Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night
May become a Wolf when the Wolfsbane blooms
And the autumn Moon is bright.
Everything we know about popular werewolf traditions, tropes and lore was pretty much created, singlehandedly, by writer Curt Siodmak for 1941’s The Wolf Man. He was to lycanthropes what George Romero was to zombies.
Of all the classic monsters— even of most supernatural creatures— werewolves are the scariest. Daylight and crucifixes can ward off Dracula; Frankenstein is scared of fire; destroy the right document and the Mummy will crumble to dust. Silver will kill the Wolf Man, but he either doesn’t know that or is too bestial to give a damn. When the Wolf Man goes on a rampage, it’s like unleashing Hell itself.
Thomas Wolfe theorized that you can’t go home, again, but that doesn’t stop Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) from returning to his old stomping grounds. He goes home, again, upon the event of the death his brother. Seeing as it is now just him and his father, Sir John Talbot, remaining in the family, it’s about time for the two to put the past behind them and make amends.
The reconciliation goes well. Father and son thaw the ice, but they establish a new relationship. Larry (thoroughly American) settles in to their small, ancestral Welsh town. He evens becomes smitten with a local lady, Gwen, who works at a local antiques shop. He decides to visit the shop as he’s only seen her through a telescope as he was adjusting its lenses. Don’t worry, nothing pervy was going on.
After visiting the shop, striking up a conversation with Gwen and purchasing a cane (topped with a silver wolf’s head), the two agree to go on a date. Sort of. Along with Gwen friend’s, Jenny, they hit the village for some fun which includes visiting a caravan of gypsies. An old gypsy fortuneteller, Bela (Bela Lugosi), reads Jenny’s fortune, but he doesn’t have a lot of good news to bestow. Bad things are coming her way.
Sure enough, trouble strikes. Leaving the gypsy camp, Jenny is attacked by a beast. Larry intervenes and beats to death what he believes is a wolf with his silver-topped wolf cane. An older gypsy, Maleva, Bela’s mother, informs Larry that it was Bela who attacked Jenny. Her son was a werewolf, and since he bit Larry, Larry will now become a werewolf once the moon is full.
No one could play tortured, tormented and conflicted like Lon Chaney, Jr. The man just looked like he attracted suffering and trouble. Larry Talbot is the role he’s remembered for and I don’t think anyone else, living or dead, could have played this character like Chaney. For the 2010 remake, Benicio del Toro was wise to take it in a different direction— and while I’m at it, the 2010 movie is not as bad as its reputation would suggest; it’s actually a good movie. Much like Werewolf of London, the del Toro remake is a good movie, but neither one is the 1941 classic. Few films can equal it. Even less surpass it.