There’s no getting around it, the story of the werewolf is a tragic one and I think the Wolf Man in many ways, is the most relatable character in Universal Studios classic monster movies due to this tragedy. The beauty of this film is that it paved the way for so many other werewolf films to follow and to this day remains one of my favorites for that reason. The cinematography, the creature effects (that transformation scene!) and acting are superb given the resources available in the 1940’s. This movie is just a lot of fun to sit down and watch but there’s a lot more to it than pure entertainment. Back to the tragedy, the Wolf Man is a symbol of the parts of ourselves we’re afraid of facing. Many of the
Universal Studios classic monsters and even modern monsters take on very human qualities but the Wolf Man serves as a reminder that we can’t cheat fate and we can only hide our true selves for so long before we are exposed and it isn’t always pretty when that happens.
In our podcast we often talk about how horror takes a look at whats going on socially with the world and ties it to our other fears- fear of the dark, of monsters, of what goes bump in the night and what is lurking in the shadows. If you look at the time during which this film was released, World War II was at it’s peak. There were soldiers coming to and from war who were completely changed by the images that they saw and the way life was after being drafted if they survived- and that was the
thing, many men didn’t come home. And those that did wanted nothing to do with what they experienced in battle. Movies like The Wolf Man tapped into what was going on with America at the time in the 1940’s. Innocent young men were being drafted and sent into battle against their will- much like Larry (the main character played by Lon Chaney Jr.), who wanted nothing to do with his transformation under the full moon. He wasn’t really shooting to be attacked by a werewolf but those were the cards that life had dealt him.
Larry, although a bit of a creep to Gwen, the main female character of the movie, doesn’t mean any real harm. Please don’t get me wrong- I’m not making excuses for his behavior and I don’t think it’s appropriate to make advances on someone who is clearly not interested- but for the most part, he is pretty innocent. And he tries again and again to stop his fate from coming true. He is a reluctant werewolf and you can’t help but feel sorry for the trouble that he goes through. He is not a killer and he’s not a predator, per say. He is just trying to do the right thing and that’s why it’s so frustrating when he tries to tell the truth and no one believes him.
In her blog post “THE WOLF’S KNOCKING AT YOUR DOOR”, Shelley Venemann says it perfectly:
“I love werewolf movies. Ever since the original Wolf Man, I have loved them because werewolves occupy a unique space of their own. Not quite the undead, not quite vampirish, not necessarily a sinister or malevolent presence, just werewolves. One thing I find in a lot of cases, is that there’s also always a thread of remorse from the person who’s actually a werewolf, so it’s a thing with werewolf movies where the emotions are never straight-forward.
There’s something to be said about turning into a creature against your will with only your base emotions driving things. I think the analogy is that we all have this monster inside of us that can either involuntarily, out of necessity or maybe even survival, surface and take over who we are. I think it goes way, way back to our primal selves, and recognizing the wolves as being similar animals to us. Extremely intelligent animals, good hunters, strategic, sharp, and doing what they have to do to survive. And I think a lot of the legends and mythology around wolves are based around the fear that they’re too much like us. Certainly, you know, they talk about that in Roman times and medieval Europe, and the ultimate conclusion of that is a human making the anthropological leap over to the lupine side, hence lycanthropy. It’s very clear when you look at the past how this mythology of werewolves is a strong part of Western culture. And I love that that kind of awareness of wolves, I love that it’s been adopted by literature and turned into a genre unto itself.”
This film touches upon what it means to be human and wanting what we can’t have, while trying to defy a destiny that’s been laid out before us. Larry has such a tragic story for the entirety of the film. He moves back home to Wales after being estranged from his family for 17 years to address his brother’s death and inherit the family estate, meets a girl who is already taken and falls victim to a werewolf attack. Yes, he’s overly flirtatious and he is a bit of a playboy but he tries so hard to avoid his own fate that you can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for him. I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we’ve
wished there was something we could do about the events in our lives, but you’re helpless. You may even feel like a monster because there’s no one who can relate to your troubles. That is the true terror behind this film- not even the monster really, but how the monster relates to the human condition when we are at our worst. It’s the perfect metaphor for a life spiraling out of control, for someone who can’t come to grips with their identity and for those of us who hide who we really are for fear of being “murdered” or “shunned” by society. The Wolf Man is grim and doesn’t offer much hope on that front- and that’s what sets it apart in the world of horror. It doesn’t have a fairytale ending, the protagonist doesn’t ride off into the sunset with his bride. Larry is simultaneously the hero and the villain and that makes him a unique character. It is a loveably disparaging story. That’s why the Wolf Man will always have a special place in my heart.
I know. I’m such a downer.
- Abbegail K. Brown