I don't think you're supposed to admit this, but I've never been crazy about the Universal horror movies. Some of them are excellent, but a lot of them are just kind of tedious to someone raised on modern cinema. We tend only to think of the major Universal monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man, and their second-tier franchises (The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man), but those are just the biggest ones; there are quite a few other Universal movies that only aficionados remember. Still, each series has a few good chapters and there are good films peppered here and there throughout the ouevre, but I just don't hold the phrase "Universal horror movies" with the reverence that a lot of people do.
The Wolf Man thankfully, holds up reasonably well, and I was just an impatient ten-year-old who wanted spectacle more than story.
After the death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns from the United States to his family home in Wales with the intention of burying the hatchet with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). The two men begin the process of reacquainting themselves, and the elder Talbot is impressed; Larry hasn't followed in the family tradition of Letting Them Eat Cake, but has instead become a bit of an amateur engineer. That's not really important to the story, but it gives Larry a chance to set up his father's telescope, and test it by peering into the window of Gwen Conliffe, the young, attractive proprietor of the local antique shop. Larry makes up an excuse to bother her. She's engaged to be married, but Larry is persistent enough that she eventually consents to go to the carnival with him. He purchases a golf club from her.
"Oh, that's not a golf club," she says, "it's a walking stick."
And sure enough, it is. What Larry had mistaken for a putter is, in fact, the head of a wolf cast in silver.
That night, Larry and Gwen go to the carnival, along with Gwen's friend Jenny who Gwen is obviously trying to set up with Larry to get him off her back. The three have their fortunes read by Bela, an uncreatively-named fortune teller played by Bela Lugosi. Bela sees a star on Jenny's palm foretelling that she will die tonight, and sure enough, Jenny is killed on the way home by a wolf. Larry is also attacked by a wolf, which he manages to bludgeon to death with his new walking stick. The scratches and bites on his chest are gone by the next morning, and he is suspected of two murders: Jenny, and the gypsy Bela. Worse, Larry is seeing the mark of the star on his friends, and he's beginning to need a shave...
This is good, old-fashioned golden age horror with an all-star cast, and made by the best people in the business (or at least, the best people in the business who were willing to work on a monster movie). It looks great and strikes the right tone, and it comes in at 70 minutes which really seems to be a good duration for this kind of thing; it doesn't wear out its welcome. I like the foggy, night scenes especially, and the carnival scenes which look inviting and menacing like the ones Ray Bradbury would be describing a decade or two later. You've probably seen the werewolf transformation special effect where Chaney sits incredibly still while makeup is applied in stages in photographed in stop motion. I am always impressed when I see this, and unfortunately, they didn't try that effect until the sequels; in this one, you get to see Lon Chaney's feet transform instead of his face.
Unfortunately, the critics of the era were not as positive as I am. The New York Times is pretty representative (and it's entertaining). The Wolf Man was one of the highest-grossing films in 1942, but the critics felt that the movie's mythology was unrealistic and half-baked, and too flimsy to hang a story on. That may have been true at the time; most of our modern ideas about werewolves date back no further than this film and its sequels. The screenplay makes a point of repeating the rules of its story over and over, especially the famous poem:
Even a man who is pure in heart...which is repeated even more often in 70 minutes than the "great power/responsibility" thing from Spider Man. The story's rules may have gotten in the way in 1941, but 2015, these ideas are deeply ingrained in our cultural understanding of the werewolf myth, and I think the film plays better to a modern audience, precisely because we're a modern audience, and it is an old film.
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.
Surveying older reviews, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't find much negative feedback for Lon Chaney Jr. Mr. Chaney is generally considered not to have been a very good actor, namely because he was also a notorious alcoholic. The studio must not have thought him very marketable, though, because The Wolf Man never headlined another movie. Most of the other Universal monsters got their own sequels, but The Wolf Man was always paired with someone else. I will grant that Chaney probably didn't have the range for serious, dramatic acting, and that his range lessened over his career as his alcoholism got worse, but he always made a good Larry Talbot. That character was created for this movie, and the fact that he appears in other, unrelated media; Larry Talbot-as-portrayed-by-Lon Chaney Jr. makes appearances in a couple of Neil Gaiman stories, and Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October, among other things.
Here's the trailer: