What Can 1941’s “The Wolf Man” Tell Us About the Beast In Us All?

This film is the last classic Universal Horror monster to have its own stand-alone film. After George Waggner’s The Wolf Man, Universal Studio monster movies would go on to create monster mash-ups like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The movie wasn’t a box office success (audiences thought it was too similar to Jekyll and Hyde) and it wasn’t Univeral Studio’s first werewolf movie either but regardless it is remembered today as a horror classic and is the werewolf movie which has had the greatest influence on the werewolf genre.


 The story begins with the arrival of Larry Talbot played by Lon Chaney Jr. son of the Phantom of the Opera star Lon Chaney Sr. To be honest who better to play a furry man-wolf hybrid other than the son of the Man of 1000 Faces. Larry Talbot returns to his hometown after learning of the death of his brother and decides to reconcile with his estranged father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). The size disparity between Rains and Chaney Jr. makes it difficult for many to believe that the two are father and son, however, their performances allows for you to suspend your disbelief.
Larry has stayed in America until now which is why he lacks a British accent. While testing his father’s telescope he peers into the window of one unsuspecting Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) who also runs the antique shop downstairs. Larry goes to the shop to pursue her and during their first encounter he admits to looking at her through a window (red flag anyone?) Larry repeatedly asks Gwen out and she turns him down again and again. In order to continue conversing with her, he asks her about silver-head cane decorated with a wolf branded by a pentagram. Gwen explains that this is the symbol of the werewolf – a man who turns into a beast certain time of the year. The werewolf is also said to see the pentagram in the palm of his next victim and once Larry purchases that cane his fate is sealed.
Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night;
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.
Despite Larry admitting to peeping through her window and her repeated rejection of his advances Gwen still goes out with him later that night with her friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) tagging along. I guess the creepy stalker thing works for some women. The trio goes to visit a nearby gypsy camp to get their fortunes read. Jenny is the first to get her fortune read by Bela the Gypsy played by Dracula and White Zombie star Bela Lugosi. During the reading, Bela sees the pentagram in her palm and not soon after she is attacked by a wolf. Hearing her screams Larry runs after her in an attempt at rescuing her. Larry beats the wolf to death with his new walking stick and is bitten during the struggle. Despite his efforts, Jenny is killed by the creature. The wounded Larry is dragged home and losses his cane in the forest. It is later revealed that the body the police discovered next to Larry’s walking stick wasn’t that of a wolf but that of Bela the Gyspy (big surprise.)
Don’t try to make me believe that I killed a man when I know that I killed a wolf!
Doctor Lloyd:
Yes, yes. We’re all a little bit confused.
Bela’s mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) later explains to Larry that “whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself.” Larry clearly doesn’t believe in the werewolf legend at first but is forced to accept this new reality. Despite Larry being a creepy stalker guy he is still worthy of the audience’s sympathy for he is a victim of circumstance forced to turn into the murderous creature against his will. Throughout the film, Maleva continues to help Larry as if he were her own son. Later he attempts to tell his father about his fears that he is now a werewolf. Sir John explains that his son’s beliefs are delusions and informs him that the werewolf is simply a representation of “the dual personality in all of us.” This internal conflict is externalized in the form of the werewolf who is inherently a symbol of duality. The werewolf is both man and wolf while at the same time something completely new.

Duality and the Werewolf

The concept of duality is explored thoroughly throughout the film. One example is Sir John Talbot who is a logical rational man as opposed to the superstitious Gpsy woman Maleva. Sir John is literally a father figure while Maleva can be interpreted as an emotional or spiritual mother to Larry now that he is a werewolf like her own son was. Sir John also assumes that Larry left home due to resentment toward his father regarding the favoritism of his older brother. This resentment is at odds with the fact that Larry still loves his father. Even Gwen expresses a dual or contrasting conflict as well after all she is engaged to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles) yet is has feelings for Larry.
Interestingly the original Wolfman story was written so that it was left it up to the audience to decide if the legend was true or if Larry Talbot was simply delusional and driven insane by cultural hysteria. The juxtaposition of reason and insanity is another example of duality within the film. It is also noteworthy that even Sir John believed that the superstitious beliefs of the townsfolk were the cause of his son’s mental illness.
Sir John:
She’s been filling your mind with this gibberish. This talk of werewolves and pentagrams. You’re not a child Larry, you’re a grown man and you believe in the superstitions of a Gypsy woman!
In the end, these two conflicting elements can’t exist in the same space. While Larry’s resentment toward his father was never confirmed it was still obviously mentioned for a reason. While Larry may have loved his father the resentment he might have held toward him is something that never gets resolved by the end of the film. Another unresolved dilemma within the film is Gwen’s feelings toward Larry and her engagement to Frank Andrews. Each of these conflicting elements is things that are never truly addressed and are repressed instead because it is easier than walking the thorny path. The tragic legend of the wolfman serves as a reminder that locking our demons in cages is not the same as burying them, and that if you don’t fight the darkness it shall consume you just “as the rain enters the soil, [and]the river enters the sea.”