Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Monsterthon 2012: Werewolf of London
Though werewolf legends are old, the movies are really are primary source for them- the werewolf equivalent of Dracula has yet to be written and most of the lore comes to us via 1941's The Wolf Man. But before Curt Siodmak and Lon Chaney, Jr. laid down the law, there was another werewolf epic from Universal, and possibly the first movie of its kind. Werewolf of London, apart from being the inspiration for a Warren Zevon song, is an interesting primordial take on an iconic monster; blending science and the supernatural, it captures the fundamentally tragic vibe we're familiar with while having an atmosphere all its own.
Henry Hull is Dr. Wilfred Glendon, a botanist exploring the wilds of Tibet (which looks suspiciously like California) for a night-blooming flower apparently drawing its energy from moonlight. While exploring a forbidden valley, he finds the flower, but is attacked and bitten by a strange wild animal. Back at home, he obsesses over getting the rare flower to bloom under artificial moonlight, neglecting his wife (Valerie Hobson), when a Japanese scientist, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) arrives, asking that Glendon surrender two of the plant's blossoms. Yogami was exploring Tibet himself when he was bitten by a werewolf and afflicted with lycanthropy, and was the beast who attacked Glendon, passing it on to him. Now the full moon approaches, and the flower is the only thing which can prevent a werewolf from transforming. Yogami steals the blossoms, and Glendon becomes a wolf man, driven to prowl the streets and kill, and according to Yogami, fated to kill the person he loves most.
The intricacy of the plot may have been an indicator that the filmmakers weren't sure a man turning into a wolf was enough for audiences to latch onto, and the foreign intrigues of plant hunters do add an interesting backdrop. The film has an eerie mood that blends the modern (well, modern for then) and the ancient- the blend of foggy London nights, electric machinery, and shadowy sets is an interesting one, not quite as expressionistic as Universal's horrors would get but still not quite the same world as ours.
Hull naturally has to carry most of the movie, and while he never did much horror work he gives an excellent performance here. We get the sense that Glendon is not entirely normal even before he transforms; he's a cold, relentless explorer like Colin Clive's Frankenstein, and he cuts a wolfish profile which is nicely augmented by the film's relatively subtle makeup (done by Jack Pierce, who would later give Chaney the treatment Hull refused). While Oland may be doing the traditional yellowface (which would eventually lead to his playing Charlie Chan), his character is nicely ambiguous, already haunted by the knowledge of what he is and desperate to preserve his humanity, at the cost of another's.
The film has a solid script full of interesting characters- there's the requisite comic relief that goes on a bit long, but some of the incidental characters are genuinely charming, and Lester Matthews is good as Mrs. Glendon's childhood friend and unstated love interest. The characters are strong enough to carry the story through the non-wolf scenes, and the monster is fearsome enough to merit waiting. (Some kinks of the subgenre were still being worked out, though- this is one werewolf who takes time to put on a hat and coat before venturing into the wild.)
While Werewolf of London is often overlooked in Universal's history, it has a lot to recommend it and to my mind stands at least on par with 1941's The Wolf Man. Its take on the legend is imaginative and well thought out, if perhaps a bit too complicated to catch the fancy of the public. Fortunately it's easy to hunt down now, and well worth a watch. It wouldn't be Halloween without someone baying at the moon.
Story by Robert Harris
Adapted by Harvey Gates and Robert Harris, with uncredited contributions by Edmund Pearson
Screenplay by John Colton
Directed by Stuart Walker