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Universal Movie Monsters Sequel Mini Reviews: The Wolf-Man

by Steve Habrat

Of all the classic Universal monsters, the most tragic and touching is the Wolf-Man, a lycanthrope who by moonlight is transformed into a beast from Hell. One of the most famous classic monsters next to Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf-Man is one of the most atmospheric films that Universal unleashed upon audiences. Played with a wounded scowl by Lon Chaney, Jr, The Wolf-Man is an essential horror film for fans of the genre, one that will scare you to your core. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s review of The Wolf-Man, click here. Without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews of The Wolf-Man sequels and the first mainstream werewolf film. Anti-Film School is not responsible for the howling at the moon and spontaneous hair growth that may occur after reading…

Werewolf of London (1935)

Renowned British botanist Wilfred Glendon (Played by Henry Hull) takes a trip to Tibet to find the rare mariphasa plant and while searching the countryside; a strange, wolf-like creature suddenly attacks him. Despite the attack, Wilfred manages to make it back to London with a small sample of the mariphasa but he soon suffers a horrific transformation when the moon is full. As Wilfred races to understand the bizarre transformation, a mysterious man named Dr. Yogami (Played by Warner Oland) approaches him and claims they have met before.

Technically the first mainstream werewolf horror film, Werewolf of London certainly does set the bar high for the supernatural subgenre. The film is rich with plot and character development, two traits that actually cause the film to lag in places. The film lacks the hazy gothic atmosphere that the Lon Chaney, Jr. Wolf-Man had but the film still manages to be quite unsettling. The make-up effects in Werewolf of London are not as heavy on the wolf features and actually retain a more demonic quality with flashes of humanity, something that actually makes them creepier than Chaney’s famous wolf-mug. Hull himself isn’t nearly as tragic as Chaney’s Talbot and frankly, I didn’t really care for his snippy demeanor when he hovered over his precious plants in his lab. As the werewolf, he certainly is memorable, leaping out windows and even preparing himself for the nippy London weather with a scarf and coat.

As far as the secondary players go, Warner Oland is appropriately suspicious as Dr. Yogami. I absolutely loved how he played into the movie and I especially liked the reveal at the end, even if it is fairly easy to see the twist a mile away. Valerie Hobson is also present as Lisa Glendon, Wilfred’s wife who desperately wishes he would step away from his work and into her loving arms. The film embraces a smidgeon of comedy in the middle of the film with the werewolf crossing paths with two old lushes, who hoot and holler when they catch a glimpse of his protruding fangs. Overall, it is a shame that Werewolf of London has been left forgotten in the shadow of The Wolf-Man, but the cold hard truth is the film just isn’t as entertaining and heartbreaking as the Chaney classic. It does, however, deliver the spooks and that is the most important part of the film. It also happens to be a very dapper affair. Grade: B

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man (1943)

Several years after the events of The Wolf-Man, Larry Talbot (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) is awakened by a duo of grave robbers on an evening when the moon is full. As moonlight falls on his skin, Talbot quickly morphs into the Wolf-Man and murders the two men. The next day, the dazed Talbot is discovered by the police and taken to Dr. Mannering (Played by Patric Knowles), a local doctor who believes that Talbot may be insane. Talbot begins warning Dr. Mannering of his curse and that he desperately needs to be cured before the next full moon. Frustrated no one will listen to him, Talbot escapes the hospital and seeks out Dr. Frankenstein, who may be able to end his terrible curse. As his search continues, Talbot accidentally discovers Frankenstein’s Monster (Played by Béla Lugosi), which has been buried in ice for many years.

