The Wolf Man is a 1941 American Werewolf Horror film written by Curt Siodmak and produced and directed by George Waggner. The film stars Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolf Man, featuring Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Béla Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya. The title character has had a great deal of influence on Hollywood's depictions of the legend of the werewolf.
After learning of the death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales to reconcile with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). While there, Larry becomes romantically interested in a local girl named Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who runs an antique shop. As a pretext to converse with her, he purchases a silver-headed walking stick decorated with a wolf. Gwen tells him that it represents a werewolf (which she defines as a man who changes into a wolf "at certain times of the year.")
Throughout the film, various villagers recite a poem, whenever the subject of werewolves comes up:
"Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright."
That night, Larry attempts to rescue Gwen's friend Jenny from what he believes to be a sudden attack by a wolf. He kills the beast with his new walking stick, but is bitten in the process. He is told that it was not merely a wolf; but was a werewolf, and that now he will become one. A gypsy fortuneteller named Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) reveals to Larry that the animal which bit him was actually her son Bela (Béla Lugosi) in the form of a wolf. Bela had been a werewolf for years and now Larry will be transformed into one as well.
Talbot transforms into a wolf-like creature and stalks the village, first killing the local gravedigger. Talbot retains vague memories of being a werewolf and wanting to kill, and continually struggles to overcome his condition. He is finally bludgeoned to death by his father with his own silver walking stick after attacking Gwen. Sir John Talbot watches in horror as his son transforms back into a human form as the local police arrive on the scene.
The legacy of The Wolf Man:
The Wolf Man is the only Universal monster to be played by the same actor in all his 1940s film appearances. Lon Chaney, Jr. was very proud of this, frequently stating in interviews: "He was my baby". Chaney would go on to play a wolf man (if not the Wolf Man) in very similar makeup in the 1959 Mexican film La Casa del Terror and a famous 1962 episode of TV's Route 66 titled Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing, which also starred Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster. Nearly a decade later, even though he was seriously ill at the time, Chaney managed to conjure up his original energetic gestures while masked in a quasi-wolfish rubber mask for one scene in his last (and most unfortunate) film, 1971's Dracula vs. Frankenstein.
The Wolf Man was not Universal's first werewolf film. It was preceded by Werewolf of London from 1935, starring noted character actor Henry Hull in a quite different and more subtle werewolf makeup. As noted previously, Hull objected to having his face entirely covered in latex and hair, and a less-hirsute, more devilish version was used in the film. The film was not a huge box office success, probably because audiences of the day thought it too similar in many ways to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for which Fredric March had won an Oscar three years before. Some latter-day critics prefer Jack Pierce's earlier werewolf to Chaney's, which was described in Carlos Clarens's book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film as "... looking like a hirsute Cossack."
The Wolf Man is one of three top-tier Universal Studios monsters without a direct literary source. The others are The Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the 1970s, novelizations of the original films were issued as paperback originals as part of a series written by "Carl Dreadstone," a house name pseudonym for a several writers, including British horror writer Ramsey Campbell.
Fantasy/horror author Neil Gaiman uses the "Larry Talbot" character in two selections from his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. Harlan Ellison's Hugo Award winning "Adrift just off the Islets of Langerhans, latitude 38 degrees, 54' N., longitude 77 degrees, 00' 13' W." uses "Laurence Talbot" as the main character. Heavy metal band Iced Earth's track "Wolf" from the album Horror Show, has the wolf bane poem recited in its main chorus with some added words in between. Similarly, the track "Howl" by Florence + The Machine (from the album Lungs) features a slightly edited version of the poem in the closing verse. Cradle of Filth used the poem as the intro to their track entitled "Queen of Winter, Throned" on the album V Empire. The character of Jon Talbain, a werewolf attempting to overcome his curse in the Darkstalkers game series, bears a resemblance to the character of Larry Talbot in name and in characterization, made doubly so by the fact that the series primary characters are all homages to horror movie archetypes.
The Wolf Man also had an impact on future filmmakers as well. Cult films such as An American Werewolf in London and The Howling drew inspiration from The Wolf Man and made references to the film as well.