Thursday, October 1, 2015

Film Review: Werewolf of London

"Werewolf of London"  *** (out of ***)

"Werewolf of London" (1935) proves to be a howling good time!

When movie fans, especially older movie fans, with a bit more knowledge of film history, think of werewolf movies it is safe to assume the first movie which instantly comes to mind is "The Wolf Man" (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr. Unfortunately "Werewolf of London", directed by Stuart Walker and starring Henry Hull, often is neglected and overlooked. Many in the general public may have never heard of it.

Werewolves have been a part of the American culture starting in the early twentieth century. One of the earliest known films depicting werewolves is "The Werewolf" (1913) which is sadly considered a lost movie. "Werewolf of London" was released on the heels of a famed novel "The Werewolf of Paris" (1933) written by Guy Endore.

Those familiar with "The Wolf Man" will say "Werewolf of London" is not a faithful origin story. That would only be true if you believe "The Wolf Man" is the most faithful adaptation of the werewolf folklore. However these two movies have nothing to do with each other. "Werewolf of London" is telling its own story though it is worth noting both movies were released by Universal Pictures, the movie studio best known for its horror monsters. Besides "The Wolf Man" Universal released "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931) and "The Mummy" (1932).

The "Werewolf Of London" takes the viewer to Tibet where a wealthy English botanist, Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), has come to search for a mariphasa plant, which is very rare and only known to exist in this part of the world. It is while searching for it Dr. Glendon is attacked by a werewolf, though he is able to bring the plant back to London with him.

Dr. Glendon we learn is a married man. His wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), believes he spends too much time with his plants and not enough time with her. Though the doctor is obsessed with being able to make the mariphasa plant bloom. Legend has it the plant can only bloom by the light of a full moon. Dr. Glendon creates a moon lamp which is constantly placed above the plant.

It is in London Dr. Glendon meets Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland, best known for playing Charlie Chan) who is also a botanist who traveled to Tibet looking for the mariphasa plant. It is through Dr. Yogami the viewer and Dr. Glendon learn about werewolves and the power of the mariphasa plant, which is the only known antidote to temporarily prevent a man from turning into a wolf. Dr. Yogami even knows Dr. Glendon was attacked while in Tibet. Dr. Glendon however leads Dr. Yogami to believe he has no time for such superstition and dismisses all of Dr. Yogami's ideas and warnings.

Dr. Glendon however secretly knows he was attacked by a werewolf and believes the mariphasa plant is an antidote which will prevent him from turning into a werewolf and killing the thing he loves most, Lisa.

Visually there is little I found impressive about "Werewolf of London". The director, Stuart Walker, is not one of the giants of cinema. His most popular title, after this one, is "Great Expectations" (1934) which Henry Hull also appeared in. He did not have much of a career in Hollywood. The cinematography was by Charles J. Stumar, who also shot "The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The movie makes some good use of shadows when the werewolf is about to attack and like all the truly great horror films this one knows it is best to keep the violence off-screen. When the werewolf is about to go in for the kill the camera turns away and all we hear is the victim (always a woman) scream.

The make-up, done by the great Jack Pierce, who worked on all the Universal Horror Monsters, is effective and the transformation sequences are decent, especially when you consider the time period.

One of the reasons "Werewolf of London" is not considered being a truly great movie is the lack of character development for the Dr. Glendon character. Although I hate to compare this movie to "The Wolf Man", in that movie we get a story of an innocent man caught in a situation he does not want to be in. It is a story addressing the good and evil within man. The problem with "Werewolf of London" is we never sense the good in Dr. Glendon. We aren't witnessing much of a personal struggle, though there is one good scene showing the doctor praying to God to not turn into the werewolf. The movie on a whole is too concerned with telling the big picture and not interested in the details of expanding these characters.

"Werewolf of London" actually has more in common with "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", though that story and "The Wolf Man" comment more on the duality of man and the brutal, animal instincts which lurk inside of us. When Dr. Glendon turns into the werewolf he kind of looks like Mr. Hyde and both movies deal with a man trying to kill the woman they love once they turn into a beast.

At its best "Werewolf of London" feels like the blueprint of a better story. "The Wolf Man" may have only been as good as it is because this movie existed first and Universal could look at it, take the good parts and expand on the weaker elements, which is exactly what they did.

One of the big differences between "Werewolf of London" and "The Wolf Man" has to do with a surprising amount of comic relief in "Werewolf of London". Only "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) may come close to having as much comic relief in a Universal horror movie. The comedic scenes feel slightly out of place and one sequence, dealing with a boarding house, takes up a good amount of screen time for what is already a relatively short movie at roughly 75 minutes. Comic relief is a distraction this movie did not need. One doesn't watch a horror movie for laughs. "The Wolf Man" made the correct choice and was consistent throughout with its tone taking its material serious.

Henry Hull plays the mild-manner botanist at the level you'd expect him too. There is nothing distinguishing about him. Dr. Glendon is supposed to be an average person. The problem is the character is too dull. Larry Talbot was a more "complete person". The viewer could tell he was a man with secrets, a disturbed soul. But, we also saw a warmer side to him. We see him flirt with woman and want to re-connect with his father. Dr. Glendon is not much of a character.

When we see the werewolf, he doesn't act like a wolf. He walks upright. Has time to put on his hat and cape and at one point speaks. Dr. Glendon doesn't take on animal traits which affect the way he walks or speaks. Which leads to another comparison to the Mr. Hyde character.

The movie also doesn't have much fun with the werewolf folklore. It doesn't create a real sense of dread and have the lead character slowly learn more and more about his predicament. There is no sense of impending doom looming over the movie which would make it scary to audiences.

One wishes there would have been more for the Lisa character to work with. She is married to Dr. Glendon, but, the two rarely spend time together as Lisa has rekindled a friendship with Paul (Lester Matthews) whom she has known since childhood and who is in love with her. This sadly takes away what could have created an element of suspense in having the wife slowly begin to suspect her husband is a werewolf. Instead the viewer suspects Lisa is cheating on her husband which doesn't have the same effect. It is a missed opportunity. Imagine all that could have been done with the set-up of a woman knowing she is stuck in a house with a werewolf, afraid for her life.

This all makes it sound as if "Werewolf of London" is a bad movie. It is not. It is not a completely effective movie but it is not a time waster. It is a worthwhile effort and only fails when compared to "The Wolf Man". "Werewolf of London" is your typical 1930s horror movie. I wrote it feels like the blueprint of a better story. That is not necessarily a put down. It makes this movie a curiosity piece. It has its place in film history as a source of inspiration for what was to come. For that I feel it is worth seeing.