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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

At Least English Werewolves Have Manners

Friday, October 14, 2005

In 1935, Werewolf of London set the stage for Universal Studios' franchise of Wolf Man films. Yet this movie is markedly different and appreciably more complex than the Wolf Man franchise ever became.

Werewolf of London is just downright good. It's more intentional filmmaking, with a better script and a much more imaginative direction and cinematography (though not better actors). At its core, Werewolf of London is just a good story told well. So well, in fact, that the modern viewer can even excuse the film for having its' werewolf stop and put on its' coat and hat before treacherously steppin' out.

Some interesting contrasts to point out between this one and The Wolf Man, released six years later:

  • In The Wolf Man, the protagonist, Larry Talbot, gets bitten by a werewolf when he goes home to England, after 18 years in America; Werewolf of London's protagonast, Dr. Wilfred Glendon, gets bitten on a botanical expedition in Tibet. So, in both cases it's a well-meaning and successful white guy who gets attacked by a weirdo-cum-werewolf (Bela Legosi's gypsy in The Wolf Man and the vaguely Asian Mr. Kigama in Werewolf of London). But it falls to one in a far away and foreign place, while it falls to the other in his childhood home.
  • Werewolf of London takes place in a definite place: London. The city is as much of the story as anything else; its' streetnames and landmarks, slums and citizens, are important pieces of the story; The Wolf Man takes place in "the woods," somewhere in the countryside.
  • Further, all of the violence in The Wolf Man happens in the woods, the domain of the ubiquitious low-lying fog; Werewolf of London's happens in alleys, in the zoo, and at an estate, all specific places that lend an air of particularity to the story. Indeed, the phenomenon, in Werewolf of London, of something so savage as a werewolf coming to inhabit a place so "civilized" as London, or, as one character put it, "Christian England," is largely the point. Becuase this London is a place where the wealthy aunt lives only a block from "The worst slum in England," where they'll "knife you for a schilling"; the savage and the civilized are already bedfellows.
  • The protagonist in The Wolf Man is positively tortured with the knowledge of what has overtaken him. In fact, it would become a running theme in the rest of the franchise's films that he simply wanted to die and no longer be a threat to people; but Werewolf of London's Dr. Glendon is rather self-obsessed about the whole thing and can hardly be bothered to consider the risk his condition poses to the public. The only person he can be moved to actually worry about is his doleful wife, so that he takes the extreme measure of locking himself into a shabby slum apartment and praying beneath the light of the moon: "Please Father in heaven, don't let this happen to me again; or if it must happen, please keep me away from the thing I love."
  • In Werewolf of London, those who are suspected of believing in the "superstition" of the werewolf, or those who profess to having actually seen it, are given over to speculations of drunkenness; it's the drink that would cause one to think such a thing. But in The Wolf Man, psyco-analysis has taken over and belief in the veracity of the monster is the result of psychic trauma or delusions, a black-and-white world view that in unhealthily simplistic.
Werewolf of London is a really neat movie. The story, the setting, the comic relief, the cinematography: all of it adds us to what must have been a quite scary film in 1935 and what is still a very engaging one today.

Final note: the transfiguration process in Werewolf of London is brilliant. Supposedly the writer and director were under much more censorious scrutiny for how they depicted the man/animal transition, so they had to be creative. So the most memorable one happens as Dr. Glendon is walking past a set of pillars at night--the action never stops. He simply disappears behind a pillar, and by the time he emerges on the other side a part of the transformation has happened. After three of them it is complete.

It just goes to show: restraint is as good a vehicle of expression as indulgence.

And all that from a werewolf movie.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 12:22 PM

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