Contrary to popular belief, Lon Chaney, Jr.’s The Wolf Man was not the first werewolf picture for Universal. Did you know that? Until a few years ago, I didn’t know that. Before Chaney made the role iconic, there was Henry Hull. And if you’re like me, if this is your first time hearing that name, you’re asking yourself who that is. Should you look him up, you’ll find that he’s a character actor with a number of credits to his name, but his is one of those names that gets overshadowed and lost. This is the movie he’s known for, which in itself got overshadowed and lost to pop culture.
So what happened? Simply put, the theme of the werewolf is a (more interesting, in my humble opinion) derivative of the Jekyll and Hyde motif. Universal released their version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a mere four years before this, which itself got overshadowed by the one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein. By 1935, the entire horror genre had been kicked up to further heights with King Kong and Bride of Frankenstein. So, you see, it’s not that WereWolf of London is a bad movie, it’s just simply not one that lives in immortality with the rest of Universal’s monsters. It did, however, kickstart this aspect of it.
Jack Pierce is the makeup artist behind the werewolf effects here, who is best known for his collaboration with Boris Karloff on Frankenstein and The Mummy, and with Lon Chaney, Jr., for many of the sequels to those films. Consider this his prototype work for the effects he would make famous on The Wolf Man six years later. If you’re not familiar with him, you might want to look him up. Despite his incredible effects work, he wasn’t well liked at Universal, with the actors often claiming that his effects were more complex than they needed to be and often painful to the actor. For example, his Wolf Man effects for Chaney were done with yak hair being hot glued to the man’s face and singed with a hot iron to stay in place. Fans of these films have often blown the stories way out of proportion, but when you consider how many collaborations with Chaney there were, such things are bound to take on a life of their own. Regardless, it’s entirely appropriate to think of this movie’s effects as Wolf Man 1.0. Ironically, the original makeup design for this was the one later used on Chaney, but initially rejected for this version because Hull wanted less time in the makeup chair and didn’t want his face completely obscured. Hull’s argument was, being an accomplished makeup effects man himself, that the actors needed to be instantly recognizable behind the makeup so that the audience could keep up with the characters. This is why when you get to The Wolf Man, the cast of characters are listed out with title cards, and Chaney is introduced with his human face, but the card says “Lon Chaney, Jr., as The Wolf Man.” Sometimes it really is just that easy.
The story itself uses the elements that would become classic fare for werewolf stories, with a couple of twists. In this case, the lead character is a well-to-do botanist who has traveled to Tibet in search of a rare flower, the marphasa. According to legend, this flower blooms only in moonlight, and after acquiring his specimen, Wilfred Glendon runs experiments on it, attempting to make it flourish in artificial moonlight so that it will grow faster and more plentiful. Most of his experiments have failed. Why does that matter? Because while he was in Tibet, Glendon was attacked by a werewolf, and the marphasa, while not being a cure, is a kind of antidote. If you cut off the bloom of the plant and prick yourself with it, you can stay the transformation for a single night.
Further complications in the story appear in the form of his wife Lisa reuniting with her old childhood sweetheart, Paul Ames, in the midst of her husband being preoccupied with is work to the point of obsession, as well as the appearance of the mysterious Dr. Yogami, who is desperate to see Glendon’s work. As it turns out, Dr. Yogami is the very werewolf who attacked Glendon in Tibet, and the two must become both allies in science and competitors for the rare bloom if they are to stave off the murders that their condition creates. Most of all, Glendon wishes to save Lisa from his secret and protect his marriage in the process, but she’s no longer in any mood to tolerate what she sees as petty jealousy.
As far as werewolf pictures go, this isn’t bad at all. It’s a slow burn for its time and carries many of the hallmarks that Universal was renowned for in that era. It just wasn’t nearly as special nor as memorable as most of the others. Today it stands mostly as a curiosity for aficionados like myself who like to explore the entire catalog of the era and connect the dots. In short, it’s one of those movies that you watch for little other reason than to enhance your geek cred.