Lycanthropia Praecox

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Lycanthropia Praecox

...or, a primer on things that howl in the night.

Maria Ouspenskaya

"Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives, becomes a werewolf himself."

So sayeth tiny, wizened Maria Ouspenskaya1 in the original (1941) version of "The Wolf Man," still one of the best of the Universal Studios "horror" films of my youth.

(No, I didn't see it first-run, but in a mid-'50s re-release, a staple, and annuity, of Hollywood studios before TV changed the distribution paradigm forever.)

The premise of the film is the basis of all films dealing with shape-shifting canis lupus since the medieval fable of "Little Red Riding Hood."

"Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright"

Lon Chaney, Jr. as "Larry Talbot"

Spoken by ingénue Evelyn Ankers, and sub­sequently repeated2 by Claude Rains as father of the tragic figure of "Lawrence Talbot" in the person of Creighton ("Lon, Jr.") Chaney, ap­pearing in what would become, to his eternal distress, his signature role3.

(Chaney appeared in the role four more times 'til Abbott and Costello drove a silver bullet, and a stake, into the heart of Universal's horror franchise in 1948.)

The '41 version remains a classic, thanks in part to its screenplay by Curt Siodmak and direction by George Waggner (the apex of their careers), the marvelous sets of mists and swirling ground fog from the marshes near the Talbot family home in Wales (all created on the Universal Studios back lot), and a wonderful cast which also included Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy and Warren William.

Lon Chaney as "Lawrence Talbot" and Matia Ouspenskaya as the Gypsy "Maleva."

No other variation on the theme has approach­ed it, as most attempts fail even in comparison to a late '70s song:

"Ya hear him howlin around your kitchen door, ya better not let him in.
Little old lady got mutilated late last night, werewolves of London again."

So singeth Warren Zevon in the most literary device-laden verse in all of rock'n'roll, in his classic "Werewolves of London."

(Roll it around on your tongue several times to get a sense of its rich alliter­ative value and meter. Brilliant!)

"The Wolfman" (2010) movie poster

Friday will open a re­make of the 1941 version which credits Siodmak's original screenplay, and features Benicio Del Toro as the unwitting and torment­ed shape-shifter.

The title has been altered to "The Wolfman" and the trailers on TV for the past month shows that it will be heavily reliant on digital effects, a technology unimagined during the heyday of the Universal "monster movies."

(Yes, there were some modest camera tricks, but the major effect was accom­plished by the painstaking application of yak fur and rubber cement during time-lapse photography.)

Also, the 1941 movie kept its narrative to a nice, tidy 70 minutes, while the new version takes over two hours to tell the same story!

I'll see the new film when it opens this week­end, but it will have to go some to top the original, and Geraldine Chaplin can never top Maria Ouspenskaya.

  1. The identical words had been uttered by Warner Oland (on hiatus from his Charlie Chan role) as "Dr. Yogami" in the original movie about lycanthropia, "Werewolf of London" (1935). It is the only direct link between the two films.

    The afflicted Doctor goes on to explain:
    "The werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both."
  2. Also Fay Helm as "Jenny Williams," the film's first victim, not by the fangs of "Tal­bot," but Gypsy fortune-teller "Bela."
  3. I ran into a barely recognizable Chaney in early '64 on the island of Saint Thomas, a treacherous locale for anyone with a weakness for spiritus fermenti.

    We were both on benders, 'though I was but a tyro beside him. If anyone broach­ed his film career ("Weren't you...?") he would pre-emptively respond: "'Lenny' in 'Of Mice and Men.'"


1. Rob F. said...

I have to disagree that "Abbott and Costello drove a silver bullet, and a stake, into the heart of Universal's horror franchise." That movie was a classic, and by then the franchise had grown a little threadbare--which made it ripe for satire.

As for "Even a man ... may become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright," here's my favorite line from the A&C version:

Larry Talbot: "You don't understand. Every night when the moon is full, I turn into a wolf."

Wilbur: "You and twenty million other guys."

I concur on everything you say, except that in support of the thesis with which you disagree, the fact that it was the final film in which that trio of Universal "monsters" appeared, so Bud and Lou did in fact kill the franchise off.
– Dean

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