Thursday, October 9, 2014

Howling Around Your Kitchen Door: "Werewolf of London"

Six years before Lon Chaney, Jr. was cursed by the full, silvery moon, Henry Hull, a Kentucky gentleman with an unusually timrous voice, played a similarly affected man in Werewolf of London. This 1935 creature feature brought wooly werewolves to the mainstream, but on-screen lycanthropy did not immediately take off. In the 1940s, after the popularity of The Wolf Man, werewolves finally found their time in the dimmed spotlight, but even then the scions of Chaney's Larry Talbot were often relegated to playing either second or third fiddle to bigger name ghouls like Dracula and Frankenstein. 

Given the slow slough of the werewolf towards Hollywood monster immortality, it's hard not to see Werewolf of London as a necessary precursor - a prototype made in order to test the waters. Of course there's a problem with this: Werewolf of London is actually a fine flick, and in some ways it's superior to the much more celebrated Wolf Man.

Because the film focuses on an ill-fated scientist, his technologically advanced private laboratory, and a special Tibetan plant that cures the curse of lycanthropy, there's more than a little touch of early science fiction in Werewolf of London. On top of that, the foggy perimeters of London, a set of ghastly murders, and the mere appearance of Warner Oland, who is most fondly remembered for his numerous portrayals of the Chinese American detective Charlie Chan, also converge to add splashes of mystery, thus turning what should've been straight horror into a hybrid of three styles (which, to be fair, are so much alike that the lines between them are so permeable as to be nonexistent).

Werewolf of London begins like every good adventure tale in the remotest of locations. Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Hull), a famous British botanist, has come to the Himalayas in order to find the rare mariphasa plant. According to local superstition, the mariphasa can act as a temporary antidote to those who have been bitten by a werewolf. Unfortunately for Glendon, a man who did not set out to relieve the beast within himself, this medicinal property proves all too needed after a werewolf attacks him on top of a remote Tibetan mountain.

Upon returning to London, Glendon's life rapidly disintegrates. His investigations into the mariphasa are tampered with (somebody cuts the stems and absconds with two buds), while his already strained relationship with his wife Lisa (played by the then teenaged Valeria Hobson) deteriorate even further after Lisa's childhood flame, Paul Ames (played by Lester Matthews), returns to their social circle just as Glendon's misanthropy and workaholism increase. Making matters worse are the strange tufts of hair on Glendon's hands that soon morph into full-out growing spurts. By the 30 minute mark, Glendon turns into a complete howler. 

Unlike his later work on The Wolf Man, make-up artist Jack Pierce's rendition of a beast man on Werewolf of London emphasis the human portion more. While Lon Chaney's later make-up made him look like some primordial simian from the fever dreams of cryptozoology, Hull's werewolf is more expressive, if not more demonic. With the widow's peak of Mephistopheles and the underbite of a canine, the titular creature of Werewolf of London is more sinister and eerie than later examples from the '40s. 

Added to this menace was Hull's decision to play the werewolf as at least cognizant of his affliction. Throughout his stop-motion transformations and even during his somewhat protracted death scene, Dr. Glendon's werewolf, the Mr. Hyde persona, can walk and talk like Dr. Glendon, the everyday Jekyll. The comparisons with The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are apt, especially during Dr. Glendon's first transformation, when, while in full wolf regalia, Dr. Glendon puts on a cloak, scarf, and hat in order to crash a swanky party that just so happens to be located in one of London's rougher ghettos. After being put off by the shrieks of the drunken busybody Miss Ettie Coombs (played by Spring Byington), the werewolf Glendon settles for dismembering an unnamed blonde whose only crime was walking alone late at night. 

Furthering the Mr. Hyde-Dr. Glendon connection is the fact that Dr. Glendon purchases a room in a London slum for the sole purpose of hiding his transformations from the unsuspecting eyes and organs of his loved ones. This moment is memorable in the film because of some crass, very low Victorian humor involving two alcoholic landladies named Mrs. Whack (played by Ethel Griffies) and Mrs. Moncaster (played by Zeffie Tilbury). When not stealing each other's drinks or punching each other in the back of the head, Mrs. Whack and Mrs. Moncaster scream their throats out after they too stumble upon Dr. Glendon's secret. 

Throughout the film, the only character who seems to know Dr. Glendon's affliction is the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Oland), a Asian academic who claims to have met Glendon in Tibet. If this sounds suspicious, then that's because it is. You see, Yogami was the wolfie who put the hex on Glendon in the first place, and the two finish the film at each other's throat as they battle for possession of the mariphasa. 

Surprisingly, the critic and John Ford favorite Frank Nugent appreciated Werewolf of London, and his enjoyment has been shared by others over the years. Warren Zevon's oddball hit song "Werewolves of London" is partially about the film, while a novelization of John Colton's screenplay was produced in the 1970s by "Carl Dreadstone" (really Walter Harris). Even without the subsequent thumbs up, Werewolf of London remains one of the better, if little anthologized Universal monster films of the waning pre-Code era. And although its script tends to run towards melodrama, and despite director Stuart Walker's abuse of close-ups (although these close-ups are also what make the film special), this moody tale is about as good as it gets for werewolf pictures. 

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