The Film Forum is hosting a celebration of the work of Universal Pictures – a studio which has been operating for a hundred years now. One of its programs was a triple feature of three classic horror films, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Wolfman. I had time to catch only the last film of this triple feature. Most of these old pictures play very lightly on the senses: the visually limited in-studio shots, the lack of color, the coyness before blood or the human body, and the stagey and simplified acting distinguish them from the sensory bludgeoning of more modern pictures. It’s hence a fairly pleasant way of spending an hour or two with a friend.
The Wolfman is distinctive for its Poe flavor. The film begins with a shot of an encyclopedia: a volume is then removed, and opened to the page on lycanthropy. The audience is then given an opportunity to read the simplified entry; it’s a visual way of beginning a story the way Poe might, with a brief description of an intellectual problem: in this case whether or not such a supernatural phenomenon could exist, and whether it is a transformation of the body or a kind of madness in the mind.
The story is set in an old English village dominated by an old manor-house, Castle Talbot. A “hunting accident” – which seems more sinister in retrospect – has taken the life of the eldest son of the house, and the younger son, by nature something of a “rude mechanical” played by Lon Chaney, is suddenly the heir and recalled from a prodigal-son life wandering around America. He seems utterly out of place from the very beginning. His father, Sir John Talbot, played with effortless ease by Claude Reins, has turned the tower into an observatory – another great Poe touch – but the younger son’s entire interest in astronomy is in tightening the screws on the stand and spying on the local ladies with the telescope.
Chaney is turned into werewolf, by an elaborate and trite supernatural series of events involving gypsy fortunetellers, the blooming of the wolfbane, some pentagrams, a silver cane, and a bite from a wolf. He then goes on to commit a series of murders as a wolf. The villagers, however, believe that the younger son is a murderer plain and simple, without any supernatural mediation. Chaney himself is aware that he has become a monster, and intriguingly much of the movie is about his own anguish at what he has become. This leads to some Poe-like meditations on the capacity of even good men for evil:
Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.
There is also a doctor, who believes that lycanthropy is a mental derangement, causing a person to believe he is a wolf – yet another Poe touch. Visually the movie is committed to the physical transformation of Chaney into the Wolfman, but it is strongly suggested that the entire thing may be in the crazy young man’s head.
The result is a generally entertaining film – although some of the Wolfman makeup is a bit ridiculous, especially the wolfman boots which require Chaney to walk on his tippytoes – with just enough thoughtfulness and compassion to justify its taking up of an intelligent person’s hour. The gypsy scenes were also inspiring for me – I want to build a gypsy wagon and park it on my property as a guest house – not least because of Bela Lugosi’s performance as the old gypsy “Bela” – one might say he was merely playing himself. And the visual language of the movie in general gave me room for thought. The entire movie is Gothic: shot in panelled interiors of pointed arches and trefoil, or half-timbered villages, or a spectacular Gothic church set. Castle Talbot has a kind of Xanadu-like feel, high ceilings with full-length many-paned windows which cast astonishing filtered light over all the characters, itself a kind of image of the division and impurity and uncanny primitiveness of the mind. I don’t know why we’d want to have any other kind of living spaces – they suit us, I think, in all our complex humanity, our odd position as half-god and half-beast.