by Ernie Magnotta
The Universal cycle of horror movies created some of the most memorable monsters in the world. Between 1931 and 1948, iconic creatures of the night like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man have not only frightened, thrilled and entertained audiences, but continue to do so to this very day. Although we may love them all, everyone has their favorite monster. For me, it was always Lawrence Talbot aka the Wolf Man.
From 1941 to 1948, the Wolf Man would be featured in five films. Over the course of these films, the character would change in subtle ways. As a kid, I never really noticed these changes, but as I viewed the series again recently, I did notice some storyline continuity errors as well as some slight changes in both the character of Lawrence (Larry) Talbot and the mythology of the Wolf Man.
Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night,
may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright
The original 1941 film, The Wolf Man, opens with an encyclopedia passage which teaches us the definition of Lycanthropy. We are told that this is a disease of the mind where certain human beings imagine that they are wolf-men and, because of this belief, physically change. We are now introduced to Lawrence Talbot (played in all five films by the great Lon Chaney Jr.) who, following his older brother’s death, returns to his childhood home in order to help his father (Claude Rains) run the estate. He falls for beautiful shopkeeper Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) and, one fog-enshrouded night, takes a stroll with her and her friend, Jenny (Fay Helm). When Jenny is attacked by a wolf, Larry attempts to save her, but fails. He manages to kill the beast with a silver-tipped cane (according to legend, only silver can kill a werewolf) he purchased at Gwen’s shop, but not before the wolf bites him, marking Larry’s chest with the sign of the pentagram (a five pointed star). When the authorities arrive, all that is found is the corpse of a gypsy man next to Talbot’s unconscious body. Larry later finds out from gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) that the werewolf was her son, Bela (Bela Lugosi) and that Larry himself will soon transform. “Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself.” Later that night, Larry does indeed change and murders one of the townspeople. Believing that the legend is true, Larry, who loves Gwen, gives her a pendant that was given to him by Maleva. The pendant is supposed to protect the wearer from evil. He sees the sign of the pentagram in Gwen’s hand and knows she’s to be his next victim. In order to keep her and everyone safe, Larry prepares to turn himself in, but his father forbids it. Instead, he decides to humor his son by tying him to a chair and locking him in a room while he sets out to capture the real beast in order to prove to the young man that he’s wrong. Larry isn’t convinced and he urges his father to take the silver-tipped cane with him. Moments later, Larry transforms, easily breaks free and attacks Gwen. At the last minute, Gwen is saved by the elder Talbot who uses the cane to bludgeon the Wolf Man to death.
Written by Curt Siodmak and directed by George Waggner, The Wolf Man is a wonderfully crafted and atmospheric film with a lovely, fairytale-like quality to it.
As you can see, this movie created almost all of the supernatural mythology for the Wolf Man: being infected by a bite, seeing the pentagram in the hand of the next victim as well as on Talbot’s chest and, also, death by silver.
The film also does something that the sequels do not. It leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether or not Talbot’s affliction is due to a supernatural curse or a disease of the mind.
Before Larry kills Bela, he hears the werewolf poem three times as well as learns of the werewolf legend from Gwen and his own father. After the scuffle, he is extremely distraught and guilt-ridden over having learned that he killed a man instead of a wolf. This could be interpreted as Larry having a mental breakdown of sorts. When Maleva informs him that Bela was a werewolf and that Larry will become one also, we see a montage which shows us what’s going on in Larry’s head. There are images of the pentagram, Maleva, Gwen, Jenny, wolf-bane, the silver-tipped cane and of himself killing the wolf/Bela. Perhaps Larry’s mind finally snapped from his horrible experience coupled with all he’s been told. The first transformation appears immediately following this montage. Could it be that all the “superstition” he’s heard caused him to believe and his broken mind did the rest? At one point a doctor mentions something about the mind’s power over the body as well as a person being heavily influenced by those around him. Larry’s father even tells him “I believe most anything can happen to a man in his own mind.” We’re never really sure if Talbot’s affliction is in fact supernatural or if his mind is causing the physical transformation. After all, only he sees the pentagram in his victim’s palms. Also, one of the men who is out hunting the beast is sure he shot it (with regular bullets, not silver), but because it wasn’t killed, concludes that he must’ve missed. This occurs off-screen, so we’re not sure if he actually shot the Wolf Man or not. So, the question remains: is Talbot’s affliction the result of an ancient supernatural curse or the product of a fractured psyche?
