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Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Wolf Men (originally published 10/01)

In his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that the only thing worth writing about is "the human heart in conflict with itself." Interestingly, the category of fiction that realizes Faulkner's ideal most vividly may well be fantasy. Consider "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," for instance. Now there's a man who's really in conflict with himself.

One of the most popular and durable tropes of the Jekyll and Hyde type is the werewolf, recently given an intriguing spin by a new CBS television series called "Wolf Lake." If Freudian dramas about coming to terms with the beast within appeal to you, or if you just like scary stories about large, hairy guys with fangs and claws, here are some titles to look for on home video.

"The Werewolf of London" (1935). In the Thirties and Forties, Universal Pictures had a virtually unchallenged lock on the horror film genre. In 1931 alone, they had released both the Boris Karloff version of "Frankenstein" and the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula." For their first werewolf movie, however, they cast neither of these established horror icons. Instead, they gave the part to Henry Hull, a distinguished stage actor. Hull plays a British botanist named Wilfred Glendon, who is on an expedition in Tibet, searching for a rare flower that blooms only by moonlight. Coincidentally, this same flower also happens to be the only cure for lycanthropy (transmutation into a wolf). The unfortunate Glendon collects his specimen just as a werewolf arrives on the scene in search of a cure. Although he survives the attack, Glendon is bitten on the arm during the struggle, and therefore becomes a werewolf himself. An interesting angle in this film is the idea that the werewolf is instinctively driven to kill the thing it loves best. As it happens, Glendon's wife seems to be drifting back into the arms of an old flame, unaware that her spouse is now far more dangerous than the average jealous husband.

"The Wolf Man" (1941). Although Hull did a creditable job, it was not "The Werewolf of London" that set the benchmark for Universal Pictures werewolf movies, and it was not Hull who joined Lugosi and Karloff in the pantheon of Universal horror stars. It was Lon Chaney Jr., in this 1941 film, who created the werewolf character that has endured longer than any other. In contrast to Hull's worldly botanist, Chaney's Larry Talbot is more naïve, more pathetic - more of a victim. That, I think, is the key to the better werewolf movies. They combine monster and victim into one character, allowing the filmmaker to draw from both melodrama and the kind of high drama to which Faulkner refers. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (1957). I know what you're thinking. And on one level, you're absolutely right. It's a dreadful, corny title. But on another level, there was genius at work here. American International Pictures, for years the most successful American producers of exploitation films, were doing a thriving business in horror/science fiction movies and in juvenile delinquency movies. With this one masterstroke, they combined the two appeals, while echoing the titles of more respectable pictures like "I Was a Male War Bride" and "I Was a Communist For the F.B.I." And yes, the film itself is rather tawdry, and the dialogue hasn't aged well. Even so, there's something compelling about it. The main character, Tony, is played by a youngster named Michael Landon, who went on to do some television work, if memory serves. Tony's violent temper constantly gets him into trouble, so the school principal sends him to a psychiatrist. Instead of treating him, the psychiatrist decides to use Tony as the subject for an experiment in primal regression under hypnosis. This treatment, combined with a series of serum injections, literally brings out the beast in Tony. The psychiatrist, played by Whit Bissell, is a pure caricature, a standard mad scientist. Landon's Tony, however, is a much more fully realized character. Like Hull's Dr. Glendon and Chaney's Larry Talbot, he is believable as both monster and victim. The connection with the Faulkner formula, although tenuous, is there.

Besides, no adolescent can fail to identify with a character who suddenly sprouts hair where there never was hair before, and who involuntarily turns into a snarling beast. Say what you want about American International, but they certainly knew their audience.

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