The Wolf Man (1941)
First screened and reviewed in March 2009
Director: George Waggner. Cast: Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Fay Helm, J.M. Kerrigan, Tom Stevenson. Screenplay: Curt Siodmak.

Twitter Capsule: Genuinely disquieting, laudably atmospheric high point among Universal's classic horror shows. Richly shot and acted.

VOR:   Effectively the last canonical entry in the 30s line of Universal horror films, arriving just as Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur, and others took genre for eerier, noirier spins.

Photo © 1941 Universal Pictures
I'd never have guessed this, but Lon Chaney, Jr.'s hirsute transformation into the titular lycanthrope, often accomplished via a series of lap dissolves, is probably the least insinuating aspect of this moody and effective chiller. Happily, the film seems to know it, frequently playing up the terrifying contrast in the character's alternate personas rather than the oddly diaphanous process of the transformation. More than once, director George Waggner cuts straight from the stout, plug-faced Chaney worrying about his mood swings and curious amnesias to shots of the "same" man, now fanged and furry, loitering behind trees and scrambling over the knolls on the film's foggy English moor. He's got a tight, mean little growl, and he attacks like he means it, though the silhouette shots of what look like actual wolves mauling other innocents are just as frightening.

For all of its horrifying thrills, The Wolf Man's tantamount pleasures are its economy and speed, its silvery manipulations of light and shadow, and the panache with which the lighting, the story, and the rich cast navigate a tone that is so finely balanced between sincerity and hokum. You rarely catch the film exhibiting only one or the other. James Whale aficionados might miss the more pronounced and campier oscillations between the merry and the macabre in films like The Bride of Frankenstein, but sue me if I prefer the more workmanlike Waggner's earnest atmospherics. Maria Ouspenskaya in ruddy makeup and a "gypsy" do-rag and Ralph Bellamy and Warren William as the local alpha-males provide savory counterpoints to Chaney's palpable anguish at turning into He Knows Not What. Grade: B+

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