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With a new Wolfman film in production, Shivers takes a look back at how the hairy creature’s been treated over the years
Night has fallen. A figure looks apprehensively at the sky as the full moon emerges from behind a cloud. In agonized terror, he looks at his hands which are slowly transforming into savage, furry claws… he is becoming… a werewolf!
he werewolf is one of several definitive Horror characters from folklore and fiction, embraced by film makers and constantly reinvented by subsequent generations, a useful metaphor for man’s barely-suppressed animal nature and a good excuse for an elaborate make-up job. Given its iconic status, it wasn’t long before the werewolf joined Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula (in the form of Nosferatu’s Count Orlok) on the cinema screen. Though there are no surviving prints, a couple of lost silent films apparently featured werewolves, including 1913’s The Werewolf, about a Native American witch who transforms into a wolf, the later French film Le Loup Garou in 1923 and Wolf Blood in 1925.
The first bona FIDE werewolf feature film was Universal’s 1935 movie The Werewolf of London. Henry Hull plays the stiff-upper-lipped English botanist Wilfred Glendon, who travels to Tibet in search of a rare flower, the mariphasa lupino lumino, that blooms only by the light of the full moon. Glendon encounters the weird Dr Yogami (Warner Oland), who warns him away from the cursed valley where the flower blooms. Heedless of the warnings, Glendon enters the valley and finds the flower, but is subsequently attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Back in London, Glendon meets Yogami again, who informs the botanist that he has become a werewolf – and though the mariphasa flower offers a temporary cure, the police are soon investigating a spate of vicious murders…
This interesting start to the long history of werewolf movies was directed by Stuart Walker, one of the lesser-known Universal directors (who had produced a notable Great Expectations the previous year). Among the cast, as Glendon’s wife, is 18-year-old Valerie Hobson, who had played the wife of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein that same year in The Bride of Frankenstein.
Hull’s werewolf make-up was designed by Jack Pierce, who had created the Frankenstein make-up for Boris Karloff. Pierce’s original make-up was considered too gruesome – but was eventually used five years later for Lon Chaney Jr in The Wolf Man. Hull’s eventual make-up was less wolf-like, topped off with a rather unlikely cloth cap.
The Wolf Man in 1940 saw Universal embarking on its second cycle of Horror films (the first began with Dracula in 1930) with Lon Chaney Jr as their chief monster player. Chaney plays Lawrence Talbot, who returns from America to his father’s estate in Wales and is attacked by a wolf in the woods – a wolf which he subsequently kills. A gypsy fortune teller called Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) reveals that the wolf was actually her son Bela, a werewolf, and that Lawrence Talbot now carries the curse…
Lon Chaney Jr, son of Hollywood’s famous ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ is not a subtle actor, but gives one of his best performances as the troubled Larry Talbot, and he is helped by a strong supporting cast headed by Claude Rains as Talbot senior and Bela Lugosi as the cursed gypsy. The director was George Waggner, who directed a number of Universal horrors with Chaney Jr.
The original idea of German émigré screenwriter Curt Siodmak was that you should never actually see the werewolf, but when Lawrence Talbot caught sight of his reflection, he would see himself as a werewolf. This idea was dropped in favour of a more literal, physical change, although in The Wolf Man we only ever see Talbot turn back from a werewolf into a Human. For the initial transformation, we see Talbot’s footprints gradually transform into paw-prints.
Much of the cinema’s werewolf lore was set down in perpetuity in this script – like the werewolf’s vulnerability to silver and the sign of the pentagram appearing on the body of the werewolf, or its victim. Werewolfism was equated, as it would more frequently be later, with an infectious disease rather than a supernatural curse. Siodmak also coined the cinema’s most enduring piece of werewolf doggerel:
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