1943 would give us the first sequel titled Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and, after the first few wonderfully atmospheric minutes, we are no longer left wondering. The movie begins four years after the events of the original film with Talbot’s grave being desecrated by two thieves in search of jewelry buried with the dead. Unfortunately for them, they pick a night of the full moon which, once it shines on Talbot’s body (which has not decomposed one bit in all this time), revives the Wolf Man who kills one thief (the other takes off) and prowls the night once more. As you can see, screenwriter Curt Siodmak finally decided that the Wolf Man is indeed a supernatural creature who cannot die.
A new addition to the mythology is the full moon. In the original film, we never see the moon change him, but from here on out, the full moon is always the transformation trigger. The last line of the iconic poem is even changed here from and the autumn moon is bright to and the moon is full and bright.
Talbot decides to travel to Castle Frankenstein in the hope that the unconventional doctor can help him, but unfortunately finds out that the infamous doctor is dead. This begins Talbot’s character of a tortured soul who only wants to die whereas in the original film he just wanted to surrender himself to the authorities in order to keep his loved ones safe.
Also, although the pentagram on Talbot’s chest would remain a constant in the series (excluding the final film), seeing the five-pointed star in the hand of his victim-to-be is dropped from this film as well as from the remaining sequels.
Even the Jack Pierce Wolf Man makeup is slightly different here (and better in my opinion). There seems to be more fur covering the Wolf Man’s face and the fur is a bit darker than in the original. Speaking of makeup, in the previous film we never see Talbot’s face transform into the beast. We only see his legs and feet change. It’s not until he is killed by his father at the film’s conclusion that we see his wolf face revert back to human form. In this movie, however, we always see the facial transformations of Talbot into the Wolf Man.
In 1944, poor Larry Talbot would be revived yet again in Universal’s all-star monster mash, House of Frankenstein. This time the film, based on a story by Curt Siodmak, was written by Edward T. Lowe.
After being thawed from the ice that imprisoned him and the Frankenstein monster during the final moments of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the tortured Talbot joins Boris Karloff’s sinister Dr. Niemann who promises to cure our furry friend once and for all.
Discovering Talbot where we last saw him isn’t the only bit of continuity in this sequel as Talbot once again finds himself aligned with gypsies. This time it’s a beautiful gypsy girl named Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) who falls in love with the brooding Larry. Just like in the previous film, Talbot wants to die because he can’t bear to go through the metamorphosis again. He only wants peace. When both he and Ilonka realize that Dr. Niemann will not keep his promise of a cure, Larry changes and Ilonka shoots the beast with a silver bullet to end his suffering. The new addition to the Wolf Man’s mythology comes in a line uttered by Ilonka herself. “He must be killed by a silver bullet; fired by the hand of someone who loves him enough to understand.” This time around it seems that not just anyone can kill a werewolf with silver. It must be by someone who loves the tortured soul within. The last image of Talbot comes right after he’s changed back to human form. Although dead, he seems to be smiling slightly. He’s finally found the peace he’s been searching for.
That is until 1945’s House of Dracula. Up until now, the changes and additions to the series have been mild and, for the most part, logical, but this is where things take a real left turn. Although Talbot (seen here sporting a snazzy new moustache) is still the same tortured soul who fears the change and wants to die (he even attempts suicide at one point.), this movie gives absolutely no reason for his resurrection. He simply shows up at the castle of Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens) hoping for a cure. There’s no mention of Ilonka or the silver bullet that killed him in the previous film.