The first forty minutes of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man has all the makings for a horror classic. It’s atmospheric, loaded with eerie images, and surprisingly gruesome attacks for an early Universal horror flick. The film quickly looses some of that uneasy terror when it skips off to Frankenstein’s castle and unleashes Lugosi’s Monster. You can’t help but get the feeling that Lugosi is almost mocking Karloff in the way he waves his stiff arms around and moans like a family friendly ghoul. Hell, Herman Munster is more terrifying than Lugosi’s Monster. Then there is the middle section of the film, which is equally troubling. The story seems to run out near the center and the film just plods along killing time until these two titans of terror duke it out for a broad. It fills itself out with a head-scratching musical number that completely yanks the gothic atmosphere right out of the picture. Luckily, the film gets back on track with the final showdown that pits the angry Monster against the Wolf-Man. It’s a pretty satisfying fight even if it does find the two ghouls wrestling around on the ground for five minutes as things blow up around them. Still, it is pretty neat that they actually clash for a decent amount of time.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man is technically the first sequel to the original 1941 Wolf-Man and the first half of the film pushes the story along in a pretty fascinating way. Chaney is still top-notch as Larry Talbot/The Wolf-Man and his anguish is pretty chilling. Sadly, there is only so much I could take of his whining and by the end, I just wished he’d turn back into the Wolf-Man so I wouldn’t have to listen to him whine anymore. Patric Knowles steps in to play the mad doctor who isn’t as mad as some of the previous Universal kooks. Ilona Massey steps in as Elsa Frankenstein, who begins to fall for sad sack Larry. She basically acts as the boxing ring bell that has the two monsters swinging their claws at one another. Overall, if Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man had continued on the path it started on at the beginning, the film would have been a horror knockout. Instead, the film is KO’d after forty minutes by Lugosi’s bizarre turn as the Monster, Chaney’s relentless sobbing, and an absolutely pointless musical number. Luckily, the first forty minutes are a keeper and that showdown has some sparks. Grade: B

She-Wolf of London (1946)

After a string of brutal murders in a local London park, Scotland Yard detectives begin to fear that the murderer is actually a werewolf. As the news of the murders spreads, the young Phyllis Allenby (Played by June Lockhart) begins to fear that she may be the killer after she discovers that there are werewolves in her family tree.  As fear spreads across London, Phyllis’s fiancé Barry (Played by Don Porter) and her aunt Martha (Played by Sara Haden) try desperately to convince her that her fear is all in her head.

Fueled more by suspense than all out terror, She-Wolf of London leaves a good majority of the supernatural spooks on the cutting room floor and opts for psychological fear. What remains firmly in tact is the foggy gothic atmosphere that The Wolf-Man was very fond of and for the most part, the atmosphere adds a few chills. Much like Lon Chaney, Jr, Lockhart plays Phyllis as a sad and tragic figure desperately pleading for help for her curse.  At only an hour, we are able to give Lockhart a hefty serving of our sympathy and she never wears on us. Porter is solid as the concerned fiancé and Haden is wonderfully suspicious as Martha. Also on board is Jan Wiley as Carol, Phyllis’s clueless cousin who is consistently upsetting the sad sack.

At only sixty-one minutes, She-Wolf of London is brief and right to the point. The scenes that find a hooded she-wolf creeping out of the park’s tangled brush are indeed spooky, the hooded figure almost resembling a bloodthirsty apparition on the prowl. The middle twenty minutes of the film are sort of dry and you will find yourself rushing the film into the big reveal at the end. Much like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man, She-Wolf of London also features some hair-raising attacks that have a particularly bloody outcome. Overall, director Jean Yarbrough puts a unique twist on the werewolf feature that is quite fitting for a post WWII horror film dealing with the supernatural. I dare you to get those foggy attacks out of your head. Grade: B-

Werewolf of London, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man, and She-Wolf of London are all available on DVD.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

by Steve Habrat

It’s a Wonderful Life ranks as one of my favorite films of all time. I fell in love with this film many, many years ago, allowing it to both carve a sweet spot out in my heart, but also finding it to be one of the most heartfelt movies I have ever laid my eyes on. I adore everything from the good-old-boy performance from James Stewart to the small town setting of the film. Doesn’t that town just feel so homey? Hell, even our contributor Charles Beall, who resides near Seneca Falls, sent me a photo of the famed bridge where George Bailey tries to end it all, the bridge all decked out and trimmed with Christmas lights. While the film’s message of savoring everything that surrounds us and using the backdrop of Christmas still resonates today, this is a sturdy production with sharp direction, bountiful sets, and a surprising romanticism that fails to be matched (“Do you want the moon, Mary?”). It still wows me that this film was made in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Hollywood was embracing film noir and grittier pictures rather than fantastic productions, as the world had seen the epitome of evil and destruction first hand during the war. And yet the pains of real life do hang over It’s a Wonderful Life, as suicide, hopelessness, and desperation all come up, it’s all handled with a compassionate sanguinity from director Frank Capra. Capra makes us feel George’s heart and soul breaking, and we fear he may be lost, but surprisingly, it’s not the religious tones that oddly lift the picture up and allow it to really soar. It’s George’s heart of gold.

