Monster of the Week: The Wolf Man

Snout, claws, fangs, and more than enough hair to make Lon Chaney Jr the wolf man.

What’s so interesting about The Wolf Man?

Well, for starters, I’m not talking about the 2010 remake, but the original 1941 movie. That’s right, 1941 — it’s seventy-five years old this year. Honestly, it boggles my mind to type that, since I still (incorrectly) think of film as a new medium. But, well, okay: it’s a seventy-five year old monster movie, filmed in black and white, one of the original classics of the genre.

Let’s see if it holds up after all those years.

The Wolf Man tells the story of Larry Talbot, a young man who has returned to his family’s estate in a tiny Welsh town after nearly two decades in the US. He’s the younger of two sons, and with his older brother set to inherit the estate, he has long since left his family behind to make a life for himself — until his brother dies and the family legacy passes to him.

You could say all that left his relationship with dear old dad a little, well, awkward. Their first meeting is so formal that Larry’s “Hello, father” could have been directed at a priest as easily as a relative, but the reigning Lord Talbot tells him that he hopes to have a warmer relationship from now on.

They share a little father-son bonding assembling a new telescope — establishing Lord Talbot as a scientific man, while Larry’s more of a handiman. Still, Larry spies something that interests him in the telescope: a beautiful young woman.

Uh, yeah. Middle of the day, just looks right into her window. This is 1941, so she’s fully clothed and all, but still. He also uses this opportunity to stalk her, since she conveniently lives right above the shop where she works. Yeah, the romantic plotline has not aged well.

After a quick visit to the young lady’s workplace and some dialogue that is frankly pretty creepy, Larry’s all set for a date…


dun dun dun

It turns out Larry’s ancestral homeland is also home to a ton of werewolf lore. So, at the risk of giving away the plot, let’s just say that there is a WOLF who bites a MAN but the attacker may or may not be a MAN WOLF and Larry may or may not become a WOLF MAN, and—

Aw, shit, I’ve said too much.

I do in fact think that The Wolf Man holds up after all these years, give or take some stylistic details, gypsy stereotypes, and laughably terrible gender politics — so I’m not going to give too much of the story away if you don’t know it.

But I will talk about some of the movie’s more interesting ideas:

Philosophically, do the wolf man’s actions make Larry a monster? Psychologically, is the wolf man persona all in his head? And, technically, what is the difference between a werewolf and a wolf man?

Let’s start with the technical question.

In the movie, the first werewolf to show up looks fully wolf-form — actually, it looks fully dog-form, probably a German Shepard, but, y’know. A scuffle ensues, Larry is bitten, and later on a human man is found where the wolf was last seen. No transformation. Clearly werewolf and not wolf man.

However, once our tragic hero begins to feel the effects of the werewolf bite, he never really completes a full transformation. We see him several times covered in prosthetics and hair, clearly made up to be as wolf-like as you can get away with and still use a human actor.

In the context of the story, he claims to be a werewolf — and transforms at night, and displays a weakness to silver, and all kinds of other classic werewolf-y things.

But my question is this: if this is what a werewolf looks like, why use a dog the first time?

I can think of a couple of reasons, spanning from technical issues to storytelling. On the technical front, it could be that they didn’t want to spend their budget on extra prosthetics for another actor whose time on-screen as a werewolf is quite short.

More likely? Story.

We’re not meant to know for sure that the first conflict is with a werewolf. It could be just any wolf. Well — yeah, right, says the savvy audience member. But Larry isn’t sure at first. He doesn’t begin to question that until he sees a link between the wolf and the man.

The inconsistency bugs me a little, assuming that we’re meant to accept that Larry has become a werewolf.

And if there really is no difference between a werewolf and a wolf man, why not The Werewolf? Sure, it could just be another edition of but what will look better on the poster, but what if it is an intentional choice?

What if we’re not meant to accept Larry’s transformation at face value?

Could it be that he’s not a werewolf, but a man who is — metaphorically or perhaps psychologically — a wolf, a wolf man?

This question comes up several times throughout the movie. Repeatedly, doctors and other authority figures tell Larry that his condition is in his mind. Larry resents the implication that he’s “crazy.” (Because being a werewolf is better than addressing mental health issues, apparently.)

