Does anyone have nostalgia for the 1941 version of 'The Wolf Man'?

To answer the question atop this post: Yes, I have serious nostalgia for the 1941 version of The Wolf Man. I used to watch it on Saturday-afternoon TV when I was growing up, along with other werewolf movies, like the looney-tunes sequel Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and what I remember best is that when a Wolf Man movie came on, the thing you waited for, the real money shot, was the transformation sequence — one of the earliest examples in Hollywood monsterdom of what could truly be called special effects. I’m not saying that the fully evolved (or devolved?) Wolf Man stalking his way through the forest wasn’t majorly scary-cool, even if his hair did look a bit… puffy, and the sight of him bounding around did bring to mind the image of a very unkempt ballet dancer. Yet the reason the transformation scenes, with their melting lap dissolves — the rapid-fire sprouting of hair and fangs, the wild, drooling attitude — were so exciting to watch is that they made morphing into a werewolf look convulsive and painful at first, and only after that a form of release. As the beast within was liberated, you really got the feeling that this was an innocent dude in the grip.

The fact that the beast was sprouting out of Lon Chaney Jr. had its own crazy-melancholy resonance. He was, of course, the son of the great silent-film horror chameleon, and that hint of nepotism only added to his slightly crestfallen aura: I mean, really, how else could this guy have ever become a star? Chaney, the son, played numerous monsters in his day, from the Mummy to Dracula to Frankenstein’s hulking creature. But the one role that remains quintessentially his is the Wolf Man, and part of it, ironically, is that in George Waggner’s cheesy-spooky 1941 Universal horror classic, Chaney always seems just a little bit out of his depth. As Lawrence Talbot, the heir to a Welsh dynasty who returns home, after 18 years, to the castle of his father (played by Claude Rains, who hilariously appears about five years older than his son), he’s a big, sad lug with a boxer’s physique and the dog-faced look of a lunch-bucket Stanley Kowalski. When he woos the girl who works in the town antique shop, he’s so unsuave that we’re honestly not sure if we’re supposed to be rooting for him to succeed. Wandering into the tent of the movie’s kitschy old gypsy fortune teller (Maria Ouspenskaya, who turned acting into an eerie form of sleepwalking), he’s like a depressed Boy Scout master who got bit by the wrong wild animal.

But Chaney’s awkwardness, his whole potato-sack vibe of sluggish disappointment, works beautifully in The Wolf Man, since he’s playing the one classic Hollywood monster who doesn’t get off, with a beastly dash of ego, on his dark side. The film’s famous poem, which I’m pleased to report is revived in the Benicio Del Toro remake (“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”), basically says: The Wolf Man isn’t evil — he’s just cursed. From the beginning, he was a middle-aged misunderstood kid, the melancholy Dane of monsters. Chaney, morose yet poignant, makes you feel for this guy who, unlike Dr. Jekyll or Dr. Frankenstein, or the high-handed sensual aristocrat Dracula, doesn’t secretly long to feel the power of the night. He just wants that power to go away.

As a Famous Monsters of Filmland vision of The Id Run Wild, the Wolf Man was never much more than a silver-bullet knockoff of Dracula, a Mr. Hyde with less human complexity. He was hairy, and he chomped people to death. That’s about it. But he was always deeply upset about it the next morning (he could almost have used a support group), and he did one thing better than anyone else: He transformed. He showed you what it looked at the exact moment when the beast within…came out.

So does anyone else have nostalgia for The Wolf Man? Or its sequel? Or any other Wolf Man movies? Which ones, old or new, are your favorites?

Comments (22 total) Add your comment
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  • couchgrouch

    of the old classics I always thought The Wolfman was the cheesiest and could best be served by a modern remake. The Karloff Frankensteins were/are great and to a slightly lesser extent, Dracula. I fondly remember Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman as well as the Dracula sequels. THE best werewolf flick is An American Werewolf In London with a distant second being The Howling. AAWIL has a killer, toothy script, great characters, fx and a mix of comedy, tragedy and horror later picked up by The Lost Boys and then by Buffy. the scene where the decomping Jack scratches his chin while talking to David in the porno theater is still a wacky blast after 30 years.

    The new Wolfman is rumored to have had production problems which means it’ll be subject to cheap shots by critics(or maybe it’ll just bite) but I’ll bet the blu-ray will be very cool. it’ll still be no AAWIL. and probably no Howling. those were the days of great scary movies. or maybe I was just 16 and stoned. good times.

