Released 12 December 1941, The Wolf Man introduced moviegoers to a brand-new monster from Universal. For years, many of the studio’s horror films had been sequels and spin-offs with Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. Now, with the addition of the Wolf Man, the Universal horror franchise got a breath of fresh air.
Werewolf films were nothing new, but The Wolf Man was the very first film to fully realize such a story and richly develop the tortured character. The film widely considered the first werewolf film, the 1913 short The Werewolf, was sadly lost in a 1924 fire at Universal Studios.
The earliest surviving werewolf film, 1925’s Wolf Blood, takes forever to broach the idea of a man transmogrifying into a wolf, and shows no transformation at all. The filmmaking is also said to be awful even in the context of that era. And in the first proper werewolf film, Werewolf of London (1935), the character doesn’t evoke much sympathy or human warmth.
All that changed with The Wolf Man.
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to the family castle in Wales after 18 years in California. As much as he enjoyed his life in the U.S., duty obliges him to assume the position of heir after his older brother John’s death in a hunting accident. Larry also needs to rebuild his relationship with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains).
One of Larry’s interests is astronomy, and he wastes no time in testing out a new telescopic lens in the big telescope in the top-floor observatory. While looking around at the surrounding buildings and streets, he gets an eyeful of pretty Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom directly across the way.
Larry likes what he sees very much, and sets out to visit the Conliffes’ antique store (which is run out of their house, like many businesses used to be). He first asks to see some earrings, but rejects all the beautiful jewelry Evelyn shows him. Though Larry is always depicted as a genuinely nice guy, it’s pretty creepy how he asks to see the pair of earrings he saw Gwen putting on in her room while he was spying on her (fully-clothed).
Larry settles for buying a cane, though he initially balks at the price of £3 ($15). Gwen showed him a number of nice canes, but Larry was only interested in one with a large silver handle in the shape of a werewolf’s head, with a pentagram on the side. (Side note: The so-called pentagrams which occur throughout this film are just ordinary five-point stars without any lines forming an upside-down pentagon in the middle.)
Larry then tries to make a date with Gwen for eight that night, and she repeatedly refuses. He leaves in good spirits, assured no really means yes and that she’ll be there waiting.
Gwen does happen to be standing outside when Larry returns, but this is to be no true date. There’s a third wheel, Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm), who goes along with them to get her fortune told by some Gypsies passing through.
Jenny goes into the tent first, but this fortunetelling session doesn’t last long. A pentagram appears on her hand, which makes Bela (Béla Lugosi) freak out and order her to leave. Shortly afterwards, Jenny is attacked by a wolf, and Larry kills it with his new cane. Before the wolf dies, it bites Larry.
The wounded Larry is carried home with help from Bela’s mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who mysteriously vanishes as soon as he’s safe with his father.
The morning after, Larry discovers in astonishment that the bite wound on his chest is fully healed. Not a trace of it is left. Though everyone saw the blood and how injured he was, Larry’s story now falls into question. Particularly when it comes out that Bela was killed, with no wolf’s body in sight. Larry’s father and other people believe he may have been confused and overexcited in the dark and fog.
Larry goes back to the Gypsy camp to try to get answers, and Maleva tells him Bela was a werewolf. She also says Larry is now a werewolf, and gives him a pentagram necklace to wear over his heart for protection.
Larry has already heard a bunch of werewolf lore from other locals, including Gwen, and tries his best to brush it off as nonsense and fairytales.
But then Larry starts changing into a werewolf and sneaking out of the house to prowl through the night, leaving a lot of mayhem in his wake and causing him to doubt everything he thinks he knows about science and reality.
Can Larry’s lycanthropism be cured before he goes on another deadly rampage, or will he forever be cursed with this strange sickness?