George Bailey (Played by the marvelous Stewart) is a real stand-up guy, one who will go above and beyond for the people he loves and stand up to those who bully. After the sudden and tragic death of his father, George finds himself taking over his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. While George had dreams and aspirations to go off to college and travel the world, the board of directors beg him to stay and run the family company to keep it out of the hands of the ruthless and leering Henry F. Potter (Played by Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company who rejects giving home loans to the lower class workers of Seneca Falls. Potter desperately pleads with the board of directors to put an end to this but George consistently stands up to Potter. On the night that his father dies, George was wooing the beautiful Mary (Played by Donna Reed), who has liked him ever since he was a boy. George also had to watch as his brother Harry (Played by Todd Karns) goes off to college and gets married. George finally marries Mary, but finds himself sacrificing the honeymoon to keep the Building and Loan from collapse.

World War II soon erupts and Harry is drafted into the army as a fighter pilot and ends up being a war hero. George cannot enlist due to a bad ear, an accident from his childhood, so he stays in his hometown to hold down the Building and Loan. On Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy (Played by Thomas Mitchell) is on his way to make a deposit of $8,000 for the company when he bumps into Potter. Uncle Billy shows Potter a newspaper headline that says Harry has won the Medal of Honor. When Potter takes the newspaper, he finds the $8,000 hidden inside and keeps the money for himself. A frantic search breaks out to find the money and George finds himself at the mercy of Potter, who refuses to give him a loan to save the company. Potter then promises to have George arrested for bank fraud. As George’s world crashes around him, he begins to contemplate suicide and right as he is about to end it all, a guardian angle appears named Clarence (Played by Henry Travers) and begins showing George what life would be like without him around. If Clarence can save George, he will earn his wings he has desperately been working for.

A cozy film, It’s a Wonderful Life presents George as such a likable guy, its damn near impossible to find a flaw in him. You find yourself wanting to reach through the screen and give George a big bear hug to reassure him everything will be just fine. Potter is the epitome of a vile antagonist, a man you can’t bring yourself to see any kindness in. It’s heart wrenching to watch George realize his fate as he begs to be spared by Potter. It’s moments like this that portray the realism that cinema was trying to achieve after the war but it also is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film. The scene is bitter, cruel, pathetic, and quite possibly one of the most charged sequences I have seen in a motion picture. Yet the film eases the tension the whimsical appearance of Clarence, who comes in the nick of time and adds a much needed dash of fantastic. The ending of the film reminds us of the magic in the air come Christmas, and how it puts a spell over all of us. That is, if you are willing to believe in magic.

The Christmas aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life enters only at the end of the film, which may leave some who have never seen it to question why this is such a popular holiday film, but it is the spirit of kindness and giving that solidifies it’s place in holiday movie history. The way George Bailey lives his life, as a kind and warm soul, willing to go the extra mile, is a mentality that many of us only embrace around the holidays. What would happen if we embraced that attitude all the time? Why should it only be limited to the Christmas season? If only we could all be like George every day of the year. It’s his past actions that ultimately save his life by the end of the film, rather than Clarence, who is only there to provide examples.

Capra begins the film with a hand turning pages in an old story book and he molds it into an ethereal bedtime story for all ages. He does a hell of a job with the snow caked scenes at the end of this film, scenes that especially seem like they could have been ripped out of that old story book, sometimes so detailed they almost seem like a painting. I dare you to watch the scene of George Bailey running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, Christmas lights and artificial bells strung across the streets and trees, calling out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” and not help but think that would make a perfect Christmas card graphic or painting. Even though the film is shot in black and white, it remains eternal despite some dated dialogue. The film circumvents the cookie-cutter religious preaching and becomes a beacon of hope in humanity itself. Every time I see It’s a Wonderful Life, I swell with happiness and hope that kindness will reign supreme in the hearts and souls of every human being. With not one performance slacking and not one scene out of place, it’s a rare work of art that defines excellence. It really is the perfect film to watch with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, Christmas tree glowing bright, and snow quietly drifting down outside from the night sky. Who am I kidding? It’s the perfect film to watch anytime.

Grade: A+

It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Favorite Christmas Film…GO!

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