When the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright

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?

A house of horrors meets a heaping helping of horsefeathers

There’s a lot to be said for knowing when to step away from a series or concept. In the case of Universal’s monster franchise, they kept driving that gravy train into the ground with too many sequels and crossovers, instead of creating awesome new monsters and stories.

1944’s House of Frankenstein at least had a consistent, coherent plot, despite being an obvious B movie. House of Dracula is riddled with plotholes, unbelievable reactions, and shamefully poor use of Frankenstein’s Monster.

I would say Universal redeemed itself with the final group appearance of the Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but then they proceeded to run that concept into the ground as well with a total of seven A&C Meet… films.

Dracula (John Carradine) shows up at Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens)’s castle at five in the morning, introducing himself as Baros Latos and begging for a cure for his Vampyrism. Dr. Edelmann, who’s been sleeping fully-clothed in a chair in his office, is amazingly chill about a stranger entering his home at that hour and saying he’s a Vampyre. Maybe that’s a more common occurrence than I thought!

Dr. Edelmann and his nurses, Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) and hunchbacked Nina (Jane Adams), begin work on a possible cure. Nina is very disappointed he’s interrupting his work on curing her hunchback, but he assures her he’ll fix her next.

Dracula’s dirt-lined coffin is moved into the cellar while Dr. Edelmann prepares for the blood transfusions which he believes will turn Dracula into a normal human. (Odd how Dracula never sought a cure in any of his previous movies! Also odd how he managed to come back to life after his demise in the previous film.)

Dr. Edelmann is in the middle of these very important experiments when Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) arrives, desperately begging for a cure for his lycanthropism. He insists he can’t wait for Dr. Edelmann to finish what he’s doing, since a full Moon is coming up. Larry then goes to the prison and begs the cops to put him in a cell for his own safety, a request they fulfill.

That same night, Dr. Edelmann goes to see Larry, after learning where he went, and sees him transmogrifying into the Wolf Man as the full Moon rises. Convinced of the seriousness of his condition, Dr. Edelmann takes him to the castle in the morning.

Dr. Edelmann believes Larry’s lycanthropism isn’t caused by the Moon, but cranial pressure which can be cured with spores from clavaria formosa flowers. This mysterious plant’s spores allegedly reshape bones.

Larry doesn’t want to wait for more spores to be harvested, and jumps off a rocky ledge into the ocean.

Dr. Edelmann goes after Larry, finding him in a cave and transformed again into the Wolf Man. Because it’s such a smart idea to look for a werewolf during a full Moon, and to not have backup in case things get ugly.

Larry attacks him, but turns back into his human form when the Moon disappears behind clouds. As they’re making their way out of the cave, they find Frankenstein’s Monster partly buried in quagmire, and are quite nonchalant about it.

Also with the Monster is the skeleton of Dr. Niemann from the previous film, and Larry doesn’t say anything about their close acquaintance.

Dr. Edelmann takes the Monster into his castle via a tunnel leading to the cellar and starts reanimating him, but is prevailed upon by his nurses to stop. The Monster is too dangerous and powerful to risk yet another reign of terror.

Meanwhile, Dracula is trying to seduce Milizia and turn her into a Vampyre, efforts which are interrupted when Dr. Edelmann tells Dracula he needs another blood transfusion. Strange antibodies were found in his blood.

Nina is on to Dracula’s scheme, and when she tells Dr. Edelmann her suspicions, he prepares a different type of transfusion, one which will destroy Dracula.

Dracula hypnotises Dr. Edelmann and Nina so he can reverse the blood transfusion and turn Dr. Edelmann into a Vampyre. As bad as this film is, it’s notable for the only instance of Dracula turning another man into a Vampyre, albeit not in the usual way so as to avoid homoerotic overtones.

Now the stage is set for an increasingly intense parade of horrors.

House of Dracula was released 7 December 1945 and became a commercial success, though it’s not so highly-rated today.

