"I killed Bela. I killed Richardson. If I stay here any longer, you can't tell who'll be next!"
This is another movie I hadn't seen previously. I only really knew anything about it through the remake, which I saw for the first time 6 weeks ago.
I thought that version had a bit of a bad rap (I picked it up very cheap), it's not a terrible movie by any means. Although Anthony Hopkins pretty much re-hashed his Van Helsing from Coppola's "Dracula", Benicio Del Toro's performance and the moody atmosphere are both really good. While that movie was never really sold as a straight-up remake I was surprised how much of the story had been taken from the 1941 version.
The basic setup in both versions is the same: Larry Talbot returns to the family pile in England after years away (gaining an American accent) after the death of his brother and soon afterwards he's bitten by a wolf. Cue Lycanthropy, gypsies and misty moors.
I knew that Lon Chaney Jr starred as the title monster as he's pretty much synonymous with it. What I was unaware of was the quality of the supporting cast. His father, Sir John Talbot, is played by Claude Rains, who's a lot more restrained than he was as the Invisible Man. Bela Lugosi has a great part as a gypsy who sets the wolf-based plot in motion. He's unrecognisable as the Dracula from a decade before and I would love to have more than a glorified cameo from him. Chaney makes for a tremendously sympathetic and believable character, going from an easy-going ladies man with a winning smile to a terrified wreck in the space of 70 minutes.
Most of the movies so far have been love stories, albeit in various twisted ways. The Phantom tries to possess Christine, Dracula chases Mina, Imhotep tries to resurrect his lost love and Frankenstein must create a bride for his creation. The Wolf Man is more like a Greek Tragedy, as an innocent man is doomed by forces he cannot control. Although Talbot does his best to fight it, he's unable to prevent himself from transforming and killing until his inevitable death.
So, how's the monster here? Pretty good, and sparingly used. Unversal had already made one Werewolf movie, "Werewolf of London" several years earlier, but the creature in that movie is more of a Mister Hyde figure, a slightly hairier man with some big teeth. While Chaney is much more bestial he's very much still a wolf-man, a hunched figure stalking the moors on two legs, only his eyes and teeth showing from under a thick coat of fur.
Unlike the recent version, this moves a snappy pace while having a pretty well-rounded lead character. It's also a relief to have this one played straight, with no attempts at comedy undercutting a fairly grim story. I really enjoyed this one.
Surfacing next: My journey ends as we meet "The Creature from the Black Lagoon"!