypsy fortune teller (Bela Lugosi) will send Larry on a crash course with supernatural forces he does not understand.

If we ask “The Wolf Man” our big three questions, we might find ourselves coming up a little short. Not on whether it’s a good film. It’s fine. It might lack some of the eccentric character of its predecessors, but it’s a solid product. The film is only about 70 minutes long, and its breezy pace helps it easily pass over a couple of continuity errors and stock performances.

The photography is clean and at points elegant when it meshes with the chairoscuro lighting. The sets are dressed well. The soundtrack is a bit bombastic at points, and leaves this blog longing for the cautious soundtracks of “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy,” but maybe you’ll like it.

The cast is fine. Standouts include Rains, who does very well as the conflicted family patriarch, taking some dialogue about God and eternity and stuff that could have been off-putting in another actor’s mouth and making it sound weighty and organic. Lugosi also gives some haunted gravitas to a disappointingly brief role.

It’s as a Gothic thriller that the film shows some weaknesses. The atmosphere is fine, all snarl trees and fog machines on the moors, but the themes don’t line up. In a “real” Gothic tale, lycanthropy would be the Talbot family curse, and Larry would be shielded by his father and locked in an attic somewhere. But that’s not the case in “The Wolf Man.”

Larry is an outsider, and the film reminds us of it constantly. He’s an American in a British town. The only people who believe Larry about his condition are the Gypsies, perennial outsiders. By the way he speaks, it’s clear he has less education than his peers and family members. When he enters a church, a brilliant tracking shot scans the pews as everyone else turns to look at Larry standing by himself. Larry hasn’t been locked in the attic of the family estate. He’s never even seen the upstairs.

The film’s handling of the battle between good and evil, which seems like a natural for a Gothic tale with its Jekyll and Hyde connection, is more modern in its obscurity. Is good and evil all black and white, or is there some gray? Are we destined to our dark ends, or can psychic trauma be healed? The film displays all these viewpoints, but it’s careful to never answer the questions directly.

As a whole, the film is surprisingly ambiguous. For example, Chaney plays Larry like an overgrown child. How much of his aggression is a product of his lycanthropy and how much of it is natural? Is Larry’s father really trying to help his son? He is definitely chilly toward him, and not without reason, perhaps the village doctor is right when he says the man cares more about the family reputation than his son’s mental health. Even the final shot shows Gwen burying her face into her fiance’s shoulder but calling Larry’s name.

Accordingly, the Gothic trappings feel almost like a gimmick, which help us as modern viewers address whether “The Wolf Man” still stands as a good horror film. I don’t think it does, but that’s because it’s trying to be the wrong kind of horror film.

“The Wolf Man” achieved fame and notoriety for its special effects and iconic transformation scene, but now that looks as dated as its matte backgrounds. What if we’ve been remembering “The Wolf Man” for the wrong reason? What if it was actually a pioneering example of psychological horror?

In fact, imagine a “Wolf Man” that dropped the shots of Lon Chaney in a fur suit tiptoeing through the moors but kept everything else–the spooky atmosphere and occult murders, the probing questions about sanity and humanity, the dysfunctional family drama. Suppose the nature of Chaney’s condition were also kept ambiguous, and the film focused on the creeping dread of not knowing whether you were human–a man or a monster, sane or insane.

Wait a second, did I just describe Val Lewton’s “Cat People”? Oh well. Maybe Lewton was onto something when he said Universal’s idea of horror was nothing more than a werewolf chasing a woman up a tree.

A little walk: A critical review of “The Mummy” (1932)

“The Mummy” is a little out of step with the other Universal monsters. It’s not based on a book, and a lot of fascinating, frighteningly in depth work has gone into figuring out what its literary or cinematic inspirations might have been. Perhaps for that reason–without an obvious catalog of characters or lore to draw upon–it never spawned any direct sequels.

It also might feel the most aged out of its contemporaries, and I’m not just talking about how the culturally delicate topic of tomb robbing is one of its plot points. Unlike “Dracula,” which seems to take place in a Kafkaesque void, or “Frankenstein,” which is a delightful anachronism stew, “The Mummy” actually looks like it takes place in the 1930s. However, there’s something to be said for a film that acts its age.

