In Bride of Frankenstein, Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius lifts his glass and toasts Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein, saying, “to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I encourage you to join me in exploring this universe, focusing on horror films from the beginning of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the studio system’s collapse and the birth of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960s.
At the age of 80, The Wolf Man has earned the title of Mark of the Beast
We will explore this great realm of classic horror with this period as our focus, with occasional forays beyond. As a result, I raise my glass to you and encourage you to join me in toasting. Because of Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s brief spell as head of production, Universal had been the reigning horror house in Hollywood since 1931. Unfortunately, the studio lost money while he was in charge. The studio was sold in March 1936, and horror film production came to a standstill. Except for The Invisible Ray and Dracula’s Daughter, which were both released the same year as the sale, virtually nothing from the genre would be made for the next three years, despite the fact that they were essentially Universal’s only lucrative films under the younger Laemmle’s tenure. But, as is so frequently the case in times of political unrest, horror became a way of confronting and releasing fears, in this case the growth of fascist in Europe. Universal recreated their most successful monster for the third time with Son of Frankenstein in 1939, when Hitler was invading neighboring countries.
The Invisible Man and The Mummy sequels were released soon after, and both were hugely successful. It was obvious that the time had come to add a new monster to the pantheon: The Wolf Man. Universal had already produced a werewolf film, Werewolf of London, in 1935, but it had flopped at the box office. The picture has a lot more in common with the science-based Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story than with the legendary myths that are more commonly associated with werewolves nowadays. The studio also intended to make a werewolf film for Boris Karloff, the studio’s big monster star, but the plot never came together completely and was abandoned when the Laemmles lost control of the company.
Despite not being the first werewolf film, The Wolf Man established the subgenre as we know it. The werewolf mythos, which includes the full moon, death by silver, and becoming a werewolf by being bitten by a werewolf, all comes from screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s imagination. Though certain details have been lost, such as the pentagram indicating the werewolf’s next victim and the significance of wolfsbane, these other aspects have an organic feel to them, as if they came from the ancients rather than the comparatively modern world. That also sums up the overall tone of the picture. In some aspects, it appears to be set in a faraway time and place, and in others, it appears to be situated in current America (1941). The setting was modern-day Wales in the original script, but references to it were eliminated during filming. This ultimately benefits the film, giving it a broad and timeless feel akin to Universal’s first wave of iconic monster flicks. Siodmak also touched into the story’s crucial human themes. He realized, as he did with the Frankenstein monster, that moviegoers needed to connect with the monster, and the Wolf Man is the most sympathetic of all Universal monsters.
The narrative of a guy forced to transform into something terrifying and murderous against his will is tragic. “Even a man who is pure in heart and does his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blossoms and the fall moon is bright,” says a rhyme repeated three times in the video. Larry Talbot is a man with a “pure heart.” The fact that he is murdered by his own father, who has lately lost another son, adds to the tragedy’s classically tragic quality, making it a tragedy of almost Greek or Shakespearian proportions. Universal opted to use the name of one of its best silent era performers, Lon Chaney, in the guise of his son Creighton, who began playing under the name Lon Chaney, Jr. under pressure from studios, for the role of Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man. Chaney’s big break came in 1939, when he played Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a critically lauded performance of sensitivity and complexity. Universal, on the other hand, recognized his imposing stature and believed he was best suited for monster roles. He had his first significant horror appearance in early 1941 as the titular character in Man Made Monster, a part that was not dissimilar to the Frankenstein monster he would play in Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942. When he appeared as Larry, Chaney was allowed to play to his greatest talents, both as a disturbed and tragic man and as an imposing physical presence in his monster form.
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