Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Werewolf of London (1935)

WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) has the distinction as the first werewolf film ever made. Yes even before Lon Chaney Jr and THE WOLF MAN (1941) came along, there was this minor gem that does not always get the recognition it deserves. Just its title exudes coolness and we've seen both a Warren Zevon song Werewolves of London and a more modern werewolf film, John Landis's AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), borrow the British capital's name to good effect. WEREWOLF OF LONDON is unique as it borrows the FRANKENSTEIN story of an obsessed scientist, married to a beautiful woman that he forever ignores in the name of science, and even gives us not one but two werewolves (although it misses the chance to have the two werewolves battle each other in full werewolf make up), rivals for the same Tibetan flower that can stop their lycan condition.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON'S make up is done by famed make up artist Jack Pierce who would perfect his werewolf look with the later THE WOLF MAN. But WEREWOLF OF LONDON'S werewolf make up is cool as Pierce gives actor Henry Hull a different werewolf look than Lon Chaney Jr. Hull sports a widow's peak and less hair around the face. Actor Michael Landon would borrow a similar werewolf look for his teenage werewolf film I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957).

Instead of opening in a Transylvanian castle or Frankenstein's village or the moors of Scotland, WEREWOLF OF LONDON begins in the mountains of Tibet as Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) and his associate Hugh Renwick (Clark Williams) are searching for a rare Himalayan flower known as Mariphasa lumina lupina i.e. the phosphorescent Wolf flower that only blooms in moonlight. Just as Glendon discovers the elusive flower, he's attacked by a werewolf (looking a bit like the Cowardly Lion) and bitten on the arm. Glendon fights off the creature and brings the flower back to his laboratory in London.

Director Stuart Walker introduces us to the rest of the characters at a huge party thrown by the London Botanist Society including Glendon's wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), Lisa's aunt Miss Ettie Coombes (Spring Byington), Lisa's childhood boyfriend Paul Ames (Lester Matthews), and the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), another botanist who's very interested in the moon flower that Glendon has brought back. Yogami, noticing Glendon's bite marks on his arm, tells the botanist that the flower is an antidote to lycanthrophobia or werewolfery. But not a cure. "The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best," Yogami tells Glendon. The first full moon of the month, Glendon turns into a werewolf and tries to sneak into his house to attack Lisa but he's thwarted by Miss Ettie's screams. The werewolf ends up killing another woman along Goose Lane.

Glendon, with the help of his lab assistant Hawkins (J.M. Kerrigan) try to trick the Mariphasa into sprouting more blossoms but to no avail. Glendon turns down Lisa's wishes to go out, afraid he might harm his wife. Lisa begins to turn to Paul for comfort, making Glendon jealous.  Glendon rents a room above a pub the next night, trying to isolate himself from his loved ones. But the full moon transforms him again and the werewolf strikes at the London Zoological Gardens, murdering a streetwalker visiting her policeman boyfriend. Yogami goes to Scotland Yard, warning Sir Thomas Forsythe (Lawrence Grant) that a werewolf hunts in London. Yogami also sneaks into Glendon's laboratory and snips two blossoms from the plant. Yogami is the other werewolf who bit Glendon in Nepal.

The next day, Glendon hides out in his laboratory, catching Yogami lurking again to steal more blossoms. Glendon and Yogami struggle and Glendon kills Yogami. Glendon flees to Faldon Estate and barricades himself in the secluded Monk's Rest (a tower) as he awaits the next full moon. Lisa and Paul show up at the home to do some horse riding. Glendon as the werewolf breaks out of the Monk's Rest and tries to kill Lisa. Paul battles Glendon until Forsythe arrives with Scotland Yard and shoots Glendon the werewolf just in the nick of time.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON'S screenwriter John Colton does things differently with cinema's first werewolf. This werewolf has a fashion sense, throwing on a hat and scarf before venturing out into the foggy London night. This werewolf doesn't want to be recognized although it would be hard not to notice a howling, snarling hairy botanist. This werewolf even speaks at the end of the film as a hirsute Glendon apologizes to Lisa for his carnivorous behavior before dying. I can't recall another werewolf film where a werewolf has the sense to dress himself or talk.  Colton messes up on how many full moons there are in a month (1 not 4) but it helps with his storyline. The godfather of werewolf mythology screenwriter Curt Siodmak would take different liberties with his lycanthropy lore when he writes THE WOLF MAN six years later.

