If you haven't heard this piece of horror-movie doggerel before, you'll never forget it after seeing The Wolf Man for two reasons: it's a spooky piece of rhyme and nearly everybody in the picture recites it at one time or another. Set in a fog-bound studio-built Wales, The Wolf Man tells the doom-laden tale of Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who returns to the estate of his wealthy father (Claude Rains). (Yes, Chaney's American, but the movie explains this, awkwardly.) Bitten by a werewolf, Talbot suffers the classic fate of the victims of lycanthropy: at the full moon, he turns into a werewolf, a transformation ingeniously devised by makeup maestro Jack Pierce. Pierce was the man who turned Boris Karloff into the Frankenstein monster, and his werewolf makeup became equally famous, with its canine snout and bushy hairdo--and, of course, seriously sharp dental work. The Wolf Man was a smash hit, giving Universal Pictures a new monster for their already crowded stable, and Chaney found himself following in the footsteps (or paw prints) of his father, who had essayed a monster or two in the silent era. This is a classy horror outing, with strong atmosphere and a thoughtful script by Curt Siodmak--well, except for the stiff romantic bits between Chaney and Evelyn Ankers. It's also got Bela Lugosi (briefly) and Maria Ouspenskaya, the prunelike Russian actress who foretells doom like nobody's business. --Robert Horton
There is just something different about The Wolf Man; I have a hard time viewing him as a monster Larry Talbot is a thoroughly sympathetic and tragic character. Dracula loves being a vampire, Frankenstein's monster is just an unfortunate victim of circumstance whose various body parts have already lived full lives, but Larry Talbot desperately hates the monster he has become. He's already a sympathetic character, coming home after eighteen years following the death of his older brother, trying to fit in among the folks he said goodbye to long ago. Then, when he hears a fateful howl accompanied by a scream, he races off in heroic fashion, taking on a wolf in order to try and save a woman's life, killing the doggoned creature. And what does he get for his noble, self-less act? First of all, suspicion, because instead of the wolf he described, the authorities find the body of a gypsy fortune teller (played by Bela Lugosi, who gets all of seven lines in the film) clubbed to death by Talbot's cane. Then, tragically, he finds himself inflicted with the curse of the werewolf, thanks to the bite he suffered in the struggle. Chaney's performance also adds to his tragic status. He had a style of acting all his own; at times, I watch him and think the guy just couldn't act his way out of a dark room with a flashlight, but his strange and slightly awkward manner, tempered by a sort of gentle slowness ends up leaving me mesmerized. In most horror movies, I'm always ready to bring the monster on and get the party started, but I never look forwarding to watching Talbot turn into the werewolf.
I think everyone is pretty well acquainted with the story here. Man gets bitten by werewolf, man turns into werewolf, man suffers a tragic fate. The Wolf Man, though, succeeds in becoming much more than just the simple tale of a hairy monster. The inimitable Claude Rains lends the film character and class as Talbot's father. The lovely Evelyn Ankers makes a great leading lady in the form of Gwen Conliffe. Lugosi is of course terrific as the gypsy Bela, but the role is a minor one indeed. Maria Ouspenskaya is masterful as the gypsy woman Maleva who tries to warn Talbot and help him deal with the curse that suddenly consumes his life. Siodmak really provided a tight plot; there would be a number of sequels, but The Wolf Man is a completely self-contained movie of great power and meaning.
There are a number of really interesting things about this movie. For instance, we never actually see Talbot's transformation from man to wolf - we see the legs change, but that is it. There is a scene toward the end where we witness the transformation from wolf to man, but you won't see any time-lapse treatment of the change from man to monster. Of much more interest to me is the fact that you don't hear a single reference to the moon in the entire film. Apparently, the transformation happens nightly to Talbot; there is nothing to indicate that a full moon plays any part at all. Thus, some of the core Wolf Man assumptions do not trace themselves back to the original movie.
The commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, included on the DVD, is just superb. It's one of the most engaging commentaries I've heard. This guy is loaded to the gills with facts and trivia, and he barely pauses over the course of the film's 70 minutes, delivering one gem after another. He also asks some of the questions I ask when I watch the movie, and I love that. This isn't a commentary by some stuffy "expert." Weaver is indeed an expert, but at the same time he is one of us, a true fan of classic horror movies.