Monday, October 31, 2011

Capsule Review – The Wolf Man

October 31, 2011

The Wolf Man – U.S., 1941

In George Waggner’s The Wolf Man, a foreboding sense of paranoia permeates throughout a quiet, normally conservative town upon the arrival of two outsiders. One of these outsiders is in fact one of their own, the returning son of one of its richest and most powerful citizens; the other is a band of traveling gypsies who set up camp and offer fortune telling and various other forms of amusement. And in these two outsiders, we have the ingredients for mass hysteria – a potential enemy from within and an enemy from beyond the town’s borders. All that is missing is a fanatical leader to rally the citizens in pursuit of a nefarious endgame. We don’t get one. However, making the metaphor even more apparent is the eerie presence of a pentagram on those who are marked for death. With a few alterations, it could easily be the star of David.

The metaphor doesn’t go much further. This is after all a horror film that aims to scare its audience a bit more that it aims to make a political statement, and it is in that quest that it will ultimately be judged a success or a failure. So the question is: Is the The Wolf Man scary? The answer: Only occasionally. However, this is mostly due to the nature of the Wolf Man character and not an indictment of the film as a whole. There’s only so much one can do with a character that becomes a wolf and is not in control of his actions. He’s either cured by the end of the film, or he’d dead. There aren’t many other options. It also doesn’t help that contemporary audiences are likely to notice an uncanny resemblance between the Wolf Man and Zach Gyllenhaal.

However, what The Wolf Man lacks in scream-inducing chills, it more than makes up for in story. The films includes a love story that starts off a little ludicrous but becomes sweeter as the film progresses, a touching reunion between a father and son and the father’s subsequent attempts to protect his son, a plotline involving the discrimination of gypsies simply because they don’t conform to society’s norms, and nice dramatic moments in which characters struggle to accept the unthinkable and then try as hard as they can to protect others from harm. Lon Chaney Jr. is quite affective as Larry Talbot, the man who is bitten by a wolf while trying to save one of its intended victims, and Claude Rains turns in a very believable performance as Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot, despite the fact that the two of them look more like brothers than father and son. The film is also blessed with fine performances by Evelyn Ankers as a woman caught between two men, Bela Legosi, in the brief role of a gypsy fortune teller, and Maria Ouspenskaya, who plays an older gypsy woman who is the only one to completely understand what is happening to Larry.

To look at The Wolf Man today is to look at a time in which chivalry was the norm, not the exception. It is a time when men were in the custom of asking fathers for permission to speak to their daughters, when a gentleman removed his hat in the presence of a lady, and when a man’s offer to walk a woman home to make sure that she got home safely was more likely to be taken at face value. It’s somewhat refreshing to see. Of course, it’s also a world in which a man can turn into a wolf and rapidly spread panic and fear throughout a previously quite community. Well, as the saying goes: You can’t have everything. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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