Let’s Talk About Werewolves

Werewolves are surprising. For instance, you may think that the first movie werewolf was Lon Chaney, Jr. in “The Wolf Man.” But he wasn’t. Ahh, you say, you’re going to mention Henry Hull in “The Werewolf of London.” No. I’m going to mention Warner Oland’s Professor Yogami who bites Hull in the opening minutes of “The Werewolf of London” and transforms the stuffy Dr. Wilfred Glendon into the screen’s first talking werewolf. That’s right. Hull’s werewolf talked along with the expected growls and howls. (And in all likelihood that wasn’t Oland half-glimpsed in werewolf make-up but a Universal stunt-man.)

Hull’s Glendon is also a bit of a fashion-plate as werewolves go–frequenting those foggy London streets in an overcoat, cloth cap and a muffler! He even dies wearing a jacket and necktie. He was lightly-furred, so that Hull’s face would remain visible. Hull was a rising star, no Karloff or Lugosi. By contrast, Chaney’s Larry Talbot was determinedly proletarian, skulking around those damp Universal soundstage moors in nothing but trousers and a dark-colored shirt, albeit buttoned up to the neck, thus eliminating the need for full-body make-up. But his face, hands and feet were completely furred, so that Chaney was all but invisible beneath the hair and fangs. Also, Chaney’s Talbot is a non-speaking killer, though he sings arias of repentance while in human form. Chaney was the “A-list” werewolf of the 1940s. Of course there were imitators. Over at 20th Century-Fox, John Brahm filmed a moody thriller, “The Undying Monster” with John Howard’s lightly-furred werewolf visible only at the film’s climax. At Columbia, Matt Willis assumed the full-fur look as Andreas Obry, the unfortunate servant of Lugosi in “The Return of the Vampire.” Even the title clues us in that the werewolf will have a secondary role in the proceedings.

Universal also tried a distaff variation on Chaney’s popular wolf-man with a series of three films detailing the adventures of Paula Dupree–a female gorilla named Cheela transformed into actress Acquanetta via John Carradine’s wizardry with glandular transplants. Paula has the unfortunate habit of reverting back to her simian state whenever she is emotionally upset. In the first film of the series, a journeyman work by Edward Dmytryk, she becomes a gorilla, but by the final film of the series, “Jungle Captive,” she looks more like a werewolf and never fully reverts to an ape. Universal and Columbia also made a pair of cheaters–“The She-Wolf of London” and “Cry of the Werewolf” respectively in which the word “werewolf” promised a lot more than either film delivered. Even P.R.C. tried their hand at the pseudo-werewolf genre with “Cat-Man of Paris,” in which future cowboy heavy Robert Wilkie outdid even Henry Hull in elegance–committing his crimes in a tuxedo and top-hat! At this point the werewolf was clearly suffering from tired blood. Even Larry Talbot was becoming a mere supporting-creature in Universal’s monster-rally films, so after the ritual debasement of an encounter with Abbott and Costello, the werewolf was put out to pasture.

When the werewolf returned after a brief hiatus in the mid-1950s, he was an entirely different creature. Gone was the business of gypsy curses, wolfbane and being bitten by a werewolf. The werewolves of Gene Fowler Jr.’s “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and Fred F. Sears’ “The Werewolf” were both the results of Bad Science gone awry. Michael Landon’s moody, violence-prone delinquent Tony Rivers and Steven Ritch’s everyman travelling salesman Duncan Marsh both fall into the clutches of scientist-obsessives who chemically cause them to revert to a primitive animal state–which just happens to be that of a wolf-man. (Well, Landon’s J.D. was fond of eating raw hamburger meat!) Both were “sort of traditional” werewolves. They had fur and fangs. But Landon sported teen-attire and appeared to have a ducktail hairdo. Ritch, by contrast, looked like he inherited both Matt Willis’ duds and his make-up man. The teenage werewolf returned, accompanied by the teenage Frankenstein in “How to Make a Monster,” but this time out they were only actors made up to resemble the characters they had portrayed on film and then hypnotized into committing murders for a crazed studio make-up artist. Lastly, “Terror Is a Man” featured Francis Lederer in an uncredited re-do of “The Island of Lost Souls” turning animals into “manimals” on a tropic island.

As they had done with the Frankenstein Monster, Count Dracula and Kharis, the living mummy, Hammer Films stepped in to salvage the honor of the werewolf character with their stylish “Curse of the Werewolf.” As Brahm had done with “The Undying Monster,” Terence Fisher took his time about revealing the face of the beast, but when it came it was worth the wait. Oliver Reed’s cursed werewolf Leon benefited from becoming the first Technicolor werewolf. He had grey fur, red eyes and a blood-smeared mouth. He wore boots–thus no Chaney-style wolf’s feet–but his shredded shirt allowed Roy Ashton to devise a complete waist-up make-up.
About a decade later Hammer tried an experimental werewolf film with “Demons of the Mind” which dealt with lycanthropy as a mental illness rather than a transformative experience. Robert Hardy’s Baron Zorn sprouts no fur and grows no fangs, but he clearly sees himself as a wolf prowling the forest surrounding his estate and freely preying upon peasant women who venture there. As a further twist, Zorn uses his disturbed son Emile as his hands, controlling the boy and allowing his madness to guide him. The film was not a success. Audience like their werewolves hairy.

Other non-English-speaking countries were making werewolf films also. A Mexican company even managed to lure Lon Chaney south of a border to play one. In Spain Paul Naschy did a series of wolfman movies and the Italians–although there were more fond of vampires and vengeful spirits–did produce “Lycanthropus,” an Italian-West German co-production which was released in the U.S. by M.G.M. as “Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory.” (Classy, no?)

The werewolf became a creature of CGI in Joe Dante’s “The Howling” and John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London.” But the results in both cases were excellent and they helped remind audiences of the hairy fiend’s lasting appeal. There have been a lot of werewolf films in the past three decades and this is in no way a comprehensive review of the topic. These days, the werewolf has become something of a teen heartthrob, courtesy of the “Twilight” series. But there’s nothing new under the Hollywood sun. Anyone remember Quentin from T.V.’s “Dark Shadows”?

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