As if that isn’t enough, gone is the Wolf Man’s supernatural mythology and, instead, there is a scientific and psychological explanation given for Talbot’s condition. They call it a seizure due to pressure on the brain which is brought on by Talbot’s belief in the werewolf curse. Ok, so the original film left it up to us to decide whether or not Talbot was cursed or simply suffering from a brain disorder that caused him to change, but then the sequels stated outright that he is definitely a supernatural and immortal creature. That’s it then. You can’t just go back and say that he has a sick mind now. It’s too late. It doesn’t make sense. There’s also no mention of silver being able to kill a werewolf and the famous poem is not recited. I believe that the reason for all of this comes from the fact that this is the first time writer/creator Siodmak had no involvement whatsoever with a Wolf Man film. In his absence, the continuity and mythology veered off course.
Dr. Edelman performs a brain procedure on Talbot who must wait until the next full moon to find out if the cure is successful. While he’s waiting, we finally get to see Larry concerned about something other than his own problem. He pleads with Dr. Edelman not to revive the dangerous and powerful Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Also, when the good doctor, who has been infected with Dracula’s (John Carradine) blood, kills a man, the police search the castle and suspect Larry. Even though he saw the doctor leave the castle before the murder took place, the loyal Talbot covers for him. Larry even worries about the doctor’s health and wants to help him somehow.
The movie ends with Talbot finally cured. As he stands in front of the bright full moon he remains a man and, for the first time since the beginning of the original film, Larry is genuinely happy. He becomes a hero by shooting the now completely evil Dr. Edelman (who, while in his right mind, requested that Larry do so) and also destroys the Frankenstein monster thereby saving the village. He even gets the girl (Dr. Edelman’s nurse). A wonderful and well deserved happy ending, right? Well, not exactly.
Three years later, Lawrence Talbot would be back for the last time in the hilarious and beloved Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Just as in House of Dracula, the continuity is flawed. There is no reason given as to why Larry is once again suffering from werewolfism. We also don’t know if he’s a supernatural creature or a man with a diseased mind. He’s definitely back to being a tortured soul, but this time around he’s not preoccupied with dying or being cured. In perhaps a bit of continuity from House of Dracula (and the original film where he tried to save Jenny), Talbot is once again a hero. He shows up to stop Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) from reviving the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange again), tries to keep himself locked up during the full moon so as not to harm anyone and, when Chick (Bud Abbott) is accused of an attack that the Wolf Man committed, Talbot decides to surrender himself so that the man will go free. Although he’s still upset by his lupine affliction, Larry seems to accept it this time around; like he’s decided to live with it.
Just as in House of Dracula, the iconic poem is absent and not a word is spoken about silver being able to destroy a werewolf. Also, there’s no mention of the pentagram and in a glaring oversight in werewolf lore, the character of Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) is bitten by the Wolf Man and lives, but does not become a werewolf himself.
Another huge continuity gap occurs in the film’s exciting climax. The Wolf Man tackles Count Dracula out of a castle window where they both fall to their deaths in the ocean below. Even though this goes against the mythology of the mighty monster (as well as Dracula), the Wolf Man was never seen or heard from again. None of this is surprising being that once again Curt Siodmak had no screenwriting input.
Lastly, the Wolf Man gets a slightly new (and just as cool and frightening) look in this thoroughly entertaining film courtesy of make-up maestro Bud Westmore (taking over for the immortal Jack Pierce).
As you can see, the changes made throughout the classic series weren’t extensive. In the first three films, the additions to the Talbot character and the Wolf Man’s mythology were logical and more than acceptable. However, Universal (or the screenwriters) did fumble on storyline and mythology continuity in the last two films. Although this may have hurt the series slightly, the five films remain an iconic and thoroughly entertaining series that, like the Wolf Man himself, will never die.