Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Wolf Man

The Wolf ManThe Wolf Man
Penned by German emigre, Curt Siodmak, 'The Wolf Man' (1941), came at the end of Universal's first Golden Age of Horror. True, they had some way to go before they played out their full seam, but the 40s were to feature mediocre monster mash-ups like 'House of Dracula', 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man' or even the 'Abbot and Costello Meet...' movies. Although they were to create the 'Creature From the Black Lagoon' in the 50s, the Wolfman is arguably the last great horror creation from Universal Studios.
We all know the story: hapless young Larry Talbot returns to the family home after the death of his brother, promptly gets bitten by a werewolf and spends the rest of the movie alternately agonising over his fate and dismembering village folk. In the movie practically everyone but Larry knows the 'old' rhyme that runs:

'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.'

It is repeated at least three times, as is the old gypsy's lament:

'The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.'

Both pieces reak of an ancient heritage and both were invented by Siodmak for the movie, as was much of the lore that has since become part of the werewolf myth. This is Hollywood's interpretation and it is a testimony to cinema that it has become so integral to our common understanding of lycanthropy.
You see much as the werewolf myth (or more accurately the shape shifting myth) has been around a long time, the details are a lot less elaborate than Hollywood seemed to think. Unlike Universal's other monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Invisble Man), there is no one literary source that encapsulates the entire legend. (It should be said that a similar case might be made for the Mummy, which, although often attributed to Bram Stoker due to his 'Jewel of the Seven Stars', is probably more accurately drawn from two stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, 'The Ring of Thoth' and 'Lot 249'.) To be sure there has been a long line of werewolf stories from George Reynolds' 'Wagner the Werewolf' (which to my shame I have not read) to Captain Marryat's 'The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains'. The creator of Conan, Robert E. Howard wrote several stories on a werewolf theme. For my money though, the touchstone for werewolf literature was also one of the last great treatments of an iconic monster, Guy Endore's 'The Werewolf of Paris'.
'The Werewolf of Paris', published in 1933, was inspired by a real-life figure, Sergeant Francois Bertrand, the Vampire of Montparnasse, and chronicles the misdeeds of the troubled Bertrand Caillet during the Paris Commune of 1871. Granted I was young when I read it, but this novel is one of the few books to make me physically depressed. A catalogue of brutality and depravity from beginning to end, it is tough going. Having spent so long tracking it down, I felt duty bound to keep reading, and thankfully by page 100 I began to see the underlying grim humour that helped me get through the rest. Later there is also a touching, if very perverse, love story. One way or the other it was fortunate that I did persevere as it does warrant its place alongside 'Dracula', 'Frankenstein', et al, as a foundational text. Seven years before World War II, it accurately sounds an alarm for Europe, describing a coming army against which the violence of the novel's antihero pales. Unlike 'The Wolf Man', Bertrand is tainted by the brutality of his ancestors and by extension implicates us all in humanity's fundamental bestiality. It is a powerful, critical work, told with a romantic darkness that borders on pitch black. In the end though, Universal rejected this as the source for their tale, understandably so given the novel's darkness, though twenty odd years later Hammer were quick to seize on its less savoury aspects (see the excellent The Curse of the Werewolf, or the later 'Legend of the Werewolf').
If Endore's book deals with our violent inheritance as civilised animals, Universal's take dwells on another dominant current of the 20th Century, the helpless condition of man at the hands of an arbitrary world. With its nursery rhymes and foggy woods, 'The Wolf Man' very definitely posits itself in the fairytale tradition. Indeed at one point it likens itself to Little Red Riding Hood, a 'werewolf story'. Fairytales traditionally feature children at their core and hapless Larry, with his easy, unsophisticated attitude to the world, is as close to a child that we might get in a Hollywood horror. What better than a child to best show our fundamental futility.
Frequently Talbot is called a tragic figure, but this is not entirely true. A tragic figure is the cause of their own downfall. Larry does nothing to warrant his fate; quite the contrary, he does everything that he should, rushing to aid a screaming woman and killing the wolf that attacks her. He does not deserve the curse that falls on him nor understands why it has fallen on him. He is a figure of pathos.
Lon Chaney Jr, son of the great Lon Chaney Snr, Man of a Thousand Faces, was just beginning his career and Universal were hoping to groom him into a replacement for his father. Chaney, however, was no master of disguise, nor a subtle actor. 'The Wolf Man' is generally regarded as his best performance, perhaps because it was the only performance that suited him. In contrast to Boris Karloff's incarnations, when Chaney played the Frankenstein's Monster or the Mummy, he was completely expressionless (though to be fair this might have had as much to do with the direction in which the studio was taking these characters as anything else). His 'Son of Dracula' is also an uneasy, anxious character, but there it is totally against the role. However, with his first film, his weaknesses became strengths. Big and awkward, a man of large expressions, his very physicality encapsulated Talbot's confused anxiety. He also suited the everyman role that makes Larry Talbot such as successful monster.
Unlike the aristocratic vampires and mad scientists that populate other Universal features, Talbot, despite being the son of Sir John Talbot, is as blue-collar a monster as Hollywood could manage in the forties. Having spent 18 years in America, Talbot has worked in engineering firms and took a liking to American style. He seems reluctant to take up 'estate business' choosing instead to fiddle with telescopes, pursue village girls and attend gypsy fairgrounds. At one point he claims that he is only happy when he is getting his hands dirty. Ironically his curse gives him an opportunity to do just that.
That the curse is forced on him turns him into a reluctant monster. Fate has put an unfair and unbearable burden on his shoulders. This is an unusual admission by Hollywood, certainly for the time, an admission that Life, unlike that suggested by the crafted storylines that populate their mainstream fair, just isn't fair. Horror allowed Hollywood to say things they could never admit to in bigger budgeted public. (Universal said similar unsayable things in films such as 'The Black Cat' and 'Dracula's Daughter', while RKO's 'Cat People' just bristles with censor-smashing truths). Life just isn't fair. Things really can be that bad. We cannot control our lives. And sometimes, more frightening than that, we cannot control ourselves. In my mind (certainly when I was a kid), Larry is the spiritual father of characters like the Incredible Hulk who must constantly move on or risk hurting the ones they love. And that is perhaps the key to Larry Talbot; not only does Life suck, we're our own worst enemies too.
As a metaphor for many of the seedy aspects of real life, the werewolf myth as promoted by Universal, is powerful. Alcohol abuse, drugs, mental illness, if we can mess up our own lives with it, it can easily stand in for lycanthropy (indeed Sir John believes Larry's 'illness' to be schizophrenia). As a condition Larry didn't ask for, nor with which he can deal, it also nicely mirrors much that is everyone's lot in life.
It might be taking things a step too far to hold Larry Talbot up as a case of man's existential absurdity, but please bear in mind who wrote this movie. Curt Siodmak, a Jew born in Dresden, fled Nazi Germany having worked within its film industry. He would have been well aware of many of the trends and ideas common in European intellectual life, while Hitler must surely have given him an education in the limitations of the man on the street. One might also remember that this was not Universal's first foray into werewolf territory. In 1935, 'The Werewolf of London' featured an explorer who was bitten by a Tibetan werewolf while visiting Asia. In that movie, a flower holds a temporary antidote to the condition (a piece of lore that was used again in the wonderful, 'Ginger Snaps', a film one might see as 'Carrie Gets Hairy'). There was a traditional villain (the initial werewolf) who was eventually dispatched, but our hero, tormented by his condition, had to die too. A good man, and a scientist to boot, he nevertheless could not triumph over what Fate had put on him. Similarly neither of 'The Wolf Man's two werewolves are basically evil, and the film makes it clear that there are no straight forward black and white definitions of good and evil anyhow. All is grey.
'The Wolf Man' does not have the beauty, nor indeed the poetry, of Universal's earlier triumphs, but it has its own level of sophistication hidden beneath a slick, effective narrative (and it does power along, with few longeurs). And some scenes, though obviously filmed on a set, do have their own quiet magic. But it is Larry's plight that really gets to us. He is emblematic of much that is familiar to us all which is why Larry Talbot is still with us today. Universal resurrected him again and again for a whole string of sequels in the forties, but he is soon to be unleashed once more in Joe Johnston's update with Benecio Del Toro in the Talbot role, 'The Wolfman'. The imminent release of this film prompted a screening tonight of the original, which is why I had the welcome opportunity to see it on the (relatively) big screen of the Denzille Cinema. Thanks to Lauren and Niall from Simply Zesty, and Dave and Marissa from Universal for the invitation. Something to howl about for a change.

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