Review by Timothy Lawrence
“Even a man who is pure in heart / And says his prayers by night / May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms / And the autumn moon is bright.”
– The Wolf Man
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
– Romans 7
Modern man likes to conceive of evil as something external and therefore eradicable, at least in theory. If evil is out there in the world, then the problem of evil is one that could be solved if only we could apply the right social program to it. The Christian, however, understands evil to be so deeply ingrained in human nature that only divine intervention can overcome it. In its battle against the modern heresy of aboriginal sinlessness, the Christian doctrine of original sin has strange allies in the pre-Christian pagans, who knew full well that man was doomed by his own tragically divided nature. Centuries before St. Paul lamented his own wretchedness in the Epistle to the Romans, Sophocles birthed the horror genre with Oedipus the King, a story that derived its tragic power from man’s contradictory nature as the god-beast. Man has the capacity for intellectual contemplation, which raises him to the level of the gods, but he is always in danger of succumbing to his carnal desires and sinking to the level of the beasts. Werewolf movies, then, draw from the same deep, dark well as the most ancient horror stories. The horror of the werewolf is the horror of man in every era: the horror of man overcome by his animal nature.
I set The Wolf Man in this context because it might not seem remarkable otherwise. In terms of special effects, Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man is frankly far from the cream of the classic movie monster crop. Boris Karloff’s Monster (from Frankenstein), the indelibly rubbery Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Claude Rains’ flamboyantly malicious Invisible Man are all more powerful screen presences. Even so, The Wolf Man carries a tragic weight that the other Universal monster classics lack, in large part because of Chaney’s doleful performance as the werewolf’s human alter ego. Over the course of a scant 70-minute runtime, with rudimentary special effects and only a handful of sets, the film paints a portrait of man’s bleak fate that is almost Sophoclean in its starkness.
The drama begins with Chaney’s Larry Talbot returning to his ancestral home in provincial, “backwards” Wales after a lengthy stint abroad in America, that most modern of nations. After the death of his older brother John in a hunting accident, Larry is reuniting with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains), after nearly twenty years of estrangement. Laying out the family history in an early scene, Sir John frankly confesses that he gave all his attention to John, his heir, and surmises that Larry left for America because he resented this paternal neglect. John’s portrait implies that Larry and John were identical twins, subtly adding another layer to the backstory of sibling rivalry: we are left to imagine how it felt for Larry to be so close to his brother in age and appearance, and yet to be treated so differently. The absent John, who shares a face with his brother and a name with his father, is the icon of a familial harmony that the Talbot men aspire to but cannot attain. Sir John states his desire to mend his relationship with his younger son, but it is hard to shake the feeling that he is trying to shape Larry into John – and by the end of the film, this is precisely what will happen. “Your brother’s death was a blow to all of us,” Sir John tells Larry, and the entire drama concludes when he unknowingly kills Larry with a blow to the head. Like John, Larry will die in a “hunting accident” of sorts, revealing the story of the Talbot family to be a doomed circle.
Father and son seem tragically ill-matched from the beginning. Rains projects formidable British dignity from his slight frame, suggesting a quick, sly wit with every twist of his eyebrows. As the Americanized Larry, Chaney – who towers over the diminutive figure of his onscreen father – lumbers through every scene with a forlorn mixture of clumsiness and tenderness, awkward in the puppyish intensity of his desire to be loved and accepted. Sir John works with his mind, but Larry works with his hands. Sir John needs Larry’s help to get his astronomic telescope working, but Larry needs Sir John’s help to actually use it properly. “I’m all right with tools,” he says, “But when it comes to theory, I’m pretty much of an amateur.” Later, in the grip of the werewolf’s curse, Larry will lament his helplessness thus: “I can figure out most anything if you give me electric current and tubes and wires, something I can do with my hands, but these things you can’t even touch – !”
Sir John’s telescope is meant for contemplation of the heavens, but the earthbound Larry uses it to spy on a woman in the neighboring village. In his initial attempt at flirtation, Larry pretends to be a psychic – a man with mental powers – instead of truthfully telling Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) that he was watching her through her window when she thought she was alone. Modern viewers are bound to be uncomfortable with the aggressiveness of Larry’s sexual advances, though we might chalk them up to different social mores and leave it at that. I am convinced, however, that the film is making a moral point. After violating Gwen’s privacy by spying on her and striking up a conversation with her under false pretenses (pretending to want to buy something from her shop), Larry will not take “no” for an answer even though she refuses him three times. It is clear that Larry’s desires are not chaste: at nightfall, when Gwen brings along a chaperone, he openly sulks with disappointment, and the chaperone subsequently dies in a werewolf attack precisely because Larry wants to get Gwen by herself. Later, a prudish churchgoer who disapproves of Larry’s behavior with Gwen contemptuously likens him to a “wild animal.” Lycanthropy, then, is linked to ravening, uncontrolled sexual desire from the beginning. Even before he becomes a werewolf, Larry is dominated by his animal impulses. The curse that descends upon him is not arbitrary but poetically linked to his lust.