The story of “The Mummy” is surprisingly simple. In 1921, British archaeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (1930s character actor Arthur Byron) leads a dig in the Egyptian countryside. He discovers the mummified remains of a man who appears to have been buried alive. Buried with the mummy is a scroll that claims to bestow life and a curse that threatens death. Whemple doesn’t take either seriously, even when the mummy goes missing and Whemple’s assistant goes insane.

Ten years later, an old Egyptian dude named Ardeth Bay (Boris Karloff, of course) comes to Whemple’s son, also an archaeologist, and helps him locate the tomb of an ancient princess. As fresher bodies pile up, the connection between both mummies, Whemple and a young socialite with the improbable name of Helen Grosvenor will all be uncovered.

How does “The Mummy” hold up if we ask the same three questions we asked of “Frankenstein”–how does it hold up as a movie, a Gothic thriller and a horror film? As a movie, “The Mummy” is admittedly uneven. Its performances are fine, its use of music and silence is appropriate, and its photography and lighting are striking (director Karl Freund got his start as a cinematographer, and his resume includes the silent sci fi epic “Metropolis,” so striking photography and lighting are to be expected).

Script-wise, there’s a little more to be desired. The film starts fast–perhaps too fast–but it slows considerably as it moves on, and it’s not unfair to think of the climax as draggy. Accordingly, the movie never finds its pace. Oh well. At least the Egypt on display is notably contemporary–there are nightclubs and cars and modern dress, so the film never feels entirely exploitative of its location–and barring a quick reference to Bast as a goddess of evil, its religious history is not bad. The final script was by John L. Balderston, a former journalist who had covered the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, so he was up-to-date on the current Egyptology.

As a Gothic thriller, the film might be better than some of its more conventionally Gothic contemporaries. From the start of the film, the themes of knowledge and eternal life are written on the screen (in art deco font no less). Knowledge is power. Knowledge is also terrifying. It’s paradoxical, attractive and repellent. It intrigues humans and destroys them. We fight over it, but it belongs to no one but itself. It is guarded by cosmic forces that we call gods or destiny, but we ultimately have no control over them. Oddly enough, with its Egyptian setting, ancient documents and humans going crazy from revelations, “The Mummy” is probably the most Lovecraftian of the Universal monster films.

The other big theme of life after death is just as compelling, thanks in no small part to the cast. Sure, David Manners as the human love interest is rather ineffectual, but his boyish and tepid interactions with Zita Johann actually make her interactions with Karloff seem much more powerful. Karloff’s performance is intense and understated, but when he’s around Johann he becomes fluid, sensitive, even vulnerable. His efforts to bring her closer to him (by psychically strangling people, to be fair) seem to take something out of the normally unflappable character. It’s a nice touch, and Karloff sells it well.

Arguably, the film’s themes of time passing and repeating, the transmigration of souls, existentialism butting heads with destiny, and an attraction that transcends centuries all had a profound impact on horror as whole. It seems particularly notable in vampire stories and the works of Clive Barker (would we have “Candyman” without “The Mummy?” Maybe not).

But it’s as a horror film that “The Mummy” holds the biggest surprise. Given the film’s odd pace and descent into melodrama, it doesn’t always feel like an effective thriller. However, the atmosphere is consistently dark and appropriate, and more than that, the first 10 minutes are an almost flawless example of what a horror movie should look like.

In those first 10 minutes, the pacing is ideal. Just enough information is doled out by Edward Van Sloan’s occult researcher to intrigue without overwhelming. The camera checks in with the characters like an active spectator. The atmosphere relies on images and spaces of silence, and the monster is carefully photographed, all to ensure there’s enough room for viewers throw themselves into the scene. Tension mounts, and the payoff is an unforgettable performance by Bramwell Fletcher as an unfortunate research assistant.

