The Test of Time: The Wolf Man (1941)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: George Waggner
Starring: Claude Raines, Ralph Bellamy, and Lon Chaney Jr.

In my perfect Halloween world, all TVs should be playing something horrific when the little ones come knocking. Choose your own poison (for the TV...NOT the kids), but I prefer to thrown on one of the true old school classics: a Universal monster movie. It seems like a reasonable request because a) it’traumatization prevent any massive traumatization for ten and under, and b) no one should ignore what's come before. They don’t deserve it. Oh sure, we all have our go-to favorites, but there’s something to be said about the films that inspired the very films we love. If they influenced the every element of the genres we dig, should they still get love too?

Back in the days of the Studio System, all studios branded themselves as something. Warner Bros equaled blue-collar tales. Paramount equaled sophisticated comedies. For Universal, however, they understood filmgoers’ love for horror with their line of monster movies, which hopefully all horror fans understand is the root for the entire genre. For this column, I chose the one that I saw most as a little Doom. The question is, does this one stand the Test of Time?

Under the examination: The Wolf Man.


The stuff of old people nightmares...

THE STORY: When his brother dies, rich kid Larry Talbot (well, now a grown man) returns home to Wales after an extended time in America. He meets a girl named Gwen and takes her on perhaps the worst first date ever: to a gypsy camp to have their fortunes read. Since Gwen isn’t much fun, she brings her friend along, who ends up being attacked by a some sort of gypsy wolf man (played by Bela Lugosi). Larry is bitten while defending her and ends up becoming a wolf himself. Each night he ventures out into the darkness, reeking havoc on the town until Larry keeps killing and loses control. It’s up to his old man to take care of business once and for all.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: For a movie that was released days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s amazingly dark and grisly. Think about it. After what was the most horrific attack against American soil, Universal released a film about a town is forever changed, lives altered and shattered, and a father must put down his own son for the betterment of society. That’s a hell of a story to unleash on the public, especially considering the parallels with the attack itself.

Never ever by a cane with a wolf on it. Bad investment, man.

Anyway, I love The Wolf Man. It still looks, sounds, and plays beautifully, and along with Frankenstein and Dracula, it remains one of the most iconic horror creations ever created. Chaney’s performance as the wolf isn’t so much a slash and dash kinda monster. Instead, he’s more or less Jekyll and Hyde, at odds with himself. He’s confused and disgusted by his actions, which creates the tragic element that all great monsters need. If we feel nothing for them, it misses the point. And that’s an important different between old and modern horror. Few modern monster creators attempt to give humanity and sympathy to their creations. And that sucks. Chaney gives a performance that isn't over the top and filled with rage (looking at you, Mr. Del Toro). It's quietly haunting.

Another element that keeps The Wolf Man classic comes from the depth of the mystery. They don’t rush past the legend of the werewolf, but itself dish out just enough background info to make sure it all makes sense. Oh...and we're even given a little poem to memorize: “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.” Fancy! All this context is dropped quickly but effectively enough were we aren’t left with questions. Well, not too many.

The Wolf Man has some plenty of moments of kickassness, especially the sequence when Larry first realizes that something just ain't right moments before his transformation. The last few hours of his life flash by in haunting realization that something is seriously f*cking wrong. It’s a perfect montage nightmare that's now cliched, but damn if it doesn't still look cool.

Insert Hobbit or Robin Williams joke here.

Of course, with any werewolf movie, it's all about the monster and his transformation. Ok, so this transformation might not be up to Thriller or An American Werewolf in London or Howling level, but it's 1941! What do you want? Sure, the makeup is dated, but it looks good, especially with the limitations of the time. Chaney set the bar with his hunched trot and furry ass face. It remains so damn iconic. Oh, and the night sequences are nearly all draped in fog (which clearly masks the set look), but it creates that perfect gothic look. It wouldn't be Universal monster flick without it.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: The hardest part about watching a 70-year-old horror movie comes from finding elements still horrific. Obviously, any modern sense of gore and macabre is vacant. Instead, we have a lot of implied ideas, musical cues, and fog…lots of fog. It’s so far removed from what movies are now that it’ll never duplicate whatever terror it once had. That’s a major flaw that time has given it, which means that blows. It'll just never be scary again...but perhaps for childred it would? I love classic cinema, but sometimes it takes a while to get to the good stuff, meaning the pacing just stinks compared to today. I'm all for a movie taking its time, but for a movie barely over an hour long, it feels longer. Everything is melodramatic to the point of being worse than a Mexican soap.

Oh and while Lon Cheney is immortally a horror badass, but dude looks a little old for the part of the prodigal son returning home (he was only 35, but Jesus dude looked 45). It’s funny that Benicio Del Toro, who played the same part in 2010’s remake, was 43 when he played young Talbot. Should Talbot have been a younger dude?

THE VERDICT: Not matter how many years tick by, The Wolf Man will always be a classic. Sure, the effects, characters, tone, gore, pacing, and everything else about film has and will continue to age, but that ain't a bad thing. Every horror movie will owe a debt to the original werewolf drama, which clearly stands the Test of Time.






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