Director Stuart Walker's direction of WEREWOLF OF LONDON has its hits and misses. Walker does an amicable job moving the action from Nepal to the foggy streets of London to Faldon Estate. Glendon's transformation from man to wolf is nicely rendered. Glendon's first metamorphosis is a moving shot as he changes each time he passes a wall.  Later, Walker uses time lapse photography for the transformation which THE WOLF MAN would adapt for Chaney Jr's changes as well. But Walker is less assured in some of the fight scenes particularly the pivotal struggle between werewolf Glendon and Paul that is staged clumsily and loses the dramatic effect needed. And how Walker could pass up the opportunity to have werewolf Glendon and werewolf Yogami battle each other in full make up is a monsterous mistake.

Although WERWOLF OF LONDON is obviously a werewolf movie, WEREWOLF has connections to another different 1935 horror film (also from Universal) James Whale's THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The relationship and rivalry between Dr. Glendon and Dr. Yogami in WEREWOLF OF LONDON reminds me of a similar relationship between Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. However in BRIDE, Frankenstein ends up working with Pretorius to provide the Frankenstein's monster a mate. Glendon and Yogami never do collaborate. Both men are egocentric. Yogami tries to warn Glendon about the curse yet Yogami's selfish enough to know he needs the flower to prevent him from killing as well.  BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and WEREWOLF OF LONDON also share the same leading lady Valerie Hobson. Hobson plays Lisa Glendon in WEREWOLF and she's quite attractive and spunky in the role. She would play Dr. Frankenstein's fiancee in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON would be actor Henry Hull's only horror film. Hull had mostly done stage work before beginning in silent films and then talkies. Hull's portrayal of Dr. Glendon is a bit stagey at first but his performance grew on me. Glendon's efforts to distance himself from Lisa so he won't kill her when he's a werewolf is noble and makes him very sympathetic. Pierce's werewolf make up allows Hull to be much more expressive when he becomes the beast. Hull would have a good long career in film, appearing in Westerns, Film Noirs, and even Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944).

A great choice as Glendon's adversary is actor Warner Oland as Dr. Yogami. Oland is best known in film as Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective. Oland played Charlie Chan in 16 films (including one called CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON) all made between 1931 and 1937. Dr. Yogami is another Asian character for Oland who ironically, was Swedish but looked Asian (thanks to a Mongolian grandmother). Yogami is a complex, conflicted character. He brought about Glendon's fate and tries to warn him of the dangers when the moon comes out. But Yogami is greedy and selfish, desiring the plant for himself, so he doesn't become a werewolf again. The Yogami role was originally going to be played by Bela Lugosi but Lugosi was committed to MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935). Oland proved to be a worthy alternative.

Rounding out the cast are Spring Byington who's amusing as Lisa's Auntie Ettie Coombes. Ettie likes to gossip and when Lisa's ex Paul shows up, Ettie is quick to remind Glendon that her niece and Paul are life long friends, causing issues for Glendon and Lisa. Lester Matthews who plays Paul Ames is saddled with the least interesting role in the film. Paul only gets to protect Lisa at the end and he doesn't even kill the werewolf. Actor J.M. Kerrigan who plays Glendon's owlish lab assistant Hawkins has the distinction of appearing in both WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE WOLF MAN. And in a nod to the comedic English villagers in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), actresses Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury provide the humor as the liquor loving Mrs. Whack and Mrs. Moncaster (where is actress Una O'Connor when you need her).

If the name Stuart Walker doesn't ring a bell, it's because the director did not make another film after 1935 and would pass away from a heart attack in 1941. Besides WEREWOLF OF LONDON, Walker directed THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD and MANHATTAN MOON also in 1935. Walker's most noteworthy film was THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933) starting Frederic March and Cary Grant. But Walker's contribution to the horror genre is cemented with his directing the first werewolf film in cinema.

For total werewolf geeks, check out the WEREWOLF OF LONDON trailer on the DVD which shows a quick shot (pictured above in a publicity still) of Glendon the werewolf clawing Yogami's face and drawing blood. This sequence is not in the actual film, perhaps a casualty of censors who found it too gruesome.  WEREWOLF OF LONDON will surprise the avid werewolf fan who holds THE WOLF MAN as the gospel. Good acting by Hull, Hobson, and Oland along with make up artist Jack Pierce's first attempt at werewolf make up and the London locale make WEREWOLF OF LONDON one of Universal's underrated horror hits.

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