The film’s treatment of the werewolf is stretched taut between two opposite extremes. On the one hand, there is Sir John, who offers a rational, enlightened account of the werewolf legend: “It’s probably an ancient explanation of the dual personality in each of us.” In other words, it is all in Larry’s head, and implicit in Sir John’s behavior is the expectation that Larry should be able to overcome his lycanthropic delusions if he really puts his mind to it. Sir John even refuses to send Larry to a mental hospital: “The one way for him to get cured is to stay here and fight his way out of this.” Like the local parish priest, Sir John rails against the “superstition” of gypsies, though his Christianity sounds suspiciously like mere baptized rationalism.
Over and against Sir John is the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), mother of the werewolf who kills Gwen’s chaperone and bites Larry, transferring the curse to him before he kills it. Twice, Maleva repeats the following refrain over the body of a deceased werewolf: “The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own. But as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.” Whereas the rationalist Sir John wants Larry to pull himself up by his bootstraps, Maleva’s pagan understanding removes his agency altogether: his lycanthropy is “predestined” and therefore “no fault of [his] own.”
The film is haunting because neither explanation satisfies. The rationalist says that man is master over nature, and thus blamable for his failure to overcome it. The pagan says that man is subject to nature and thus absolves him of responsibility. If Sir John is correct, why can Larry not undo the curse by his own efforts? If Maleva is correct, why does Larry feel his guilt so strongly, experiencing such intense shame that he cannot cross the threshold of a church?
The film’s most striking shot comes when Larry is standing uncertainly outside the entrance to the nave. The camera moves down the aisle and, as it passes each pew, the parishioners turn around to look silently at Larry. The last to turn around is his father, Sir John. If Larry’s idea of God the Father has been shaped by his relationship with his human father, as so often happens, we can hardly be surprised that he is unwilling to enter the church. Given the setting, we can surmise that the Talbots attend an Anglican church, and if so, there is a good chance the liturgy would begin with the prayer: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid… If his earthly father has only ever been a dispassionate, emotionally distant judge, how can Larry bear to be seen and known by his Heavenly Father? It is no wonder that he turns away from the church in tears.
Sir John’s refusal to believe that Larry has been cursed to become a werewolf leads to the film’s most heartbreaking scene. Knowing that, in the night, he will lose control of himself and possibly harm those he loves most, Larry begs his disbelieving father to take his silver-headed cane – the only weapon that could kill a werewolf. Though he has only ever referred to Sir John as “father” or “sir,” in this moment, Larry calls Sir John “dad” for the first and only time – and Sir John, moved for once by fatherly affection, relents.
In the end, Sir John and Maleva – Christianity and paganism, rationalism and superstition – meet in the foggy woods outside the Talbot mansion. They stand opposite each other over the body of the werewolf, which Sir John has bludgeoned to death in a fearful struggle. The gypsy kneels over the creature’s body while Sir John stands aloof. At Maleva’s words, the wolf man transforms back into Larry. Realizing what he has done, Sir John sinks down, humbled, to touch the face of his son.
Maleva and Sir John are both right, and both wrong: Larry Talbot is the victim of a curse, but he is also culpable for his actions. Is this not a deeply true depiction of human evil? We are indeed under a curse, for “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all” – but we are also rendered blameworthy by the free choices we make every day.
In the film’s credits, Lon Chaney is listed not as “Larry Talbot,” but as “The Wolf Man.” The final spoken line of dialogue, however, belongs to Gwen, who identifies the body as “Larry,” giving voice to the revelation Sir John is too stricken to verbalize. The two natures of man are ultimately inseparable. At bottom, the insoluble dilemma of The Wolf Man is the same dilemma faced by all of Adam’s sons who are torn between god and beast, spirit and flesh – a dilemma from which they can only ever be delivered by the God who condescended to become flesh and, in so doing, redeem it.
- Release DateDecember 12, 1941