We never get a clear look at Warner Oland’s chubby werewolf, and that has to be a good thing.
It’s taken me this long to watch WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and God knows I’ve tried. As a kid I was no doubt eager to see it, but it never seemed to turn up on UK TV. As an adult, I was excited to finally get my hands on the thing, and then found it impossible to sit through.
This time around — third time’s the charm — it didn’t seem THAT bad — despite several strikes against it, it has a number of appealing images and ideas.
First the bad — Henry Hull is written as a completely unsympathetic boor, and that’s just how he plays it, with an added suggestion of indifference and superiority to the material. In the abstract, it’s kind of interesting the way the character perversely contradicts his own motivations — he’s jealous of his wife but either ignores her or drives her a way, he quickly becomes convinced he is indeed infected with “werewolfery” (or worse, “lycanthrophobia”) but rejects offers of help from the man who infected him. In practice, these traits are frustrating and dramatically self-defeating. “It defeats its own purpose,” as Jake LaMotta would say.
Hull lacks the physical presence and skill to make a convincing transformation, and his werewolf performance consists largely of making a face like he’s going to sneeze.
The comedy relief, zesty and startling in a James Whale film, is lumbering and ugly here. Last time I watched, I got as far as the two drunken landladies (one of them, Ethel Griffies, is the ornithologist from THE BIRDS — not that old, she would live another forty years). The film is full of menopausal women, Fiona pointed out, and they’re all played as clowns. Spring Byington (“So romantic, with the Thames lapping at one’s very threshold”) is the main culprit. Worse is the way the so-called hero’s lunar depredations are followed by jocular scenes at Scotland Yard, with the police chortling away together despite the wave of manglings sweeping the metropolis.
Good stuff — going all the way to Tibet to get bitten by a werewolf is gloriously excessive.
Gratuitous killer plants! An entirely satisfying horror movie about rival botanists could probably be concocted with no need for werewolfery at all. Although, there’s THE WOMANEATER to prove me wrong.
Warner Oland in a role maybe planned for Lugosi — now he’s a professor from the University of the Carpathians, with a Japanese name. And he’s a LOVELY werewolf, much nicer than H.H.
But I dig the way Hull remains somewhat compos mentis when wolfing about — he actually turns into a werewolf and then PUTS ON A HAT to go out. And he gets a deathbed speech in werewolf form. Though the principles of Lon Chaney wolfman mythos are being laid down here in an early form, the story is still in large part Jekyll & Hyde.
Also — GREAT first transformation, using foreground columns which occlude the frame, in a relay of shots connected by hidden wipes, so that Hull’s makeup (by Universal monster supremo Jack Pierce) can develop in yak-fur increments.