The Wolf Man screenshot

The Wolf Man (1941)

Larry Talbot, who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, becomes a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.

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A later addition to the Universal Monsters franchise, The Wolf Man is the film that defined werewolves in popular culture. It also established Lon Chaney Jr., a second-generation horror star, as the studio's new top movie monster actor (following in the shambling footsteps of Boris Karloff). Most impressively, the film revitalized the somewhat stagnant Universal horror series, adding a new monster that would later face off against the originals.

Larry Talbot has returned to his family home to visit his father. When Larry finds a wolf that has attacked and murdered a woman, he kills the beast by bludgeoning it with his silver-handled cane. Talbot is bitten in the process and cursed to become a werewolf. At night, he transforms into the murderous Wolf Man, stalking his victims in the autumn moonlight.

The Wolf Man screenshot

The Wolf Man is the blueprint for almost everything we know about werewolves. Many of the ideas were invented for the film, and the elements that already existed were popularized by their use here. From the curse transferring via bite, to the werewolf only being killed by silver (a bullet, blade, or in this case a blunt object). The transformation scenes are simple but effective, showing shots of Chaney in different stages of effects application dissolving into each other until he's fully transformed. Interestingly, the full moon is not mentioned at all as the reason he turns into a wolf (but would be utilized by Universal in later sequels).

There are multiple references in the story to superstition, religion, and psychology, and the film questions why we believe some myths to be factual and dismiss others. At one point, ancient burial traditions are brushed off as "superstition" by a Christian priest, whose own religion is less than two thousand years old. Larry's father points out that every myth has some basis in fact. The senior Talbot says he does not believe that a person can physically transform into a wolf, but he does believe that the human brain is capable of convincing itself that such a transformation has occurred. But of course, in the film, it turns out werewolves do exist.

The Wolf Man's introduction to the Universal Monsters franchise came a decade after Dracula and Frankenstein, and those films (along with The Mummy and The Invisible Man) each had at least one sequel before this film's release. Even so, the werewolf was on equal footing with the other classic monsters because of his on-screen appearances with them in later crossovers. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Chaney is a second-generation horror star, or that the Wolf Man is the only villain in the Universal Monsters films to be portrayed by only one actor across multiple appearances.

The Wolf Man poster The Wolf Man title screen

Director

  • George Waggner

Cast

  • Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man
  • Evelyn Ankers as Gwen Conliffe
  • Claude Rains as Sir John Talbot
  • Bela Lugosi as Bela
  • Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva