Friday, February 24, 2012

The Adventures of Larry Talbot, Wolfman

In the 1940s, the Wolf Man was something of a poor stepchild among the Universal Monsters, sharing his sequels with Frankenstein, Dracula, and even Abbott & Costello. Even Universal Pictures' Legacy Collection DVD series gave him short shrift: His films weren't even included in the set bearing his name, but instead spread across three Legacy Collections. Only the original film and the first Wolf Man sequel ("Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man") are included in the set where they properly belong while the others are in "Dracula: The Legacy Collection" ("House of Dracula") and "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection" ("House of Frankenstein").

This post reviews all the classic Wolf Man pictures--films that established the rules for cinematic werewolves that would be followed the world over for decades afterwards. They also started the "monster mash" tradition of pictures pairing werewolves, vampires, and other creatures that go bump in the night in the same picture. The films are a little uneven in quality at times, with at least one of them being butchered in post-production, but they are among the most solid of Universal's horror efforts during the 1940s, and they show Lon Chaney Jr. at his best.


The Wolf Man (1941)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, Warren William, and Bela Lugosi
Director: George Waggner
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Engineer Larry Talbot (Chaney) returns to his ancestral home and reconnects with his roots... only to be bitten by a werewolf and find himself cursed. Will he manage to find a cure for a malady that no one in the modern world believes in before he kills someone he loves?


"The Wolf Man" isn't the first werewolf movie--I think that was Universal's "Werewolf of London"--but it's the one that brought werewolves firmly into pop culture, and most every other film, novel, or comic book that's followed in the 65+ years since its release owes one thing or another to it. In fact, there are a numer of elements that are now taken as "fact" about werewolf legends that didn't exist until the writer of "The Wolf Man" made them up.

Interestingly, this really isn't that good a movie. It's sloppily edited--leading to characters entering through the same door twice within a few seconds and other glitches--and the script shows signs of only partially implimented rewrites that gives the flm a slightly schizophrenic quality and that causes characters to seemingly forget key plot elements as the story unfolds. (The biggest one; Larry's given an amulet that will supposedly suppress his transformation, an amulet he gives to a lady friend when he thinks the werewolf stuff is a bunch of hooey. Later, though, he seems to have totally forgotten the purpose of the amulet. And let's not even consider the bad script-induced callousness of our heroine, Gwen, who cheerfully goes on a date the night after a good friend is mysteriously murdered in the woods.)

However, what flaws this movie possesses are rendered insignificant thanks to an amazing performance by Lon Chaney Jr. as the tortured werewolf, Larry Talbot. "The Wolf Man" is one of those rare movies where a single actor manages to lift a weak film to the level of a classic. Although he's assisted by a supporting cast that is a veritable who's-who of 1930s and 1940s genre films, and the set designers and dressers went all out, this is truly it is Lon Chaney Jr's movie. It might even be the brightest moment of his entire career.

Chaney plays a decent man who becomes a monster through no fault of his own, and who is horrified by the acts he commits while he is the wolf man. This makes Larry Talbot unique among all the various monsters in the Universal horror picutres of the 1930s and 1940s, and Chaney makes the character even more remarkable by playing him as one of the most likeable (if a bit smarmy when it comes to the ladies) characters in any of the classic horror films. This likeability makes Chaney's performance even more powerful and causes the viewer to feel even more deeper for Larry when he experiences the grief, helplessness, and terror when he realizes that he is a murderer and the victim of a supernatural affliction that his modern, rational mind can't even begin to comprehend.

There are other good performances in the film, and they too help make up for the weak script. Most noteworthy among these is Maria Ouspenskaya who plays a gypsy wise-woman. Ouspenskaya delivers her magic incantations and werewolf lore with such conviction that it's easy to see why they've become the accepted "facts" of werewolves. (This may also be the first film where gypsies became firmly associated with werewolves.)

Although flawed, "The Wolf Man" is a cornerstone of modern popular horror, and it's well-deserving of its status as a classic. It should be seen by lovers of classic horror pictures (Lon Chaney Jr. deserves to be remembered for this film and it's required viewing for any self-respecting fan of werewolf films and literature.


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Starring: Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Patric Knowles, Ilona Massey, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When grave robbers disturb Larry Talbot's tomb, the unwilling werewolf (Chaney) awakens to the discovery that not only is he cursed to become a beast under the full moon, but he is immortal. With the help of Maleva (Ouspenskaya), a gypsy wise-woman, he seeks out Dr. Frankenstein, the premiere expert on life, death, and immortality... because if anyone can find a way to bring death to an immortal, it's Dr. Frankenstein. Will Larry find peace, or will Frankenstein's experiments bring more horror and destruction to the world?


"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" is a direct sequel to both "The Wolf Man" and "Ghost of Frankenstein". It's the first time two legendary horror creatures meet... and without this film, we'd probably never have been treated to "Freddy vs. Jason" or "Alien vs. Predator" or "Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Dracula".