It is fair–if an easy joke–to say that “The Mummy” has gotten a little dusty with age. It looks as old as it is, and it doesn’t move as well as it could. However, its atmosphere, themes, performances and flashes of brilliance more than balance that out. While it might not have wormed its way into culture as obviously as “Dracula” or “Frankenstein,” it should be required viewing for any horror fan.

Stitched together wrong: A critical review of “Frankenstein” (1931)

It’s weird to talk about “Frankenstein” by itself because it’s not a film we often think about by itself. And I don’t just mean we think about it as a franchise–although it is, with eight pictures under its bolts at Universal. I mean the film is often conflated with its sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein.” Perhaps it’s because that film has taken on a cultural and critical significance that rivals, if not outranks, the original. Or maybe it’s Mel Brooks’ fault. I don’t know.

A film that’s almost always thought of in relation to its sequel, but in a wholly positive way, is unusual. Feel free to correct me, but the only other films in the history of horror this blog can think of like that are “Alien” and “Aliens.”

What other horror franchise–or any film franchise for that matter–adhered to a distinctly original visual and thematic philosophy through its first three films and two directors? Not Freddy. Not Jason. “Psycho” had a distinct visual style, but you better bet it wasn’t kept up. Maybe Halloween, if only because “Halloween II” retained John Carpenter’s moody lighting and POV shots, if memory serves. Possibly the aforementioned Alien as well, which, even if not unified in vision, at least kept up the Giger feel (and dumped almost everything else)…

We’re off topic. “Frankenstein,” for those not in the know, is the story of Victor Frankenstein, son of Baron Frankenstein, inheritor of the house of Frankenstein. He should be preparing for his wedding, but he’s busy robbing graves and gluing together corpses in an abandoned castle outside of town where he set up a crude laboratory. Whenever things start off like this, you know it’s going to end with torches and pitchforks.

It seems to this blog that, when reviewing a film like this, there are really three angles to attack it in the modern era. How does it hold up as a horror film? How does it hold up more narrowly as a Gothic thriller? And how does it hold up as a movie?

The last question is the easiest to answer. “Frankenstein” is a good movie. It looks distinct, it entertains, and it does everything it wants in about 70 minutes. Let that sink in. “Frankenstein” is only 70 minutes long. Movies more twice its length have less than half as much to say.

This is tied to the second question. As a Gothic thriller, “Frankenstein” is unquestionably a classic. First off, as this blog as alluded to multiple times in this post already, the film looks right. Every single set is crammed with sloppily arranged skulls, uneven brickwork, and gravestones and ceiling beams connected at odd angles. The camera is never shy about showing this (the cinematography was by Arthur Edeson, a real pro). Zooms, tilts and tracking shots are all composed to show off the sets, which are utterly cluttered but perfectly blocked.

Everything about the film presents a kind of fabricated, exaggerated reality. Its core concept is stitching a man together from scratch. Its backgrounds are painted. Its opening scene is set in front of a theater curtain. It takes place in a Europe that looks like a mashup of everything the continent had to offer between the 16th century and 1916 (and who knew there were so many Southern California eucalyptus in the Rhineland?). It’s a reality that’s been put together wrong, and it wants you to know it.

Thematically, the very Gothic subject of science versus superstition is present from the first scene on, but there are enough moving parts to the film that it’s hardly the only theme. There is a queer subtext too, not uncommon in director James Whale’s films, about the thrill of seeking knowledge and relationships that are beyond the accepted–and what could be more Gothic than hidden sexuality? Or, for something more pedestrian, it’s about a man so wrapped up in his work he destroys his life and threatens the lives of those around him (Frankenstein by Arthur Miller?).

The performances are where the Gothic trappings start to get in the way. Colin Clive is great, and I’m not just saying that because we share a name. He’s reading the same overblown dialogue as everyone else, but his shifts from sensitive to intense are eerily believable. Likewise, Karloff is amazing. Without any words, he manages to convey both pity and menace, sometimes at the same time.

