The Wolf Man -- or "The Wolfman" as the new remake puts it -- came rather late in the Universal horror cycle, a full ten years after Dracula and Frankenstein. It was a low-budget movie, based not on a famous novel, but on a loose idea that had been bantered around the lot and finally set down on paper by screenwriter Curt Siodmak. The director George Waggner was hardly a master filmmaker like his predecessors Tod Browning and James Whale (The Wolf Man was the one and only high point of his career, not counting several episodes of the "Batman" TV show in the 1960s). And yet The Wolf Man came out exceedingly well, the result of many hands working together at the right time in just the right way. It was a monster hit (pardon the pun) and now a cinema classic. (The great film critic David Thomson recently wrote a new appreciation of the Universal films for The Guardian.)
Aside from Waggner, who put the movie's tiny budget to good use, and Siodmak, whose research and writing made for an atmospheric tale, the movie was blessed with Lon Chaney Jr., who had been a success as "Lennie" in Of Mice and Men (1939). He was also the son of the silent era horror star Lon Chaney, though the two men had a volatile relationship; apparently the senior Chaney did not want the younger Chaney to go into the picture business, and so Lon Jr. had to wait until the old man croaked before his first audition. Chaney Jr. did not have his old man's gift for disguises and physical tricks, but he had a sad, soulful quality that makes his Lawrence Talbot character all the more tragic and touching. Then check out the supporting cast: milquetoast Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday), Claude Rains (the original Invisible Man) as Talbot's father, Maria Ouspenskaya as the old gypsy woman, Bela Lugosi (the original Dracula) as her son, and Evelyn Ankers as Gwen Conliffe, the would-be girlfriend who meets Talbot just before the troubles start. Add some nice black-and-white cinematography and a memorable score, and you're all set. The finished film moves economically but never too quickly, allowing time for dread to build. It, of course, touches on the same themes as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- man fighting between his primal and intellectual natures -- but it's on an even more base level, a pure animal, rather than just a raving lunatic. And it's even more affecting because it happens by random chance, by cruel luck, rather than the result of a deliberate experiment.
I hope in the wake of the new, official Universal remake that more people will go back and enjoy the original. The entire 70-minute film is currently uploaded onto YouTube in seven parts. The following part contains the great scene in which Talbot encounters the old gypsy woman and learns the secret of his curse.