This is a great werewolf movie which really created many of the mythos used in werewolf movies & stories today. Curt Siodmak created the myths that silver kills werewolves and the pentagram aspects. Siodmak mixes a few things together based on other bits of info he found and other things he just put in because it sounded good. In any event, he added depth and color to an otherwise previously bland mythos of legend and superstition. He did for the werewolf what Bram Stoker did for Dracula & vampires the century before.
Now, specifically about this movie. It’s a good but simplistic story which works well because it doesn’t need one here as it’s pretty much character-driven. Larry Talbot (Chaney) returns home (Wales) to the estate of his father, Sir John Talbot (Rains), after his studies in America. A gypsy man (Lugosi), who is cursed with the mark of the werewolf, turns into a wolf and during a fight with Larry, the wolf is killed but not until after he bites Larry and thus passes the curse on to him.
The character of Larry Talbot is very sad and his pathos is intriguing. We get to see Talbot’s mental state and psyche slowly deteriorates as he and others question his sanity. Siodmark said that, at first, they intended Larry to be going mad, just imagining the transformation and killing his victims as a man. Really either scenario would work but not as well for sequels if the imagining scenario were used (i.e. She-Wolf of London).
Larry’s questionable sanity is at the center of the movie’s story but, oddly for an older movie, this isn’t the only facet of the story. This is also a love story on a few different levels. There’s the love Larry has for the beautiful Gwen Conliffe, a shop owner in town who first tells Larry of the little poem about werewolves. I’m not sure if Gwen truly loves Larry but she does care about him. Then there is the love of Larry’s father for his son which saves him in the end. So it’s a multi-faceted story with more depth than at first glance.
The acting is pretty good. No weak actors that I can recall. This does have a top notch cast. Lon Chaney Jr., as Larry Talbot, does one of his best performances. Claude Rains plays well as Sir John Talbot, Larry’s father, but he doesn’t look like he’d be Larry’s father and he has an English accent (apparently Larry lost his in his studies in America). Bela Lugosi plays, well, Bela, the gypsy/wolf who bites Larry. He looks and sounds the part but a very brief part. Maria Ouspenskaya performs one of my favorite roles as Maleva, Bela’s gypsy mother. Her repeating of the “pure at heart” poem is my favorite rendition of it. Then there’s Evelyn Ankers, as Gwen Conliffe, the shop owner whom Larry falls for.
The atmosphere is pretty standard while indoors and around town. But it really stands out with the outdoor scenes, which are just great. A backdrop of old twisted trees, grass and misty fog everywhere. It’s gorgeous in a creepy, murky sort of horror way. I wish they made a wallpaper of it for my room!
The wolf man makeup is just fantastic! Jack P. Pierce was the makeup artist for this masterpiece of the Universal era. It’s the iconic image of the wolf man which will never be forgotten. He’s the more man-like version of a werewolf, with fur and short snout with a man’s biped body, rather than a four-legged wolf. The fading in effect used for the onscreen transformations works quite well, even by today’s standards. As is expected, there’s no gore or blood. My only complaint is that Bela’s werewolf is a regular wolf, unlike Chaney’s.
The orchestral music adds greatly to the mood and suspense.
Overall, this is a great classic werewolf film which set the standard for werewolf films for generations to come. A definite must see for horror fans. Don’t expect morbid terror as this isn’t very terrifying but it is still great monster fun.