Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Saturday, September 26, 1970: The Wolf Man (1941) / House of Dracula (1945)

The Wolf Man

Synopsis: Lawrence Talbot returns to the family estate after a self-imposed exile of nearly two decades. He is welcomed back by his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and talk quickly turns to Larry's elder brother, who was recently killed in a hunting accident. Now that he is the eldest, Lawrence is heir to the estate, as well as heir to his father's limited capacity for affection.

Lawrence has spent a good deal of time in California, and it shows: by the standards of his home town he is distressingly informal and decidedly frivolous, taking more interest in local shopgirl Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) than in the more serious matters surrounding the family estate. Nevertheless Sir John is happy about the prodigal son's return, believing that Lawrence (or "Larry", as he has taken to calling himself) has spent enough time in the New World to benefit the stodgy old ways of Talbot Castle. Larry is certainly good with tools and machines; it's when he is working with modern contrivances that he seems happiest and most self-assured.

In an attempt to get on Gwen's good side, Larry purchases an unusual item from her family's shop: an ornate cane with a silver wolf's head. The wolf, we learn, is a potent and fearful symbol of the supernatural in these parts, as is the pentacle, which is also etched on the handle of the cane.

It turns out that Gwen is engaged to Frank Andrews, a decent fellow; nevertheless, Gwen accompanies Larry to a Gypsy camp, where they hope to have their fortunes told. At the last minute, Gwen invites her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to join them.

Alas, poor Jenny! She really ought to have known better. As Gwen and Lawrence walk together under the light of the full Moon, Jenny has her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi). What the fortune-teller sees in Jenny's future alarms him, and he urges Jenny to go home -- immediately. Terrified, Jenny runs away into the woods.

Almost immediately, Jenny is set upon by some sort of animal. Larry, hearing her screams, rushes to her aid, and attacks the creature with his cane. He manages to kill it, but not before it mauls his chest. Larry staggers away, collapsing only a few yards from Jenny's body.

Larry is taken home. The next morning he learns several disturbing facts: Jenny is dead, her throat ripped out. While a wolf clearly attacked her, no wolf carcass was found in the area; instead, the body of Bela the fortune-teller was found nearby, his head smashed in, presumably by Larry's cane. Moreover, Larry's chest shows no animal bites whatsoever.

Larry is at a loss to understand what happened, but Sir John offers a rational explanation: Jenny was indeed attacked by a wolf. Larry and Bela ran to her aid at the same time, and in the confusion Larry killed Bela, thinking that he was attacking the wolf. But Larry is unconvinced: how could anyone mistake a man for a wolf, even in the dark? How could wounds on his chest be his imagination? And why wasn't Bela wearing his shoes?

That night, Larry Talbot undergoes a terrible transformation: he becomes a werewolf beneath the full Moon, and murders a gravedigger. The next morning, Larry confesses everything, but no one believes him.

No one, that is, except the Gypsy woman Maleva, whose own son suffered from the same curse....

Comments: Aside from introducing one of the great characters of the Universal horror pantheon, The Wolf Man offers something extra to devoted viewers of Horror Incorporated. The movie is simply loaded with actors we've seen again and again on the show. In addition to the ubiquitous Lon Chaney Jr, we also have Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), Evelyn Ankers (The Frozen Ghost), Ralph Bellamy (The Man Who Lived Twice), Bela Lugosi (Dracula) , Patric Knowles (The Strange Case of Dr. RX) and Fay Helm (Night Monster).

Sometimes movies that are lauded as classics prove disappointing to the modern viewer, but not The Wolf Man. It is, quite simply, a ripping good story. Much of its power comes from an insistence that modern logic offer no protection against ancient fears.

