However, Lon Chaney Jr. became the real thing in a classic 1941 horror film called The Wolf Man. And even though it features some decidedly questionable acting on the part of its star, The Wolf Man is considered a classic of its type. Indeed, it is so well remembered, a big budget remake starring Benicio Del Toro was produced in 2010. Unfortunately, that remake is a notoriously awful film! Therefore, we shall ignore it in favor of the life and times of Larry Talbot as portrayed by Chaney Jr., aka the Wolf Man.
Briefly, The Wolf Man opens with Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) returning to his boyhood home in Wales after living in the United States for some years, thus explaining his American accent. When Larry falls in love with a young lady (Evelyn Ankers) who operates an antique shop, she gives him a cane sporting a silver wolf’s head. Shortly thereafter, he actually survives an attack by a decidedly oversized wolf. As a result, once the Moon is full and bright, Larry turns into a wolf man! After killing a number of people, the wolf man ends up attacking his own father (Claude Rains), but, since the old man happens to be carrying the cane with the silver wolf’s head, he effectively wields it to beat his attacker to death. To say the least, dear old dad is not just a little surprised when the dead wolf man slowly morphs into Larry Talbot, his own son. But fear not! It really isn’t the end of the Wolf Man. There’s always a sequel!
As I say, Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t much of an actor. Unlike Lon Sr., he simply wasn’t comfortable in front of a camera. But somehow, Chaney’s awkwardness seemed to fit Larry Talbot’s character. On the other hand, I was never able to accept the decidedly sophisticated Claude Rains as Chaney’s father. It’s more than the fact that Chaney is a much taller man (which makes the notion that Rains could successfully fend off an attack by the wolf man just a bit silly). Mannerisms and behavior make it plainly obvious that these two men cannot be related to each other. Be that as it may, after all is said and done, the problems with casting hardly matters. It all comes down to atmosphere. The Wolf Man lives in a dark, foreboding, “film noir” world. Menacing shadows offer the threat of death with every footstep. Moonlight struggles to penetrate the treetops. A foggy mist hugs the ground; you can’t see whoever (or whatever!) may be following you. And try as you might, you cannot escape your fate! There is no hope when the Wolf Man is on the hunt.
You watch in horror…as a normal man slowly turns into a wolf! And you are horrified again…when he changes back! In the end, you pray that you’re dreaming or watching a movie!
Fortunately, neither Lon Chaney’s bad acting nor the silver-tipped cane was able to put an end to the Wolf Man. At least, not when the studio bigwigs demanded a sequel. Thus, in 1943, Lon Chaney Jr., aka Larry Talbot, re-enters the dark, foreboding, “film noir” world when the wolf man actually awakens in his coffin! Realizing he cannot die, he goes in search of a way to end his own life! Eventually, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man when Larry arrives at Baron Frankenstein’s castle and revives the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi). Big mistake! A crazy scientist (Patric Knowles) conducts experiments on the monster when he agrees to help Larry enter the hereafter! Of course, it isn’t long before all heck breaks loose as the monster escapes and Larry turns into the Wolf Man! The ensuing battle between the two supernatural creatures is, to say the least, tremendously entertaining. But it all comes to an apocalyptic end when the townsfolk destroy a dam to flood the castle! So once again we ask: Have we finally seen the last of the Wolf Man?
The next two films in which the Wolf Man appears, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, are exceedingly silly affairs commonly referred to as monster mashes. Both films offer all three major Universal Studios’ boogeymen: Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster! Thus, the dark mood is completely discarded in favor of action and excitement. Basically, the stories are irrelevant. It all comes down to kid appeal. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the two films have no merit. In their own outrageous way they remain tremendously entertaining. F’rinstance… Even though Larry Talbot is apparently shot and killed by a silver bullet at the close of House of Frankenstein, his return in the next film tells us that he’s actually immune to every type of silver weapon! Therefore, his supposed cure near the end of House of Dracula makes perfect sense! After a mad scientist finally relieves Larry of his wolf man curse, Larry happily escapes the mayhem that closes the film! But despite this turn of events, we can’t help but wonder…if we have truly seen the last of the Wolf Man?
Uh-oh. Wait a minute. I guess the cure was temporary. The Wolf Man returned in 1948 to appear in one more monster mash called Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein! (Yes, that is in fact the onscreen title—Ed.) One of the greatest comedies ever made, the film is also a reasonably decent thriller. It seems that Dracula (the second and final time Bela Lugosi played the bloodsucker in a film) wants to replace the supposedly damaged brain of the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange)…and needless to say, Lou’s gray matter is the perfect substitute! Our hero Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr. of course) is determined to stop the vampire from achieving his goal. Naturally, Larry isn’t very successful until he finally turns into the Wolf Man near the end of the film! Within a hilltop castle, Dracula and the Wolf Man play catch-me-if-you-can, while Bud and Lou play hide-‘n’-seek with the Frankenstein Monster (after the monster throws Dracula’s attractive female assistant through a plate glass window several stories above the ground). It all comes to a very exciting climax when the vampire and the Wolf Man plunge hundreds of feet into the ocean, and the Frankenstein Monster is apparently destroyed by fire! Finally, Bud and Lou are able to relax and breathe a sigh of relief. That is until the Invisible Man suddenly pops-up to scare the Dickens out of them! Trust me when I say that it’s an entirely logical development in this type of film!
But truth be told, logic really wasn’t part of the world inhabited by the Wolf Man, which made such supernatural goings-on so very entertaining. Thank God creatures like Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man really don’t exist. That would make our reality unbearable. But I’m certainly very glad that they inhabited the dark corridors of our neighborhood movie theater. And of course, we should never forget the most important thing when they appear on the silver screen…
It’s a Universal picture!
Blair Kramer is a widely published writer for various publications, including “Velocity: Chicago,” “A Guide to Art in Chicago,” “Comic Book Collector Magazine,” “American Metal Magazine,” and the “Jewish American Historical Society.” He also dabbles in screenplays and comic books. There are only two things in his life that he loves more than good movies. They are his wife and family.