Tuesday, October 08, 2002


Usually, I avoid writing about the better-known classic movies here on my blog, but for my October horror movie project, I'll break that rule and go back and re-watch a few famous films. The Universal horror films of the 30's and 40's were among the very first movies I remember seeing on TV and they have remained favorites of mine. Of all the Universal greats, my favorite is DRACULA, but I think THE WOLF MAN had the most potential. Unfortunately, it doesn't come as close as it should to being a really good movie, for two reasons: a sloppy screenplay and the sad miscasting of the lead part. Lon Chaney Jr. is Larry Talbot, the son of the British Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry returns to his stately home after many years in the States (which apparently explains Chaney's total lack of any accent but does not explain the total dunderheadness of his line readings), following the tragic death of his brother. There has been tension between the son and father for some time, but it's quickly glossed over, the first problem with the screenplay. While attending a gypsy fair with a young lady he oafishly flirted with earlier in the day (Evelyn Ankers), he is attacked and bitten by a wolf, which turns out be a werewolf (the gypsy fortune teller Bela Lugosi, wasted in a very short scene). The curse of the werewolf is passed along to Chaney, who begins leaving his house at night, in two-legged wolf form, to attack wandering innocents in the dark.

I suspect this was intended to be close to an A-project, what with the strong supporting cast of Rains, Ralph Bellamy, and Patric Knowles, and much of the movie does look good, in that studio-bound way that the Universal films (and later the Hammer films) had about them. But Chaney is inept throughout. To be fair, some of the problem has to do with his looks; it's just laughable to think that he and Rains could be related--Patric Knowles would have been more believable. And he does garner some sympathy because he comes off as basically a nice guy stuck in a tragic situation not of his own making. He also snarls OK in his wolf make-up. But every line he delivers sounds wooden and awkward, and I don't for a minute believe that Ankers would be charmed by him. He first discovers her when he's looking through her window with his father's telescope, and I thought the theme of watching or spying might continue through the movie, but the screenplay drops or ignores any plot point that threatens to become interesting (like the father-son relationship, like why Lugosi changes into a four-legged wolf but Chaney does not, like why Maria Ouspenskaya [Lugosi's mother] seems to have the power to stop Chaney's transformation). I guess I'm being awfully hard on the movie. After all, it is fun to watch, it's atmospheric, and the little rhyme about how even a man who is pure of heart can become a wolf sounds so authentic, it's hard to believe that it was original to this movie. But with a stronger story and a better actor in the lead role, it could have been so much better.

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