Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (3/5)

The Wolf Man is one of those films that you know even if you’ve never actually sat down and watched it.  It has become a sort of ur-text for werewolf films, and the mythology of the werewolf that’s posited in this film has made its way through each subsequent movie about a man transforming into a wolf creature.  The Wolf Man was made during Universal’s “monster movie” heyday, but unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, The Wolf Man isn’t based on a previous existing text.  And while I would have to strain a little if I wanted to call it a “classic,” I can, at the very least, appreciate its role in constructing a modern myth out of cast off legends. 

The movie begins when Larry Talbot returns to his father’s manor in England after the death of his brother.  Larry’s father, John Talbot, is played by the erudite Claude Raines, and the two are a complete mismatch.  Where John is a man of theory and academia, Larry works well with his hands but freely admits he doesn’t exactly have a lot of book smarts.  It’s somewhat puzzling that despite John’s upper class English accent, Larry sounds like he’s been working in a Pittsburg steel mill. 

But Larry, played by Lon Cheney Sr., isn’t so broken up by his brother’s death that he can’t hit on the local women.  While looking through his father’s telescope, Larry happens to spot his neighbor, Gwen trying on some earrings.  In what is arguably the most awkward pick up scene in movie history, Larry proceeds to go over to Gwen’s family shop to ask her if he can buy a pair of earrings.  When she offers up a few that are on display, Larry tells her that he actually wants the ones she was just trying on in her room.  I honestly don’t know why Gwen didn’t turn around and flee the shop right then.  After insisting that he will pick her up at eight that night (Gwen pretty much turns him down repeatedly), Larry is able to convince Gwen to grudgingly go out with him. 

At the very least, Gwen is smart enough to bring along a chaperone on her creepy date.  Gwen, Larry, and the third wheel go see the local gypsies and get their fortunes read.  From here you can pretty much guess what happens.  The third wheel is attacked and killed by a wolf, which in turn is killed by Larry who happens to have a silver topped cane on hand, but in the scuffle he is bitten.  Now cursed as a werewolf, Larry must come to terms with his monstrous transformations.  At this point the audience might draw a connection between Larry’s animalism and his repressed sexuality or perhaps the dual nature of man.  But don’t worry, audience member, because John Talbot helpfully makes this point again and again.  While John doesn’t believe in werewolfs, he does think people sometimes suffer from lycanthrope as a mental disorder, which is really just a metaphor for our innate animal urges.  Who needs subtext when you have text-text. 
Up until now I have been a little hard on this film.  But watching it is an interesting look back in history to pre-slasher era horror films.  It’s interesting to note that questions of psycho-sexuality seem imbedded in horror movies long before Carol Clover’s study, Men, Women and Chain Saws.  Besides, the movie is actually pretty good whenever the director has a chance to film a simulacrum of the English countryside at night.  These shots are surprisingly dark for a black and white film, causing the images to devolve into a sequence of abstract shapes.  He also brilliantly shoots through the gnarled branches of tortured looking trees and surrounds them with Fibonacci-like swirls of smoke.  The set design on this film is clearly top notch.  In fact, it’s a shame the movie wasn’t made a couple decades earlier as a silent-film.  If you turn off the volume, you might very well have yourself a horror classic. 

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