No one else fares quite as well. Edward Van Sloan is dependable as a senior doctor; Frederick Kerr is fun as the Baron, but he hints at the goofiness that would threaten to overshadow the sequel. Mae Clark and John Boles are pretty wooden as Frankenstein’s fiance and cock-blocked friend respectively, with Clark doing a little better but not much.

Put your attention on the titular monsters instead. “Frankenstein” is possibly the first film where the monsters are supposed to be the most compelling characters on screen. Maybe Dracula was the most compelling component of his film, but that was because he symbolized a kind of dangerous seduction, and everything about him said “look at me.” Dracula intrigues, but what intrigues is his intrigue itself.

Victor Frankenstein is arguably the far more psychologically compelling character, and certainly the most psychologically compelling in this movie. Part of it is the depth and complexity of his moods and motivation, and part of it is Clive’s near flawless performance.

But despite the fact that he’s the deepest character, is engaged to the lead girl and has the most screen time, he falls off a windmill at the end. He’s not the hero. And even if you think Karloff-as-monster is more compelling–and it’s an argument that can be made–he doesn’t even get out of the windmill before it burns to the ground (sorry if I gave away the ending of a 90-year-old movie).

So it’s a good movie, a good Gothic thriller, but is it a good horror film? That’s a little harder to answer. Sure, the opening sequence looks like a horror theme, with all the Halloween decorations. But then the mood shifts, retaining its Gothic trappings but becoming a kind of melodrama, a tale of human failing, whether through ignorance, weakness or fate.

Perhaps that’s the point. While the central monster scenes are shot with a kind of quiet amorality, both the early grave robbing scenes and the closing mob scenes are shot like a standard horror film: jarring cuts, shadowy lighting, indistinct sound. Ignore that hasty happy ending; it was tacked on. The film might be about mad science and whispered superstition, but it’s more nihilistic than it is either spiritual or humanistic. It is humanity who initiates the horror of the film–whether by tampering in God’s domain or just tampering in the lives of others. It’s fitting that it’s humanity who closes the horror out as well.

Ugly buildings: News October 2020

Ho-ho-ho and Happy Halloween. I don’t have to tell you that this is the most important month for thriller fans, but I also don’t have to tell you that it’s been a really strange year. Perhaps we’re all feeling a little uncertain right now, looking for something somewhat stable. That’s why this blog is turning to the classics.

Before we get into what that means, I feel obligated to plug a couple of products. The first is a short story collection entitled “Hookman and Friends.” Produced by the brilliantly named publishing house Down But Not Dead, the anthology collects a variety of tales inspired by the urban legend of the murderer who bothered teenagers trying to have sex in their cars. Lest you think it’s a bunch of retreads, know that my entry in the book has no teenagers, no sex and no cars, although it does have the murder. Readers in the U.S. can purchase it here.

The second product is another short story collection, which I’ve alluded to in the past. It’s a collection of time travel stories, featuring a philosophically driven tale about fate by yours truly. If you’re feeling a little less “slasher” and a little more “sci fi” this Halloween, then that’s the anthology for you. You can purchase it here.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what we’ll be looking at for the rest of the month. For me, as for many horror fans, the classics really mean the Universal horror franchises. If you can’t see back to the 30s, 40s and 50s, you aren’t really trying; on the other hand, if you look back too far, you start getting into some weird territory (not bad, mind you, just weird). The Universal films not only hit all the classic tropes of the genre, they also pointed the way for every horror franchise to come with their notions of character presentation across movies and marketing. Would we have Jason without Lon Cheney Jr.? Maybe not.

On the other hand, those movies are old, and age alone does not require respect (to quote Noah Cross: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough”). Are the Universal horror films worthy of our veneration? To find out, this blog, with its discerning eye and chaotic voice, will be viewing the first films of all the major franchises for the next month to see how they hold up.

Except “Dracula.” Screw that movie. Nothing against Tod Browning or Bela Lugosi, but the titular vampire isn’t even killed on screen. What a waste.

We’ll be going in chronological order, so expect to see “Frankenstein” soon, followed by some of his closest friends. Not his bride though, but we’ll get to that.

Also, if I’m wrong about “Dracula,” have at me. What am I missing?