9 December 2003 | fleckwil
Classic Horror At It's Best
What famous horror classic, panned by reviewers upon its initial release in December of 1941, looks better and better every year? THE WOLF MAN, starring Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, and Lon Chaney Jr. as the hapless Larry Talbot.
The story is a familiar one: Larry, the son of esteemed Sir John (Rains) returns home to Wales after many years in America, is bitten by a werewolf (well played by Bela Lugosi), and becomes a werewolf himself. What's extraordinary is the fact that the film can be so effective today.
The biggest reason for this is the acting. Some classic films, pre-Actor's Studio, look pretty pathetic when it comes to realistic characterization. Not so THE WOLF MAN. Curt Siodmak's excellent screenplay (likened to a Greek Tragedy) provides a vehicle for the stars to be at their best, and, boy, do they shine: Rains a tower of strength as the proud father; Ankers hitting just the right note as the torn female lead; Maria Ouspenskaya as the Old Gypsey Woman whose words prefigure Larry's doom....
But the standout is Lon Chaney Jr. A definite mixed-bag as an actor, he is perfect here--and this is a role calling for the use of all human emotions (unlike later Wolf Man films, where Talbot's head-pounding becomes monotonous). In fact, seeing THE WOLF MAN recently has convinced me that Chaney would have made the ideal screen Phillip Marlow (and I'm not forgetting Bogie)--big, tough, surly, yet charming when need be (a highlight early in WOLF MAN is Larry's attempts at flirting with Ankers; Chaney does the surprisingly playful dialogue with just the right touch). There's no doubt that his performance would merit accolades even today.
This is not to say that there aren't problems in the film. The continuity is off in a number of places (Chany transforms into the Wolf Man at one point wearing a sleeveless undershirt; in the very next scene, he's wearing a neatly buttoned Dickey), and there's a scene or two that's completely inexplicable (e.g., why DOES the Wolf Man pass out when caught in that trap?)....
But overall, the pace, lighting, cinematography, excellent musical score, and strong story propel the film through these rough spots, the 70-minute ride leaving the viewer wanting more. For these reasons, THE WOLF MAN is a classic.