In the past month I have researched werewolf lore, for articles on this site and others, in anticipation of the release of The Wolfman. On Monday, I saw the new film, and long story short, I didn't like it. But having spent all of this time reading synopses and watching films and scanning various stories about werewolves, I have realized that they just aren't very interesting to me.
Unlike vampires, creatures I'm comparatively just flat-out tired of seeing on film, werewolves are pretty one-dimensional monsters: vampirism can be a metaphor for any number of subjects or ideas, but other than a physical manifestation of "the beast within," and a quite literal one at that, lycanthropy basically seems to exist to create scenarios where people get their throats torn out, and special-effects men can stage elaborate transformation sequences. The human protagonists are almost invariably lovestruck and tortured by the curse of their transformation, and seldom end their lupine adventures with a particularly cheerful or upbeat resolution.
Universal Studios is releasing the new film Friday, and on February 2, 2010, their Home Entertainment department released the 1941 The Wolf Man on DVD in a two-disc Special Edition. In an effort to pinpoint what it is that I don't like, or maybe just what I'm not getting about the appeal of werewolves as an iconic horror monster, I decided to make that film the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released on December 12, 1941, The Wolf Man was not the first werewolf movie to be released in American theaters, even by Universal Studios, but it has since become the iconic profile of the creature, more or less defining the basic details of werewolf mythology (becoming one after being bitten by another, dying only when struck or shot with silver, etc.). Famously, The Wolf Man is the only Universal monster to be played by the same actor, Lon Chaney Jr., in every cinematic iteration.
What Still Works: This is in many ways applicable to what doesn't work as well, but the theatricality of The Wolf Man makes the idea of a half-man-half-wolf seem not only believable but compelling and tragic. Smoky and atmospheric sets give the production a stylized feel that enhances the mostly straightforward and simply-executed story. The acting is sort of classically aimed at the camera rather than to authentically occupy the space within the film, and that style sort of projects the film's ideas in a way that makes their larger-than-life energy more easily digestible.
Additionally, although primitive by today's standards, the make-up Lon Chaney wears is actually pretty terrific. The transformation sequences are done simply and without a lot of visual flourish, but they work better because of that, and his face is a sort of terrifying smash of human and animal features that gives the creature intensity even without a lot of expressiveness.
What Doesn't Work: Whether budgetary reasons were the culprit or just a lack of directorial creativity, the wolf man is not very scary – I'd argue even for the time in which he was conceived. He appears three times in the film, and while the camera follows his paws until a reveal before his first big kill, director George Waggner doesn't even employ generic dramatic angles, such as point-of-view shots of the wolf man running at the camera, to create suspense or intensity. Again, however, there's a certain kind of exaggerated clarity - the aforementioned theatricality - that is maintained in every scene, both to highlight the actors' faces and to present necessary expository information, which gives the production a prosaic, airless feel that never builds meaningful suspense.
Interestingly, although I think Chaney Jr. is remarkably effective in the scenes where he's the wolf man, I think he's a really dry, unconvincing actor as a normal guy, or at least this guy. Particularly in the film's early scenes, where he woos Gwen Conliffe in her father's store, he seems creepy and aggressive rather than personable and charming; his considerable girth conveys a kind of insistence that she do what he asks, even when he is obviously trying to be purely flirtatious. Later, his agony once he realizes what he has become is incredibly broad and simplistic, and, quite frankly, feels like another costume for the famous transformation artist – in this case, a monster trying to get out of a tortured man.
What's The Verdict: Ultimately, I really think that The Wolf Man is a venerated classic because it pioneered (or maybe just popularized) a creature and some special effects techniques, but it's not a great movie for contemporary audiences, even to be admired as a portrait of "early horror."
I can understand the idea that in 1941, visual representations of monsters were in limited supply, so creatures like werewolves were terrifying new commodities to folks still starved for satisfying scares. But with seven decades of werewolf movies between then and now, as well as thousands of other movie monsters occupying space in the memories of moviegoers worldwide, I think the idea of a man-wolf, much less a werewolf, is quaint and outdated. Not to mention significantly more advanced special effects techniques giving those subsequent werewolves and other monsters more serious weight.
That said, I absolutely love other werewolf movies, such as An American Werewolf in London, which I wrote about a few months ago, and certainly don't rule out the possibility that someone might breathe new life into this lackluster mythology. But even allowing for The Wolf Man writer Curt Siodmak's supposed creation of the monster as a metaphor for his flight from the Nazis in WWII, the bottom line is that the werewolf curse is painfully uncomplicated for the most part.
Siodmak, of course, saw the 'wolf as a persecuted minority, but the way he's represented in the film makes him look like a man trying to resist the impulse to rape a woman or at best let his "passions" consume him. Are there more sympathetic interpretations of these events, or deeper meanings to be discovered by more ardent fans of the creatures' mythology? No doubt. But for my money, as a canonical creature, The Wolf Man is a lackluster addition to Universal's (much less classic horror's) landscape of creepy monsters, and as a movie, it's a masterpiece that should remain in the memory rather than be fully revealed, or especially, revisited.