  • couchgrouch

    ps speaking of modern werewolves…I love Buffy, ok. the original Oz lycanthrope in Phases was obviously modeled after the beasties in The Howling. then Oz’s hairy other half was demoted into being modeled after…Benji.I know, I digress.

  • Roy H

    I have a real soft spot for the 1933 version of Invisible Man. It’s funny, and at the same time, completely overwhelming. Later in my life, I would eventually marry (and divorce) a woman who, suspiciously enough, looked exactly like Gloria Stuart.

  • Rob

    I was a teen age werewol-Wolfman fan! I still think the Lon Chaney Jr. take was the best. As I kid I would pretend to change-pulling off a near perfect facial contortion. I have seen most Wolfman/Werewolf movies and you are right, everyone judges according to the transformations. I felt the Howling was up there with American Werewolf in London for transformations, but the howling had dang good Werewolves at that retreat center and were the first to show “wolf” legs which are so much better than actors on their tippy toes. I digress…I also love the original Werewolf of London too. That was great. And who could forget Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein? For me it’s 1) Wolfman 2) Werewolf of London and tied for 3rd place the Howling/American Werewolf in London

  • Jon

    I know it’s been forgotten, and wasn’t very popular at the time, but I thought “Wolf” (the 1994 film directed by Mike Nichols) was a smart update of the wolfman story. Jim Harrison (normally a novelist when not slumming in Hollywood) and Wesley Strick’s screenplay wad a crafty, un-PC dog-eat-dog creation. And it was a rare performance by Michelle Pfeiffer with any sort of edge. Outside of her Catwoman role, I can’t think of anything else she’s done remotely similar. The snarling ending is a bit silly, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

    • bunker

      I loved the ending when she walks off into the woods to meet her manimal. Very good movie.

  • greg

    The original WOLF MAN remains one of my favorite movies. Talk about a great cast: Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenkaya, Evelyn Ankers. And a great, quotable script.

    “The way you walk is thorny, through no fault of your own . . .”

  • bunker

    I’m 23 and it was one of my favorite movies as a kid along with the other classic Universal Monster movies.

  • tgb

    I loved the original Wolf Man, but Joe Dante’s The Howling remains the greatest werewolf movie ever. I even think the transformation scenes are BETTER than AAWIL.

  • couchgrouch

    I think The Howling might have better trans scenes but as a whole movie, AAWIL is better.

    • tgb

      The in-jokes alone make The Howling better. – Forrie Ackerman browsing in Dick Miller’s bookstore? A cameo by Roger Corman? And one of the characters eating Wolf brand chili?

      How can you top stuff like that.

      • couchgrouch

        “that’s not Winston”…that one joke is better than all the in-jokes in The Howling. don’t get me wrong, I love The Howling. but AAWIL is better.

  • Jim

    I LOVE “The Wolfman”! I love ALL the old classic Universal Monster movies! I remember watching them over and over on the saturday “Creature Features” shows. Good times indeed!!

  • Sam L

    I don’t like the original Wolf Man. I LOVE IT. I still have my old VHS copy of it that I used to watch as a kid after everyone else went to sleep. Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya = pure, old-fashioned Gothic awesomeness!

  • Lisa

    Wrong Casting! Anthony Hopkins yes. Cate Blanchett as leading lady.And as the Wolfman.Liam Neeson. He could loose the accent.Del Toro -No. If they must remake a classic PLEASE get the casting right.-Thankyou

  • Johnz52

    “Werewolf of London” still holds its own. Besides his hair was perfect.

  • Dante

    I love the wolfman, its a classic. I think American werewolf of paris was good too but the howling is up there the top 3. I got say is the 1941 version wolfman and the howling and I love the Frankenstein meets the Wolfman
    How can u forget the House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula! Lon chaney starred in both of them too.

  • Rich

    I always thought the first half of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman was about the best classic horror ever made. The opening with the graverobbers in the crypt, Talbot waking up in the insane asylum, his first transformation (the best in any Wolfman film) and the somber journey to Vasaria to find Dr. Frankenstein are the stuff that nightmares are made of. Then of course, it all goes south as soon as we get a glimpse of Bela Lugosi as the monster. The make-ups used after FMTW didn’t seem as detailed, more mask-like to save time I suppose. But The Wolfman started it all and is an excellent tale of tragedy and horror. Has anyone ever read Return of the Wolfman by Jeff Rovin? Even my teenage daughter couldn’t put it down. And yes she was weened on Universal horror.

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