I have, over the years, grown to love seeing movies with absolutely no idea of what they’re about or in what context they were made. All I knew about Werewolf of London was that, title aside, it was an old Universal monster movie, which I assumed was one of many spin offs from the main horror staples of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man and filmed back sometime in the 30s/40s. I think it’s always good to be able to watch a film with no preconceptions and rate it on its own merits as a film, but Werewolf of London it turns out is an exception.
Released in 1935, it predates Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man by six years and is apparently the oldest surviving werewolf movie, while certainly being Hollywood’s first attempt at producing one. The makeup itself still hold up remarkably well and was supposed to be much more like The Wolf Man’s hairier variety, only lead actor Henry Hull (playing Dr. Glendon) refused to spend so much time in the makeup chair. This resulted in a cut-down version being used, leading the original design to be used by Universal’s makeup artist Jack P. Pierce later in The Wolf Man. In fact even the transformation scenes look great, particularly as the Doctor walks behind a series of columns in a tracking shot that shows a different stage of his change with each passing column.
There is always something fantastic about seeing old films, which still manage to make you wonder exactly how they made an effect work. It’s a point which leads to the current debate of trying to remove CGI from contemporary horror films, to increase the spectacle and bring a little mystery back to the mysterious – ingenuity instead of laziness will triumph every time (take Hatchet’s fantastic death scenes as a recent example of how to make old school effects retain their power to shock).
As an original film take on the werewolf mythology, it’s interesting to see how the affliction of what is referred to here as ‘De Lycanthrophobia’ is portrayed. The story starts with Dr. Glendon, a renowned botanist, out in Tibet and trying to locate a one of a kind flower, with a name so long and impossible to spell that I won’t even attempt it. Said flower takes its power from the moon and can only blossom under moonlight.
Upon finally locating the flower after journeying through a cursed valley, (which seemed to afflict the actors with a very bad case of miming against invisible forces), he has no sooner snipped from it, when he is attacked by a werewolf. The Doctor survives the incident, with only a bite on his arm, returns to London and only becomes aware something is wrong after his hand is exposed to the rays of his moonlight replicating machine. This leads to a somewhat rapid growth of hair. The flower it transpires is the only antidote to his problem, but not a cure. The fluid from one fully blossomed flower, is only enough to subdue the beast within for one night and the flowers are in short supply and proving difficult to grow…
Curiously the staple werewolf rules and motifs of silver bullets, wolf’s bane and five pointed stars didn’t make an appearance until The Wolf Man and were all created by its writer. Here the werewolf is able to be killed in the same way as any man, and is depicted as more of a Mr Hyde than a beast. So he prowls the streets while hiding his face, seeking to kill that which he loves most, or anyone he happens to find in their place. Happily I was reassured that attractive blondes still served the same purpose back then in horror movies, especially the adulterous ones.
As a film in its own right, it works fairly well. The Britishness of it is overwhelming at times (a botanical party near the start almost made me cry out against it all), but at least it adds the dimension of rooting for the good Doctor to tear them all apart as soon as possible. Plus it features a rare frog eating plant, that was said to be ‘un-Christian’, possibly because it looked like a cross between a spider and a vagina (don’t ask).
Comedy relief comes in the form of drunken women of both upper and working classes, who despite the occasional funny moment (one old woman knocking another out in order to gain the Doctor’s custom for a room), were mostly annoying. An ex beau of the Doctor’s wife I immediately despised – he is supposed to be a heroic figure and her true love, but came across an irksome, pompous and uncharismatic pain.
Dr. Glendon’s character is fairly cold, a solitary figure, absorbed in his work and neglectful of his wife though he loves her dearly. But his detachment from her, which only worsens post bite, means the fate of his character acts as a direct reflection for his awareness of how badly he has treated her, and his gratitude at being forced to release her from the bonds of marriage, giving her a chance at the happiness he could never give her even before he became a physical monster.As a standalone film I’d happily give it 3 stars, but in the context of its place in cinematic werewolf history, it might just merit another.