“For some people, life is very simple,” Claude Rains tells his werewolf-bitten son Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man. “Others of us find that good, bad, right, wrong are many-sided, complex things. We try to see every side. But the more we see, the less sure we are.” Released in 1941, less than a week after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Curt Siodmak-penned, George Waggner-directed film uses werewolf legends as an excuse to put modern minds comfortable living with moral ambiguity into conflict with undeniable evil. It finds modern sophistication and cultured intellects unprepared to deal with a threat that’s already at hand, maybe even under our own skin.
Widely respected scientist Rains resides in a castle overlooking a Welsh town steeped in werewolf lore. Having just lost his eldest son, he’s decided to reunite with his estranged second-born (Chaney), who returns from exile in America. Almost immediately, Chaney strikes up a friendship with a local antique dealer’s daughter (horror fixture Evelyn Ankers) that leaves him behaving halfway between a smitten romantic and a persistent stalker. Accompanying Ankers to a gypsy-led traveling carnival, Chaney fights off and kills a wolf. Or was it a wolf? Further investigation unearths a human corpse at the scene of the attack, and Chaney soon winds up in the grips of uncontrollable urges.
The Wolf Man revived Universal’s reputation as Hollywood’s premier source for monster movies, and rightly so. As Joe Dante points out in an interview included on this two-disc special edition, werewolves have a more immediate resonance than other monsters: They’re the monsters we might become, even those of us with pure hearts who say our prayers at night. It was also the right horror movie for the moment, born in the shadow of the overwhelming evil of Nazi Germany, and anticipating the many normal-guy-descending-into-darkness film-noir stories on the horizon.
To work as well as it might, the film needs an actor capable of conveying what it feels like to be in the grips of evil compulsions. It got Lon Chaney Jr., whose lumbering, pokey, childishly earnest work breaks the mood of the piece whenever he opens his mouth. Fortunately, he eventually gets lost behind Jack Pierce’s masterful makeup, and the image of a befanged, hirsute Chaney slavering like a beast while wearing trousers and a button-down shirt carries a warning that needs no dialogue: Evil doesn’t go away if we ignore it. It just hides beneath modern clothes.
Key features: A handful of documentaries that will be familiar to those who’ve previously purchased The Wolf Man on DVD.