After having launched their iconic monster series a decade earlier with Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal brought a new character into the mix in 1941—the Wolf Man. The studio had actually already produced a werewolf movie in 1935, Werewolf of London, which is generally considered to be the first feature film about werewolves. While that first film flopped, the new The Wolf Man was a sizeable hit, spawning a number of sequels and crossover films that kept Universal’s monsters franchise thriving for years. Yet The Wolf Man ultimately lacks the key element of the best crafted Universal monster movies—a compelling lead performance.
The story follows Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) as he returns from America to his hometown in Wales to stay with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), after the death of Larry’s brother. The whole town, including a local girl (Evelyn Ankers) with whom the younger Talbot flirts incessantly, obsesses over legends of werewolves. No one seems to believe them—until one night when Larry is bitten, and transforms into the titular creature, wreaking havoc all over town.
Chaney Jr.’s father, Lon Chaney Sr., starred in several silent horror classics for Universal, such as The Phantom of the Opera, before his death in 1930, soon after which Chaney Jr. began acting. So in 1941, when Chaney Jr. began to make horror films starting with Man Made Monster, it was a bit of a gimmick—think when Jamie Lee Curtis was cast as the lead in Halloween, considering her mother Janet Leigh’s role in Psycho. Curtis was a revelation. Sadly, Chaney Jr. couldn’t have been more wrong for the part.
Chaney Jr. received acclaim in the part of Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but he’s no leading man—he’s a character actor. Chaney Jr. doesn’t exude the charm Larry Talbot is written to have; the romantic subplot is so creepily written that it needs someone extremely charismatic to make it work. He and costar Rains might be the least believable father- and-son casting, looking and sounding different in almost every way. Most of all, Chaney Jr. just doesn’t have the right physicality to pull off his monstrous transformation.
Makeup artist Jack Pierce had worked on Werewolf of London, and struggled to convince that film’s star, Henry Hull, to sit in the makeup chair for very long. Chaney Jr. was more than game, sitting for hours while hair and other features were applied. The issue Pierce couldn’t overcome was the fact that Chaney Jr. was a bulky man, not leaving Pierce much room to change the way the actor’s body looked to be more lupine. As a result, with all the makeup on, Chaney looks more like a bear than a wolf. It’s a look that is impressive in its own way, but certainly not effective in the way the other iconic monsters were. Chaney Jr. does deftly access some of the pain Larry Talbot goes through, but those scenes ares not enough to really justify his casting.
Some of the smaller cast members make a better impression, most notably Maria Ouspenskaya as a gypsy woman who tries to help Larry. Rains brings his typically dignified presence to class things up, despite how laughable he is as Chaney Jr.’s father. It’s also worth noting that poor Bela Lugosi shows up for a single scene before being quickly killed off. Director George Waggner managed to give the production an appropriately eerie atmosphere, assisted by Joseph Valentine’s sharp cinematography. One of their key assets was the massive amount of fog they used during scenes in the woods, fog supposedly so thick and toxic it made Ankers pass out on set one day.
Chaney Jr. is no Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff; the right actor could have elevated this entire production, and even the makeup could have worked a lot better on someone with a more suitable physicality. Without those diversions, there’s nothing to distract from the shoddier elements of the film, like the disturbing romantic subplot or the more wooden supporting performances.