The Wolf Man (1941)
Some of you may see this pick and scratch your head. If I were going to pick another early Universal film to land on this list, why not a game changer like The Bride of Frankenstein? Or Tod Browning’s Dracula? Or The Phantom of the Opera? They’re all amazing films that arguably deserve a spot on this list. But George Waggner’s The Wolf Man was special for a number of reasons. Although Werewolf of London is a full half-decade older than The Wolf Man, it lacks the impact of Waggner’s film, a direct result of the different levels in which Henry Hull and Lon Chaney Jr. perform. Make no mistake, Hull was a true talent, but Lon Chaney Jr. was a man far ahead of his time. Far, far ahead of his time, and The Wolf Man offered him that chance to put his stamp on a character that none would forget. So not only was this werewolf tale one of the absolute first of its kind, it’s still one of the best we’ve ever seen.
The story isn’t exactly intricate and it isn’t multi-layered with a wide array of characters. It’s a very, very straight-forward tale. Lawrence Talbot returns home after his brother passes, but fate isn’t kind to the man, as he soon finds himself tangling with a wolf of some sort. He’s bitten, and subsequently discovers that upon the full moon, he’ll transform into a man-eating werewolf. Ultimately, the town’s residents, including Talbot’s own father, embark on a mission to bring the strange beast that’s running amuck to a gruesome end.
There’s familial tensions here, and that’s an interesting aspect of the narrative, but the true meat on this bone is Lon Chaney Jr. His performance is amazing, and the sadness and sympathetic nature of the man, who’s as disgusted by his new transformation problem as the terrified people of the town, is just riveting. You can see the pain in Chaney’s eyes. You can see his horrible confliction in every wrinkle of his skin, trapped between a desire to be a “normal” human being once again, and a desire to die before he has the chance to murder some poor innocent soul. Chaney’s facial expressions are riveting, and Jack Peirce’s makeup is absolutely gorgeous, somehow still managing to look better than half of the werewolves we see in film today.
Of all the classic Universal monster movies, The Wolf Man is the only one to rival Frankenstein, in many ways usurping a serious sliver of Frankenstein’s greatness. Chaney’s performance, in a somewhat undeveloped period of time for film, is still convincing and refined enough to tread waters with the greats of today, like Daniel Day Lewis and Clint Eastwood. He was that special. The Wolf Man was also that special, and I’ve got to admit that without this film, we may never have seen films like An American Werewolf in London, or Joe Dante’s strange but ridiculously effective The Howling. The Wolf Man was a pivotal piece for those of us addicted to the darker side of cinema, and a treasure for anyone who values passionate performances.
Continue the countdown of the 15 films that defined the horror genre on the next page!