More bark than bite: A critical review of “Cry of the Werewolf” (1944)

Who doesn’t love a copycat, er, copy-wolf? The logical consensus on 1940s hairy horror film “Cry of the Werewolf” is that Columbia was trying to cash in on the recent lycanthropic successes of “The Wolf Man” and “Cat People.” Considering its name, one would expect Columbia’s effort to follow Universal’s tale of wolves and men rather than RKO’s narrative of cats and Simone Simon. However, “Cry” goes for the less obvious choice, ultimately having more in common with Val Lewton’s film. Both films feature an urban setting, a heavier emphasis on a psychological rather than Gothic atmosphere, an undercurrent of female sexuality, and creative use of light and shadow due to budget constraints.

Interestingly, “Cry” is not the first female werewolf movie (nor is it “Cat People,” wolves aside). It’s a 1913 silent called, rather creatively, “The Werewolf.” Wikipedia even tells us it was the first werewolf movie on record. Wikipedia also tells us the film is lost, having been destroyed in a fire about 10 years later. A likely story. Has anyone seen the “Cigarette Burns” episode of “Masters of Horror”? I sense a werewolf movie conspiracy.

But that’s for another blog post. “Cry of the Werewolf” opens with a gratuitous narrative crawl about how nothing is truly unnoticed or forgotten by cultural memory. It’s a promising, albeit convoluted, start, but don’t pay too much attention. The film could have gone straight into its first scene, a tour of a museum dedicated to psychic research and occult history. It’s well photographed, atmospherically lit, and entertainingly set and blocked, not to mention the tour is led by the very watchable character actor John Abbott. That cool introduction is interrupted by a thoroughly unnecessary flashback, which is also well shot but features the tamest werewolf ever caught on camera.

The plot, in case it wasn’t clear, is a little disposable. A “Gypsy princess” who can apparently assume the form of a wolf kills a researcher before he can finish writing a book about about the secrets of her tribe. When the researcher’s son shows up to finish his father’s work, he gets mixed up in the perplexed police investigation into the occult killing. He’s also finds himself caught between the interests of two young women: his late father’s secretary and the alleged killer herself.

“Cry” is an uneven movie for a few reasons. Despite being less than 70 minutes long, a lot of it feels unnecessary or at least uncomfortable. The dialogue keeps teetering between Gothic horror and pulp detective. The gumshoe stuff feels off in a werewolf movie. It doesn’t help that a lot of it is trying too hard to be funny. I know that humor and horror have always gone hand in hand, but the humor in “Cry” is never fitting for that genre. It’s not bleak or subtle. It’s just goofy. That’s fine in an Abbot and Costello mashup, but it’s not so funny here.

The Gothic stuff is a little more adequate, but even that has problems. This was supposedly Columbia’s first shot at a popular horror film, and it feels like the movie threw everything “horror” it could think of at the screen to see what landed, regardless of how well it went together or how developed it ended up being. There’s the Gypsy princess/werewolf combo, voodoo dolls and occult crime, and the secretary is from Transylvania. Of course she is.

I’m not sure who to blame. One of the writers, Griffin Jay, had some horror experience beforehand, but with titles like “The Mummy’s Hand,” “The Mummy’s Tomb” and “The Mummy’s Ghost” I’m not feeling like serious and subtle horror was his thing (his first credit on IMDb is a Three Stooges short). On the other hand, co-writer Charles O’Neal wrote the very subtle Val Lewton produced “The Seventh Victim,” and ultimately worked on the underrated sci fi/horror flick “The Alligator People.” Huh.

The werewolf transformation is suitably subtle though, at least at first, all told through shadow. Maybe it’s just me, but I appreciate werewolf movies where there the werewolf looks like a wolf. I’m probably wrong. My favorite werewolf movie is “Company of Wolves,” and that might not even be a werewolf movie.

I feel like I’m talking about every film but this film. The acting is mostly good. Abbott as the tour guide is affable, and he gets one of the most unsettling moments in the film. Nina Foch does well as the princess, managing to capture about as much complexity as the script allows her character. Fritz Leiber is natural as the old researcher. Al Bridge has a fun turn as a weird mortician (he pronounces “secretive” as if it means “something that secretes something”). Barton MacLane plays the chief investigating officer with the proper amount of grim resolve. Just don’t pay attention to his men in uniform.

That said, the weakest links are Stephen Crane and Osa Massen as the two leads, the researcher’s son and the secretary. There’s no trace of chemistry between them. Crane in particular is pretty wooden. He seems merely a little unhappy that his dad just died, and it’s never a good sign when the wicked seductress is trying to corrupt some guy named “Bob.”

However, I con’t condemn the film’s love triangle outright. Again, the two sweethearts are pretty anemic, but Foch is fine. Her performance gives “Cry” the hints of feminine sexuality – presented as a complex of allure, danger and destiny – that could not be found in the more male-dominated horror films around it (remember, this was decades before “Ginger Snaps”).

Some of the images are pretty solid too. There’s some moments in the opening tour sequence and some clever photography around the Gypsy camp (which is set up in… Griffith Park? Where does this film take place anyway?). The most thrilling set piece is likely a cat and mouse moment in the labyrinthine darkness beneath a mortuary. That has good shot composition, appropriate lighting, the dialogue shuts up and the erratic editing takes a breather. It’s too bad the film can’t regain that atmosphere in a later scene where the power goes out at the occult museum.

That’s the problem with “Cry of the Werewolf.” It’s not enough any one thing. It’s not enough Gothic horror or psychological horror. It’s not enough atmosphere or humor. It’s not enough good or bad. It can’t decide what it is, and neither can this blog. There’s enough there to make it worth a look for the curious, especially considering the slight running time. If you’ve already watched “The Wolf Man” and “Cat People,” and you’re itching for more old school lycanthropy, this might do the trick. If you’re expecting a waiting-to-be-rediscovered prize, you’ll likely leave a little disappointed.

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