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The Complete On-Screen History of The Wolf Man

The Complete On-Screen History of The Wolf Man

Universal Pictures was a champion of horror in the 1930s and 40s, building a rogue gallery of creeps known as the Universal Monsters. Now the studio is rebooting these classic horror films, and has announced plans to construct an overlapping franchise known as the “dark universe.” Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella, debuts in June of 2017. In anticipation, we’ve been revisiting Universal’s supernatural antagonists. Last week, we discussed the tragic monster known (albeit incorrectly) as Frankenstein. Today, we discuss a mere mortal who became cursed to transform into a beast: The Wolf Man.

In 1941, Universal delivered yet another horror blockbuster with The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. Though it wasn’t the first werewolf picture the studio had tried—Werewolf in London came out in 1935—it was this film that popularized a lot of the tropes we see in modern werewolf fiction today. 

The Wolf Man differed significantly in that unlike the previous two Universal Monsters—Frankenstein and Dracula—there wasn’t a definitive novel that informed the plot. Werewolves had existed in folklore for centuries, with various means of transformation and creation, some of which make their way into the film. For instance, Universal’s werewolf can be killed with silver. This may have come from the 18th century folklore surrounding the French monster, the Beast of Gévaudan, who in some stories was stopped with a silver bullet. The Wolf Man’s curse was also tied to the full moon, although not as significantly in the first film. The 1941 film tied the Wolf Man’s transformation to an entire season. It’s explained via a poem, penned by screenwriter Curt Siodmak:

Even man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. 

Doomed Larry Talbot hears this poem when creeping on an attractive shopkeeper. As the story goes, Larry has returned to his hometown in Wales to see his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) for the first time in quite a long time. The occasion is grim; Larry’s brother has been killed in a hunting accident. While bumming about his father’s house, Larry finds a telescope that allows him to catch a glimpse of Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) through her window. He later visits Gwen’s shop and, after attempting to flirt with her, buys a walking stick with a silver wolf’s head and a pentagram at the top. This inspires Gwen to recite the poem to Larry, telling him the cane is representative of werewolves. A werewolf, she explains, is a man who, at certain times of the year, changes into a wolf. Horror movie fans know never to buy anything weird from an antique shop, but not Larry, who is more concerned with wooing Gwen.


Larry’s unfortunate encounter with a werewolf occurs when taking a nighttime stroll with Gwen and her friend Jenny. Jenny stops to have her fortune read by the mysterious Bela (played by Dracula star Bela Lugosi), who is actually a werewolf. Though Larry does not see Bela transform, he hears Jenny’s screams and runs to her aid. He is able to bludgeon the wolf (played by a German Shepherd) with his silver cane, though is bitten in the process and unable to save Jenny’s life. The wolf returns to its human form after its death, casting suspicion on Larry, whose wounds have magically healed.

Larry refuses to listen to any advice. He won’t listen to Bela’s  mother, and he gives a charm meant to prevent werewolves from turning to Gwen. Predictably, Larry turns into a hirsute beast and kills a villager the next night. Unlike Bela, Larry’s inner monster walks upright, wears clothes, is very hairy and is quite strong. Makeup artist Jack Pierce designed this look, as he did for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein for the 1931 picture. This is the lasting image of The Wolf Man we recall today.

Larry has no control over his monster, nor is he able to entirely recall what the wolf does. He transforms again the next night, and The Wolf Man attacks Gwen in the woods as she searches for Larry. Larry’s father saves Gwen by attacking Larry with the very cane he purchased from Gwen’s shop, killing him. Mr. Talbot is stunned when the beast’s toothy maw reverts to his son’s innocent visage right before his eyes.

Despite Larry’s very obvious death at the end of the film, The Wolf Man was so popular that Universal resurrected him by the light of the full moon numerous times. Chaney reprised his role in the four sequels, which included Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943); House of Frankenstein (1944); House of Dracula (1945); and horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Larry explains his transformation by saying, “Now I change into a wolf at night when the moon is full,” which would become a lasting trope of werewolf plots. In many of the films, Larry seeks a cure for his curse. In some, he is a hero who battles the other Universal monsters. 

The Wolf Man appears again in ’80s horror comedy Monster Squad as an ally of the evil Dracula. However, in his human form, he attempts to force the local police to lock him in a cage before he can transform. They instead shoot him with a regular, ol’ bullet, and he joins Dracula after awakening as the wolf.

In 2010, Universal presented a remake of the film starring Benicio del Toro as the Wolf Man and Anthony Hopkins as his father. Considerably different from the original, it was harshly critiqued by Universal president Ron Meyer, who called it, “One of the worst movies we ever made.” The original Wolf Man maintains a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, while the remake languishes at 34 percent. 

The Wolf Man himself is a less imitated character than Dracula and Frankenstein, but numerous other werewolf films have come and gone, taking pieces of inspiration from the Universal flicks. These include The Howling, which follows a TV reporter and her husband as they become trapped on a werewolf-infested island, and John Landis’ seminal 80s horror-comedy American Werewolf in London. Werewolves also appear in 2004’s Van Helsing, which incorporates the poem Siodmak wrote for The Wolf Man.

Akin to Talbot’s wolf, Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s werewolves act, according to supernatural expert Rupert Giles, on “pure instinct. No conscience, predatory and aggressive.” This dichotomy is explored via the werewolf Oz (Seth Green), who is a mild-mannered musician in human form, but who exhibits no control over himself when in wolf form. Like Larry Talbot, Oz is capable of even attacking those he loves when in wolf form. The same is true of werewolves on Penny Dreadful (a short-lived series that also features Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster, and Dorian Gray), as well as Being Human‘s silver-sensitive werewolves.

Universal plans to reboot the Wolf Man in 2018, tapping Expendables screenwriter Dave Callaham, and possibly Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to star.

Who’s your favorite werewolf? Let us know in the comments below. 

Image: Universal Studios

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