Blog Directory CineVerse: Hour of the wolf

Hour of the wolf

Thursday, October 13, 2016

It's hard to believe that "The Wolf Man" is celebrating a diamond anniversary in 2016 (a "silver" anniversary sounds like it would be more fitting), but time marches on. Yet, this classic Universal horror film and character still retains a power and magnetism that defies the passing of years – like a good fairytale should. And make no mistake about it: this movie was crafted to play as a 20th century fairytale, taking place in an ambiguous European setting in a non-specific time and using the evergreen theme of science versus superstition to underpin its message. Indeed, for a 70-minute B-picture, "The Wolf Man" bites into a big mouthful of ideas and concepts with its 75-year-old fangs. Here are the collective observations from our CineVerse group after viewing the film:

Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, the Wolf Man doesn’t draw from a direct literary reference/source. Instead, the character was derived from fairy tales, Greek mythology and Greek tragedy, legends, and European folklore.
Larry Talbot’s character – and, to some extent, the monster – evokes sympathy, as he is depicted as a tragic victim of fate or circumstance. Dracula and many of the other classic Universal monsters aren’t sympathetic characters – they are meant to inspire fear. The Wolf Man is characterized as the most human and the most regretful of all these creatures.
o “Consider the remorselessness of his movie monster counterparts: Count Dracula served as an embodiment of pure evil in Bram Stoker’s hands, shameless about his bloodlust; Frankenstein’s monster is too reliant on bursts of raw emotion to feel regret over his victims; The Invisible Man was a scientist driven mad who murdered to demonstrate his power; The Mummy killed to service his own romantic desires; the Black Lagoon’s creature was little more than an animal. None but the Wolf Man reflected humanity so adeptly, capturing the duality behind the human monster,” posited movie reviewer Brian Eggert.
This picture was instrumental in establishing tropes and conventions that all werewolf characters and werewolf movies to come would follow: transformation via the full moon, wolfsbane, pentagrams in the hand, vulnerability to silver, etc.
The film espouses psychoanalytic theory, which was popular at this time, to help explain how and why Talbot would succumb to a beastly hidden nature.
The movie is supported by a surprisingly strong cast for a supposedly B-picture: Claude Raines, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya.
We actually don’t get to see the werewolf monster until after the film’s midpoint, which might be frustrating to younger viewers but proves to be refreshingly adult and Spielbergesque to others (Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers are known for not showing the creature/monster until at least the midway point of their films).
Instead of focusing on the physical manifestation of the monster here, the filmmakers are more invested into tapping into Talbot’s fear, apprehension and self-doubt, mining deeper psychological themes.
Despite being released immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the setting and time of the story remains vague and nonspecific – there’s no mention of World War II going on, and the location is some fictitious European village populated by Brits and Americans.
Man’s dual nature: Angel and devil, good and evil, civilized man and savage beast, gentleness and violence.
Existentialist angst: the cruel nature of random fate or circumstance. Consider that Talbot is an everyman who becomes a victim unfortunately bitten by a wolf or werewolf and is undeserving of this bad fortune.
The psychological power of suggestion: although we see Talbot transformed into a hairy monster, and the physical manifestation of this shape shifting is evident to the viewer, there is the suggestion here that all of this is happening only in his own mind.
o Eggert theorized the following: “The story itself infers that his character has been driven mad by tragedy and cultural hysteria, and that the transformation from man to monster occurs only in Talbot’s head… This initial film is about madness as a symptom of duality, not some supernatural creature of the night. And from that perspective, the film proves ultimately more confronting, psychoanalytic, and undeniably more terrifying than an explanation rooted in the paranormal.”
o Consider, as well, that the filmmakers aren’t very definitive as to a lycanthrope’s nature – does it transform totally into a wolf or a man-wolf crossover? Why is Bela’s character replaced by an actual wolf after the rise of the full moon and not a wolf man-like monster?
o Ponder, too, that lycanthropy is defined in the film as “a disease of the mind in which human beings imagine they are wolf-men”; in other words, it suggests the delusion of transforming into a wolf, not transforming into an actual werewolf.
The prodigal son: Larry hasn’t been home in a long time and proves disappointing to his father, who ultimately ends up killing his son.
Stars of ill omen: the pentagram is a symbol for a star, the moon represents an ill-faded star of doom, and Larry works for a company that makes telescopes that can see into the heavens – including heavenly bodies like the woman he sees and is smitten with but who inadvertently leads him into danger.
Science versus superstition: Larry’s father is an esteemed scientist who believes there’s a psychological answer for Larry’s behavior; Larry comes from a modern technical background (he works with telescopes/optics) but turns to antiques (literally in that he purchases an antique silver-topped cane from an antique store) and away from rational/logical thought – instead choosing to believe antiquated notions from fortunetellers and folklore.
Greek mythology: According to Wikipedia, "In Greek Mythology, there is a story of an Arcadian King called Lycaon who tested Zeus by serving him a dish of his slaughtered and dismembered son to see if Zeus was really all knowing. As punishment for his trickery, Zeus transformed Lycaon into a wolf and killed his 50 sons by lightning bolts, but supposedly revived Lycaon's son Nyctimus, who the king had slaughtered.
Fairytales, and ancient folklore/legends: “In medieval romances, such as Bisclavret, and Guillaume de Palerme the werewolf is relatively benign, appearing as the victim of evil magic and aiding knights errant. However, in most legends influenced by medieval theology the werewolf was a satanic beast with a craving for human flesh. This appears in such later fiction as "The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains": an episode in the novel The Phantom Ship (1839) by Marryat, featuring a demonic femme fatale who transforms from woman to wolf. The wolf in the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood" has been reinterpreted as a werewolf in many works of fiction,” per Wikipedia
In the 20th century, werewolf stories were popular in the United States and Britain – one of the biggest sellers was “The Werewolf of Paris” (1933).
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the 1932 film adaptation starring Fredric March
Werewolf of London, a 1935 universal horror film that first introduced a werewolf to the cinema

The Undying Monster (1942)
Cat People (1942)
Hammer Studios’ take on werewolves: Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
the Incredible Hulk comic book character
An American Werewolf in London, and The Howling, both from 1981
Remus Lupin, a character who turns into a werewolf in the Harry Potter series

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