From the very beginning Sir John Talbot is depicted as a progressive fellow, insisting that Lawrence's time in America can only benefit the locals. Throughout the movie, Sir John's confidence in modernity and rationality never wavers. Yet for all his soothing speeches, he is absolutely powerless to prevent the mayhem that is to come. In the end this rational man loses his own child to the same irrational force that took Maleva's. The only difference is that Maleva understands the ancient forces at work, and can at least make peace with them.

Curt Siodmak's brisk screenplay wisely makes Larry a proxy for the viewer: he has been away so long that he is essentially a stranger in his home town (though, if he grew up in the area, it's unlikely that he would be so ignorant of the werewolf lore everyone else seems to know by heart). Unlike the frosty Dr. Wilfred Glendon in Werewolf of London, Larry is depicted as a regular guy, someone who'd rather be buying a pretty girl a soda than peering through a microscope.

The screenplay rarely falters in making Larry a decent, likable fellow, but Siodmak arranges an unfortunate meet-cute between Larry and Gwen. Larry is setting up his father's telescope at Talbot Castle and, peering into the eyepiece, just happens (cough, cough) to see Gwen through her bedroom window; smitten, he goes to her shop and asks for the earrings he knows are on her nightstand. This was probably considered fun and light-hearted stuff in 1941 (hey, he wouldn't be spying on you with a telescope if he didn't like you), but today it makes Larry seem rather unsavory.

Of course, this might be a hint of what's to come, if you are willing to regard the werewolf as Larry's repressed id running amok; but the metaphor of hairy-wolfman-as-the-animal-we-carry-inside-us seems too shopworn and dreary to go into. So let's sidestep the issue and assume the telescope scene was meant to be innocent fun -- in an era when any women who said otherwise would be accused of being no fun at all.

This was probably Lon Chaney Jr's best performance, and the role seems to have been written with him in mind: Larry is good-natured, gentle in most circumstances, but capable of great anger when he feel he's been wronged. This plays greatly to Chaney's strengths as a soft-spoken but physically imposing actor. Similarly, Evelyn Ankers is not entirely forgettable here, as close to an acting triumph as she is likely to get.

Patric Knowles excelled at playing stuffed shirts named Frank, and he is perfectly serviceable here; but what Ralph Bellamy is doing as the local prosecutor, it isn't easy to say.

Maria Ouspenskaya is brilliant in her first film appearance as Maleva. She brings a somber dignity to her character, as she would later in the less-dignified Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

I've got a little treat for you -- the 8-minute Castle Films version of The Wolf Man. In the pre-home video days, Castle Films were the only way you could watch your favorite movies again, and they were cleverly boiled down to a single 8- or 16-mm reel. In many ways they were small masterpieces in their own right, cramming every plot point into an impossibly small container:

House of Dracula

Synopsis: Patients from all over the world seek out the brilliant Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a physician with a keen mind and a big heart. He has a practice that he runs out of his castle in Vasaria, and those who have lost hope in conventional medicine can turn to him in their hour of need.
Late one night Edelmann is dozing in an easy chair when a man in top hat and tails shows up in his living room and wakes him. The stranger introduces himself as Baron Latos, but it's obvious right away that he's really Count Dracula (John Carradine). He wants Dr. Edelmann to help find a cure for his vampirism.

By cure, Dracula presumably isn't looking for the sunlight-and-wooden-stake cure. We're talking a medical cure, something that will make him mortal again.

Since Dracula's already dead, I would rate his chances for a full recovery as vanishingly slim, but Edelmann is made of sterner stuff and agrees to give it a try.

Meanwhile, an agitated man is trying to get in to see Dr. Edelmann. It's our old friend Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr). and after badgering the receptionist for a while, he rushes out of the clinic, jabbering about the full Moon that will soon rise.

In his laboratory, Edelmann is examining the Count's blood cells under a microscope, when he gets a phone call from Vasaria's chief of police (Lionel Atwill). A distraught man has demanded to be incarcerated. He's clearly a nutter, so would Edelmann come down and have a look at him?