Larry’s doctor floats a theory that the local werewolf legends have brainwashed him into thinking that he’s become one. His father suggests that he’s struggling to integrate stark lines between good and evil into a more nuanced view of morality. Maybe Larry can’t come to terms with the idea that he’s done something terrible and has externalized the wrongdoing part of himself as a hideous, wolfish beast.

Or maybe he’s actually a werewolf.

This review (which, heads up for the uninitiated, reveals the entire plot) makes the case that Larry was never truly a werewolf — and brings up some fascinating behind-the-scenes intel. It contends that the screenwriter meant to make it clear that Larry’s lycanthropy is all in his mind, but Universal removed any evidence of ambiguity so that it would fit with their series of monster movies.

From a meta perspective — that totally makes sense. But in-world, I’m having trouble getting past a few sticking points.

My major issue has to do with the cinematography. In film, the choice of where to put the camera is analogous to a writer’s choice of first-person vs third-person, and so on. It’s about perspective.

If we only ever saw evidence of werewolf activity from Larry’s perspective — not first-person, necessarily, but scenes where he’s in view and earshot — then I’d buy it. But Larry’s not the only point of view we get. The audience gets to see several scenes without Larry in them, and we see scenes with werewolves from other characters’ perspectives, including skeptical characters.

The movie that I watched, as it has been cut and released, didn’t give me much reason to doubt its werewolves.

But the intended ambiguity brings up some interesting themes — themes that I wish the movie had dwelt on a little longer.

The review above mentions “cultural hysteria” and the death of Larry’s brother as driving forces for his werewolf delusion — but the townspeople only mention the legends in passing. Most don’t seem to believe that they’re real. And Larry doesn’t spend much time grieving his brother. Either of those themes would need to be fleshed out more for me to believe Larry’s fixation on the werewolf legend transformed his reality. Well — maybe they were. Maybe Universal cut those scenes.

Because the biggest obstacle for that theory is also one of the movie’s greatest strengths. And it brings us to the final question:

Is Larry — the wolf man — a monster?

It feels very easy for me to say no — almost too easy. Larry comes across as a sympathetic character (despite some voyeuristic habits which he’s oddly forthcoming about). There’s no point in the movie where he does something worthy of becoming a monster.

He’s flawed, for sure. Hell, I wouldn’t date the guy. But he never tries to hurt anyone — he’s almost clumsy in his genial nature.

This helps and it hurts.

It helps because it creates a starker difference between man and monster. Larry helps people who are in danger; the wolf man is a murderer. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, though.

That’s where it may just hurt the message it’s selling — Larry doesn’t have a breaking point or dark side independent of his lycanthropy. Where is the origin of this evil?

Is it innate?

Are we all capable of monstrosity, no matter how innocent we seem — whether or not there’s any reason for it? Is that what is monstrous about us, something deeply coded into our instincts? Something that is pointedly not rational?

Sometimes bad things happen for no reason.

Sometimes people are terrible for no reason other than that they are.

Well, that’s depressing as hell. Maybe that’s why I grope for a motive, some link between man and monster — isn’t that where the impulse to create monsters comes from, after all? An attempt to sort the bad out of our nature and call it monster, to impose order where there is none.

I guess that’s my answer, then — Larry is a monster and he isn’t.

Or… maybe he’s not part monster, but part animal.

There’s nothing malicious or intentional about the way the wolf man acts. Larry does not seem to have any control over his wolf form or remember what he’s done afterward.

Intent makes a monster. Instinct makes an animal.

A monster is actually closer to a human than it is to an animal, I think. Monsters are the dark parts of humanity that we want to deny and call something else. Humans are sometimes animal, also, but animals are not solely defined by their relation to humanity. In the cases when they are, it’s on the axis of civilization, not the axis of morality.

For the record, I doubt the murder victims care very much.

So whether or not there’s a monster in The Wolf Man — literal or figurative — it’s a good watch that’s just as philosophically interesting as it was seventy years ago. And the prosthetics are pretty good! And, hey, you’ll finally get that line about Lon Chaney Jr. in “Werewolves of London!”

Have you seen The Wolf Man — either version? Any other lycanthropic mythos to add? Leave a comment!

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