Unlike most of Universal's movies during the 1940s, I appreciate the fact that the creatives and executives at Universal are paying some attention to the continuity of prior Frankenstein films and "The Wolf Man", but there's still plenty of sloppiness and bad storytelling to remind us that this is a Universal film from the 1940s. (Like the werewolf mysteriously changing from pajamas into his dark shirt and pants when transformed, and then changing back into his pajamas as be becomes Larry Talbot again. Or the bizarre forgetfulness of the townspeople who drive Larry and his gypsy friend away, but who don't bat an eye when Larry is later invited to the town's wiine festival and the mayor's guest and date for Baroness Frankenstein (Massey), the granddaugher of the original monster-maker. Maybe the fact that Larry's wearing a suit and tie when he returns fooled them!)

The movie starts out strong, however. The grave-robbing and the wolf man's ressurection scene are spine-chilling. Chaney once again effectively conveys Talbot's mental anguish during the scenes where he is confined to a hospital and recovering from the supposedly fatal headwounds he receieved at the end of "The Wolf Man" (apparently, a werewolf's wounds don't heal while he's supposedly dead and piled high with wolf's bane). It looks like we're in for a thrilling chiller that's going to be better than the original film...

But then the action moves to Switzerland and things start to go wrong.

Although a seemingly endless musical number at the village wine festival is the low point, the inexplicable transformation of a level-headed medical man (Knowles) hoping to help cure Talbot of what he perceives to be a homocidal mania to crazed Frankenstein-wannabe, the seemingly laughable arm-waving performance of the Frankenstein Monster by Bela Lugosi--because Larry simply can't just leave him sleeping in his ice cave--and an ending so abbrupt that it feels like something's missing, all drag the film down to a level of crapitude that almost manages to make the viewer forget about the very excellent first half.

I don't know what went wrong with this film, but I suspect that it was decided at an executive level at Universal that the monster movies were going to be targeted at kids. It's the only explanation that makes sense of the deterioation from mature, well-developed films like "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" to the mostly slap-dash stuff found in the movies featuring Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy for the rest of the 1940s.

My guess is that someone, somewhere, made a decision to shorten this movie and make it more accessible for kids by simplifying it. According to several sources, this film suffered more than average from butchery in the editing room where all of Lugosi's lines were deleted from the soundtrack and key scenes were cut out, such as the one where it's revealed that the Monster is still blind from the partially botched brain transplant in "Ghost of Frankenstein". This detail explains why Lugosi is stumbling about with with his arms outstretched and is seen pawing strangely at items while Larry Talbot is searching for Dr. Frankenstein's records. Lugosi's performance goes from laughably stupid to perfectly decent when one understands what he was doing. (The original screen writer says that the editing was done was test audiences thought the monster was funny when speaking with Lugosi's accent and that this is why the second half of the film was so heavilly edited. That sounds reasonable, but only if one ignores the overall direction the Universal horror movies were heading in. And the shockingly badly handled, abrubt ending. And the dangling plot threads... where DOES Maleva vanish to?)

But, a film can only be judged by what's there on the screen. While the editing left the flim shorter and more straight-forward, it also resulted in very important plot-points and probably even mood-establishing scenes and elements being slashed out. We also have a movie where Frankenstein's Monster once again has very little to do (as was the case in "Son of Frankenstein"), And, ultimately, we're left with a movie that is both remarkable for its being the first meeting of two great cinematic monsters, but also for being a clear point at which to say that this is where the reign of Universal as king of horror films ended.

"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" isn't a truly terrible movie. It's just rendered dissapointingly mediocre by its second half, and it just manages to earn a Six rating.


House of Frankenstein (1944)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carroll Naish, John Carradine and George Zucco
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After escaping from prison, mad scientist Gustav Niemann (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge on those who helped imprison him, and to find the notes of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein so he can perfect his research. Along the way, he accidentially awakens Dracula (Carradine) and recruits him to his cause, as well as uncovers the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and Larry Talbot, the unfortunate wolfman (Chaney) and and revives them. Cue the torch-wielding peasant mob.


"House of Frankenstein" kinda-sorta picks up where "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" picked up, although the method of survival for the monsters is a bit dodgey, with Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man having both been frozen in a glacier so they could be revived for this film.

"House of Frankenstein" unfolds in a very episodic way, with the part of the film involving Dracula feeling very disconnected from what comes before and what comes after. The main storyline sees Karloff's mad doctor questing for revenge while preparing to prove himself a better master of brain-transplanting techniques than Frankenstein, and the growing threat to his cause by his repeated snubbing of his murderous assistant (Naish). The whole bit with Dracula could easily be left out, and the film may have been stronger for it.

This is a very silly movie that is basically a parade of gothic horror cliches--I thought maybe I was having some sort of hallucinatory flashback to my days writing for the "Ravenloft" line--but it moves at a quick pace, and it features a great collection of actors, has a nifty musical score, and features great sets once the story moves to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein.

"House of Dracula" is one of the lesser Universal Monster movies--it's not rock-bottom like the mummy films with Lon Chaney, but it's almost there. The film is, to a large degree, elevated by the top-notch performances from Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr, and they're almost too good for this film.


