Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Wolf Man

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Wolf Man

When I was about seven, around the time I was first getting into movies, I was obsessed with the old horror films. Or more accurately, books about the old horror films. They had thick yellow cardboard covers and their photo-illustrated texts told the movies' stories, followed by the details of their production. These books sparked something in my imagination, but I have to admit that few of the actual movies, when I finally saw them, really lived up to the imaginative brushfires they'd ignited. Unlike the economical gangster pictures or the evocative westerns, the old Universal horror films don't really justify the iconography that they propagated. They are generally clunky, weighed down with exposition, and often hammy and stagey. They can be fun if you're in the right mood but if you're not, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about.

I just saw The Wolf Man for the first time and it certainly fits in with this general trend. And yet. The Wolf Man is one of the oddest of the horror films and its oddities hold a certain fascination which doesn't quite redeem, but at least fills out, the picture. Firstly, whereas the classic Universal horror movies Frankenstein and Dracula were released in the early 30's, The Wolf Man arrived on the scene ten years later amidst a World War that America was about to join. And the film's setting is distinctively contemporary, though its modern elements jar uneasily with the story's medieval roots - automobiles and gypsy carts jostling for room, along with ham-handed psychological analysis and old-fashioned superstition.



Unlike most of the other horror movies, The Wolf Man places the contest of good and evil within its protagonist, instead of outside of him. That protagonist is played by Lon Chaney, Jr. in a strange casting decision. The actor, who never quite lived up to his father's "master of horror" reputation, gets to act out his daddy issues onscreen. His character (human for most of the film -- the titular creature only gets about five minutes of screentime) has returned home after years abroad to live with his father at their estate. The father is, bizarrely, played by Claude Rains and together these actors make the most unconvincing father-son pair ever. Not only do they have dissimilar body types and voices, but they seem to be about the same age. It took me several minutes to realize their supposed relation at which point I may have laughed out loud.

On the surface of it, Chaney seems very out of place. He's too old for the part, too subdued, too big. Yet all of these idiosyncracies pay off in an unlikely way, creating a poignant lovable lug of a man who never seems to fit in with his surroundings. Becoming a werewolf is just one more unfortunate misstep in this poor sap's life (though it's never explained why the werewolf that bites him is a real wolf whereas Chaney develops into a kind of bearded, afroed biped). And when his father finally kills him, bashing his brains in with a silver-tipped cane, it seems somehow appropriate that Chaney's werewolf gets killed by his dad, instead of vice-versa. For all the film's stabs at psychological insight, it can't even get the Oedipus complex right.

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