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.

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