“Even a man who is pure at heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.” (The Wolfman)
This is the well-known saying that is at the heart of the 1941 Universal Studios film The Wolfman. This film completes the quartet of monsters that are at the heart of the Universal horror franchise: the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Mummy, and the Wolfman. While there were certainly other creatures and monsters in the films in this time period, these are the four most prominent.
While we see science run out of control and ancient evils in the other films, in The Wolfman, we view a story of tragedy that is focused on an ordinary man, Larry Talbot, who is swept up in unfortunate events beyond his control. Because he is bitten by a werewolf while trying to save a girl and lives, Larry Talbot is fated to become such a beast himself.
The director and producer was George Waggner, and the writer was Kurt Siodmak. Most of our contemporary views about werewolf behavior do not come from ancient traditions or medieval European beliefs but from the mythology that Siodmak created for this movie. Siodmak created the idea that the time of the full moon is when a werewolf takes it form and that to become one, a person must be bitten by a werewolf and survive.
More importantly, he included elements of classical tragedy, of a man fated to murder and to be destroyed, despite his desire to be a good person. The incantation the gypsy woman Maleva intones over Larry Talbot after his death illustrates this theme:
“The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity.” (The Wolfman)
Siodmak also addressed contemporary issues, specifically the idea of a star marking the next victim of a werewolf, much like a star marking the Jewish people of Europe by the Nazis. Siodmak was a German Jew who had been successful as a writer but had to flee Germany with the take over by the Nazis. While the reference is not direct, it is still a clear metaphor for the horrors of the Nazis. The film demonstrates that evil is both natural and human created.
In addition to excellent writing, the cast was also of the very best. Along side the star Lon Chaney Jr. were Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Evelyn Ankers. Jack Pierce, as in the other main Universal horror films, created the unforgettable makeup that is the foundation for all other filmic and literary werewolves.
It was a film that was excellent in every level of production, and it maintains its excellence today.