Edelmann does so, and comes face to face with Lawrence Talbot, who claims he turns into a werewolf when the Moon is full.

At just about that moment, the full Moon comes into view and Talbot changes into a wolf man -- before his very eyes. He tells the Chief to keep the beast imprisoned until morning -- then he will examine Talbot.

When Dracula comes back Edelmann tells him that vampirism is caused by a blood parasite, and that a series of blood transfusions might do the trick. It turns out that Talbot's problem also has a scientific basis. Talbot turns into a werewolf, we are told, because he believes he will. This belief, combined with certain irregularities in Talbot's skull that put pressure on key points in the brain, trigger his lycanthropic proclivities.

The condition can be cured, Edelmann says, but it will take time. This is too much for the excitable Talbot, who races out of the castle and throws himself off a nearby cliff into the ocean.

Edelmann, believing Talbot may have been swept into a cave in the cliffside, lowers himself with a rope down the cliff face. He finds that Talbot -- now a wolf man -- has indeed found his way into a cave. Moreover, there's someone else there -- Frankenstein's monster, in suspended animation....

Comments: I talked about House of Dracula here, when it was first broadcast on Horror Incorporated; and in spite of my best efforts I couldn't muster a lot of enthusiasm while watching it again.

It's difficult today to imagine movies like House of Dracula being scary for audiences, even when they were running in theaters. Finding modern analogues for these movies isn't exact, but let's agree that Alien was creepy and quite scary, while Alien V. Predator was silly and derivative. Would it follow, then, that Alien is to Dracula as Alien Vs. Predator is to House of Dracula? It is tempting to think so. But to be sure I decided to go back and see what the self-appointed guardians of moral cleanliness thought about this movie. Take it away, Catholic Legion of Decency:

House of Dracula -- Murky monster tale of an idealistic doctor (Onslow Stevens) who cures the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) after killing the prowling Dracula (John Carradine), then discovers he's been contaminated by the vampire's blood and becomes one himself until reviving the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) for a fiery finale. Directed by Erle C. Kenton, the feverish plot is as unconvincing as the monsters, though the spooky visuals and eerie atmosphere offer some scary moments. Stylized violence, menacing situations and hokey moralizing. (A-II)

Now when the Legion of Decency accuses you of "hokey moralizing", you know you're in trouble.

The A-II rating, by the way, meant that it was only partially objectionable, and was acceptable fare for adults and adolescents. It was actually rare for the Legion to condemn a film outright; the studios were careful not to offend the Catholic lobby, and the Catholic censors was careful not to veer too far out from popular taste. The review suggests that the monster rallies of the mid-1940s were neither offensive nor particularly frightening.

And really, who is going to be scared of a horse-faced ham like John Carradine?

But the real question we should be asking is: Does House of Dracula entertain? Well, sure. It is a buck-toothed, lovable little movie. Perhaps I am less forgiving of it because its sudden lurch into pseudo-science was jarring (in the same way George Lucas' decision to come up with "mitochondria" as a scientific explanation for The Force was jarring). And after all, not counting a few Abbot and Costello appearances, this was the last roundup for the icons of Universal Horror. Too bad they couldn't go out with a bit more dignity.


kochillt said...

Insightful commentary on THE WOLF MAN. It's still difficult to believe that such a literate, well rounded script would ever be penned by Curt Siodmak, whose career wallowed in mediocrity, especially after turning to directing in the 1950's (he spent the rest of his life taking potshots at both Chaney and Lugosi). Evelyn Ankers shines in her best remembered role, with only WEIRD WOMAN, plus her 2 Sherlock Holmes features, offering her as much range in their characters. Claude Rains makes a welcome return to Universal horror, but Warren William and Ralph Bellamy had no such credentials. Coupled with HOUSE OF DRACULA, this would have been one of my favorite double features, yet never once did anyone broadcast THE WOLF MAN with its direct sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (typically, I viewed the sequel long before the original).

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