A lunatic lycanthrope lurks in London

Released 13 May 1935, Werewolf of London was the very first well-known werewolf film. 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.

Though probably all classic horror fans consider Lon Chaney, Jr., the quintessential werewolf, Henry Hull does a solid job here. However, unlike Chaney’s Larry Talbot, the character here doesn’t evoke much sympathy or human warmth. It’s not hard to understand why his wife feels emotionally neglected.

Makeup artist Jack Pierce’s original look was identical to that of the later Wolf Man films, but TPTB vetoed it. They thought a simpler style would do a better job of making the werewolf’s true identity obvious to other characters.

Rich English botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) travels to Tibet in search of the rare mariphasa flower, which is said to be the cure for lycanthropism and only blooms under the light of a full Moon. Despite being warned against this mission by a fellow Englishman (who’s been there for at least 40 years), he persists.

Wilfred and his assistant experience phantom pains and weird bodily movements as they make their way to the reportedly cursed valley where this flower is located, yet keep pressing on.

A werewolf attacks Wilfred just as he’s about to get the flower, leaving a long double-scratch on his arm and drawing blood. Wilfred, devoted to his mission, fights off the assailant and takes the flower.

Back in London, Wilfred throws himself into full-time experimenting and refuses to let anyone into his lab. This naturally makes his young wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) feel quite neglected, and she begins spending a lot of time with her childhood friend Paul Ames (Lester Matthews).

Wilfred makes the reacquaintance of Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), whom he very briefly met in the dark in Tibet. Dr. Yogami too is searching for the elusive mariphasa, for the same reasons, and asks Wilfred if his mission were successful. Though Dr. Yogami managed to get the flower, it died en route back to England.

Dr. Yogami says one bitten by a werewolf will also become a werewolf. Wilfred thinks this is a bunch of unscientific nonsense, but Dr. Yogami says there are two current cases of lycanthropism in London.

In the course of his research, Wilfred discovers he has indeed become a werewolf. Hair appears on his hands under the light of his lamp replicating moonbeams, which he’s using to try to make the flower bloom.

The mariphasa proves itself a successful antidote.

Dr. Yogami gets into the lab to speak with Wilfred again, and says this flower isn’t a cure, but just an antidote lasting a few hours. He also says a werewolf “instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best.”

In his house, Wilfred reads an old book which says a werewolf must kill at least one thing during a full Moon, or else become permanently affected. Lisa and Paul barge in while he’s reading, inviting him to a party. Wilfred refuses, and becomes very agitated when they turn on the lights. He claims he put medicine in his eyes and that light is very painful.

After they leave, Wilfred’s cat goes nuts, yowling, arching its back, hissing, and clawing at him. Wilfred looks at his hands and discovers he’s turning into a werewolf. Full of horror, he hurries towards the lab, only to find the mariphasa not blooming.

A strange howling fills the air, which piques the interest of everyone at the party. Lisa’s aunt Ettie (Spring Byington) reacts with laughter and odd comments. Out of concern, she’s taken up to her room, where Wilfred attacks her.

When Lisa and Paul come to investigate her screams, they find her alone and believe she had a nightmare or drank too much.

Wilfred then murders a woman in Goose Lane. This makes headline news, and an investigation is launched.

The mariphasa still refuses to bloom, and a full Moon is coming up. Wilfred begs off going riding with Lisa and Paul, and forbids Lisa to go. When he relents, he asks Lisa to promise she’ll be home before the Moon rises. This too is met with outrage, and Lisa stalks off with Paul.

Wilfred goes to rent a room out of town, hoping he’ll stay safely confined there and not turn into a werewolf. If he transforms anyway, he prays to be kept away from Lisa.

Since sometimes the answer to a prayer is “no,” Wilfred becomes a werewolf and jumps out of the locked window. The older women running this boardinghouse, Mrs. Whack and Mrs. Moncaster (Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury), provide great comic relief every time they’re onscreen.

Now the race to find the antidote and stay confined is on, before Wilfred can transform again and attack the one he loves most.