It’s weird to imagine seeing a werewolf movie without knowing beforehand some of the standards of werewolf mythology. For instance, everybody knows that werewolves are killed by silver, right? Well, not before 1941. It was the screenwriter of The Wolf Man who created key parts of the werewolf mythology like this. But just creating something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily still watchable today. Fortunately, The Wolf Man is still very entertaining.
Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.), an American, returns to the English village where his father (Claude Rains) lives. There, he kills a wolf that’s attacking a girl, but not before getting bitten by it. And then strange wolf attacks start plaguing the town. Which must surely be a coincidence.
What rather surprised me as a jaded modern viewer is how the condition is treated. Larry is sure that he’s turning into a werewolf and absolutely insists that he’s the one causing the attacks, but the townsfolk just think that he’s going mad. The only one who believes him is a gypsy fortuneteller (played by Maria Ouspenkaya, showing up in the third movie I’ve watched recently), whose son was the werewolf that bit Larry. Still, there’s nothing she can do to save him, even as Larry realizes that he’s becoming a menace to the village. It adds a hopelessness to the movie, a knowledge that Larry can either keep killing people as a monster or die.
The make-up could’ve easily been one of those things that falls apart after 70 years. The haircut on the wolf man is frankly rather goofy, and the transformation sequences are just several frames of (very time-consuming in production) hair growing on put in a row. But it works. I think part of what saves the makeup is that it’s mainly seen in low light. Being able to see it clearly would’ve likely ruined the effect. There’s also Lon Chaney’s acting of it. He lurches and prowls around the screen, overacting but in a good way. It’s pure classic movie monster, and it just works without being able to explain it in words.
So The Wolf Man is worth seeing, both as a classic genre turning point, and just as a good movie. It’s entertaining, psychologically interesting, and it has a good monster. I don’t know what more you need from a horror movie.