House of Dracula (aka "The Wolf Man's Cure")
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Onslow Stevens, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, Martha O'Driscoll, Jane Adams, and Glenn Strange
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Unwilling, immortal werewolf Larry Talbot (Chaney) seeks out Dr. Edelman (Stevens), hoping the doctor's cutting edge therapies will cure his affliction. Unfortunately, the doctor's other patient, Count Dracula (Carradine), endangers this hope when he out of pure malice afflicts Edelman with a condition that causes him to become a violent madman at night. It is during one of these fits that Edelman revives Frankenstein's Monster (Strange), which has been dormant in his lab since it was recovered from mud-floes under Edelman's castle.

"House of Dracula" was the third sequel to "The Wolf Man" and "Dracula" and the fifth sequel to "Frankenstein"... and it was the next-to-last stop for all three of the characters as Universal's decade-and-half long horror ride came to an end. nearly the last stop for Universal's original monsters, and it is something of a high note when compared to other Universal horror films from around the same time, even the one to which this is a sequel, "House of Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff.

The script in "House of Dracula" is stronger and more coherent than "House of Frankenstein". The effort at maintaining continuity with other films featuring the character of the Wolf Man are in evidence here, and they are greatly appreciated by this continuity geek. Also, all the various monster characters each get their moment to shine--unlike in "House of Frankenstein" where Dracula was completely superflous to the storyline and whose presense was little more than a marquee-grabbing cameo.

In this film, Dracula is the well-spring of evil from which the plot flows. Although he supposedly comes to Dr. Edelman seeking release from vampirism and his eternal life, he is either too evil or too stupid to control his desires for Edelman's beautfiful nurse (O'Driscoll). He gets his just desserts, but not before he guarentees that every brave and goodhearted character in the film is set on a path of destruction.

The climactic scenes of this film, as the insane Dr. Edelman and Frankenstein's Monster go on homicidal rampages, feature some very, sudden, casual, and matter-of-fact brutality. (I can't go into details without spoiling the plot, but two main characters are dispatched with such swift and surprisingly brutal fashion that modern-day horror filmmakers should take a look at the final minutes of "House of Dracula" and attempt to learn some lessons from them.)

And then there's Larry Talbot. The role of the wolf man in this story is the meatiest since the character's debut in "The Wolf Man". Although he still doesn't get to have the stage to himself, and he is once again a secondary character--the main character of "House of Dracula" is the unfortunate Dr. Edelman--he has some great moments... like his suicide attempt and his discovery of the dormant Frankenstein's Monster.

Acting-wise, this is also one of the better than many other Universal horror films of the period. This is partly due to a superior script that features a story that actually flows with some degree of logic and where the actors have some fairly decent lines to deliever.

Lon Chaney Jr. does his usual excellent job as Larry Talbot, but Onslow also shines as a scientific genius who's a little less mad than the standard in a movie like this (well, at least until Dracula is done with him).


John Carradine performs decently, but I simply can't buy him as Dracula. Even in his younger years, he had the look of a burned-out, alcoholic bum, and the lighting and make-up in this feature strengthen that look as far as I'm concerned. While miscast, he does a decent job.

Lionel Atwill is also on hand for another fine supporting role. The part is similar to the one he played in "Son of Frankenstein", but the role is even more interesting, as he's the voice of reason in a town that is otherwise inhabited by villagers whose favorite pastime seems to be grabbing torches and storming the castle.

When all things are taken into account, this is perhaps the best of Universal's original Wolf Man films, and it was a fitting send-off for poor Larry Talbot, as well as Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula.

But... there would be one last bow for Larry and his eternal foes.



Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert and Bela Lugosi
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The reluctant Wolf Man, Larry Talbot (Chaney) learns that Dracula (Lugosi) intends to revive Frankenstein's Monster and use it as his personal super-soldier. He pursues the evil vampire lord to the United States where he finds his only allies to be Wilbur and Chick (Costello and Abbott), a couple of less-than-bright shipping clerks. Unfortunately, Dracula as an ally of his own--mad scientist femme fatale Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert), and she has Wilbur wrapped around her little finger. Little does Wilbur know that his girlfriend doesn't love him for his mind but rather his brain... she intends to do Dracula's bidding and transplant into the rejuvinated monster!


"Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a wild screwball comedy with the two master comedians doing their usual routines within the framework of a solid script and a story that's actually pretty logical in its own crazy way. I think it's the first fusion of comedy and monsters, and one reason it works so well is that the monsters are played straight. Even when they are involved in funny schtick (Dracula and the Wolf Man are both part of several routines), they remain as they were featured in the serious monster movies they were in. Of course, one shouldn't ask how or why Larry was once again cursed (given his cure at the end of "House of Dracula,") but otherwise the monsters are all consistent with previous films.

Too often, I hear this film written off as Universal's last and crassest attempt to wring some dollars out of their tired monster franchise. While that may be all the studio bosses had in mind, the creators involved with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" managed to make a great movie that is still worth watching today. It's even superior to many of Universal's "straight" movies with Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man (or, for that matter, countless recent so-called horror films). Much of its strength grows from the fact that has a plot that with some tweaking could be a straight horror movie.

I recommend this underappreciated film to any lover of the classic monster films, as well as lovers of slapstick comedy.





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