Throughout October, Madison Film Guy will post new mini-reviews/recommendation/musings on contemporary or classic horror films to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Werewolf of London.
Werewolf of London, 1935
To this day, the 1941 classic The Wolfman remains the definitive werewolf movie.
Six years earlier, the same studio—Universal Studios, the ultimate name in classic horror cinema—put out a werewolf movie that may have been even better than its successor: Werewolf of London.
Whereas The Wolfman is a legendary tale of personal tragedy and soulful anguish, Werewolf of London is more of a mythic morality play. Unlike its successor’s tortured victim, Larry Talbot, Werewolf of London’s werewolf is a scientist—a botanist by trade—who contracts his lycanthropic curse not from racing to the aid of a damsel in distress, but rather from venturing to the forbidden reaches of Tibet to steal nature’s rarest flower. Like a Greek myth, it is his arrogance and ambition—his own hubris—that causes his downfall.
Deep in the mountain of Tibet, Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and wounded by a strange animal. After returning to London, he finds himself turning nightly into a werewolf and terrorizing the city, his one hope for curing his affliction the rare Asian flower. A mysterious stranger named Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) has followed him home, however, and wants the flower for himself to control his own beastly transformations.
Although clearly a werewolf tale, the creature of Werewolf of London is more man than beast. The Wolfman’s monster walks like a man but otherwise is a wild animal, savagely preying upon its victims and racing through the countryside like a mad beast. By contrast, Werewolf of London presents a werewolf that is driven not by animal impulses but by the darkest side of human emotion: jealousy and resentment. The creature resembles and acts more like Mr. Hyde than a traditional werewolf, and that casts the film in an entirely different light than its successor.
Werewolf of London is significantly darker and grittier than The Wolfman and in many ways more sophisticated. Although it uses similar time-lapse photography trickery in several transformation scenes, for example, Dr. Glendon’s first transformation is much more cleverly done: while walking through his laboratory, a series of camera occlusions trigger his step-by-step transformation. While not as “cutting edge” (this was 1935, remember) as the time-lapse trick, it’s much more impactful and shocking. Watch that initial transformation in the first few seconds of this clip (0:00 – 0:11:
The first feature-length werewolf movie ever made, Werewolf of London absolutely stands the test of time, even eighty years later. Thoughtful, interesting, and engaging: if you consider The Wolfman the class of the genre but haven’t given its predecessor a chance, check out Werewolf of London and you just might find that sometimes the first really is the best.