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Craig J. Clark — Sep. 11th 2011
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He’s the hairy-handed gent who ran amuck in Kent
Lately he’s been overheard in Mayfair
Better stay away from him
He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim
I’d like to meet his tailor
Three years before John Landis was able to bring to the screen his tragicomic tale of an American-turned-werewolf who goes on a bloody rampage in Jolly Old England, Warren Zevon released “Werewolves of London,” which quickly became his signature song and his highest-charting single. With its references to Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen and little old ladies getting mutilated by the titular creatures (who nonetheless enjoy drinking piña coladas at Trader Vic’s and prowling the rainy streets of Soho in search of Chinese food), it was a cheeky tune that both respected and poked fun at the hirsute monsters of yore. Of course, Zevon and Landis were far from the first people to conceive of letting a lycanthrope loose in London town. In fact, the very first werewolf film of the sound era was Universal’s Werewolf of London from 1935, which was also the first to feature a two-legged wolf-man, although star Henry Hull balked at wearing the heavy monster makeup that Jack Pierce designed for his character, thus leaving the door open for Lon Chaney, Jr. to adopt the iconic countenance and make it his own six years later. Werewolf of Londondeserves to be more than just a cinematic footnote, though, particularly since its failure to catch on with audiences is what sent Universal back to the drawing board.
In a story that seems like it was dreamed up by people who had never even heard of werewolves before getting the assignment to write about them, Hull plays an English botanist intent on finding a rare flower that only grows in the mountains of Tibet (and which blooms by the light of the moon) when he is attacked by a werewolf, thus sealing his fate. Upon his return home, he works feverishly in his laboratory trying to perfect a moon ray with which he hopes to artificially cause the phosphorescent moon flower in his possession to bloom, neglecting his wife in the process and driving her into the arms of another. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard has some very puzzling murders on their hands when the full moon arrives…
As one might expect considering his reluctance to hide his face behind makeup appliances and yak hair, it takes a while for Hull to actually become the title creature, and this isn’t until after he has been warned by rival botanist Warner Oland (from the University of Carpathia), who tries to tell him that the bloom of the flower with which he’s working is the only thing that can suppress the transformation from man to beast. Oland also throws around terms like “lycanthrophobia” and “werewolfery,” and claims that “the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best,” which reinforces the notion that the writers were making things up as they went along. (Another example: Hull reads in a book that werewolves change between the hours of 9 and 10 p.m. during the full moon, which barely gives him enough time to throw on his scarf, hat and coat before going out to claim his first victim.) Oh, sure. Curt Siodmak also invented much of The Wolf Man‘s mythology, but at least he had the good sense to stress its basis in folklore.
Just as the success of The Wolf Man led to a couple of immediate knockoffs (namely, PRC’s The Mad Monster and Fox’s The Undying Monster), its sequel Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man inspired Columbia Pictures to stage its own monster match-up in the form of 1944’s The Return of the Vampire, in which Bela Lugosi’s bloodsucker has a subservient werewolf (played by Matt Willis) to do his bidding. As movie werewolves go, Willis is definitely on the hairier end of the spectrum, and he gets a lot of great close-ups early on because the filmmakers deliberately hold off on revealing Lugosi for the first third of the picture — and they evidently wanted to be sure audiences got their monster’s worth.
The film opens in 1918, when Lugosi (playing a character named Armand Tesla — no relation to Nikola, I presume) is dispatched not by a wooden stake through the heart, but rather by a metal spike, and then leaps forward 23 years to London during the Blitz, when it was being bombarded by the Germans on a nightly basis. Lugosi’s grave is disturbed by one of the bombs and, after the spike is removed by a couple of bumbling caretakers, he’s more than primed to make his comeback. And one of his first tasks is to reconquer the will of his werewolf pal, who has been in remission under the care of a psychiatrist, but it doesn’t take much for Willis to become his sharp-fanged and bushy-tailed self again. Lugosi then turns his attention to those who were a party to his staking, but his neglect of his furry Man Friday proves to be his undoing. After all, as the Underworld movies have shown us, werewolves have a way of turning on their vampire masters when they feel unappreciated.
Having cured their go-to werewolf Lawrence Talbot of his lycanthropy in 1945’s House of Dracula, Universal reached back to turn-of-the-century England for the following year’s She-Wolf of London. At first glance, the film seems to be a throwback to Werewolf of London, but in actual fact it most resembles The Undying Monster, what with all the talk of family curses and attacks on the Scottish moors (which are never actually visited, just described). In this case it’s the Allenby Curse which has lone heiress June Lockhart (yes, that June Lockhart) worried that she’s been creeping into the park near her estate, turning into a she-wolf and savaging random strangers. She isn’t, of course, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from dragging things out as much as possible. (If you’ve ever wondered how 61 minutes can feel like an eternity, She-Wolf of London is your answer.). As miffed as I am that The Wolf Man: Legacy Collection doesn’t include the entire Lawrence Talbot saga, I guess it’s somewhat appropriate that it has at least one dog in it.
After She-Wolf‘s ignominious entry, the next time a werewolf paid a visit to London (apart from Lon Chaney, Jr.’s phoned-in wolf-out at the beginning of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) was in 1972’s Dr. Jekyll and the Wolfman, the sixth film in Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy’s long-running “Hombre Lobo” series. In it, Naschy’s werewolf character Waldemar Daninsky travels to England to find a cure for his lycanthropy and winds up in the care of Dr. Henry Jekyll, who somehow believes he can use his grandfather’s old serum to do the job. This involves turning Daninsky into Mr. Hyde, waiting for the full moon, and then administering the antidote to quell both Hyde and the wolfman at the same time. This goes about as well as you might expect, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, especially in the scene where Hyde parks himself in a modern-day discotheque and changes back into Daninsky when Jekyll’s serum wears off, only to transform into el Hombre Lobo moments later and go on a rampage. Sure, he may have been a foreigner, but like fellow tourist David Kessler and Warren Zevon’s perfectly coiffed specimens, he knew how to paint the town red.