The Wolf Man: A Monster’s Journey
When it comes to the famed Universal Monsters each one of them has an actor they are forever linked to. Dracula has Bela Lugosi, the Invisible Man has Claude Rains etc. Though these actors are forever tied to these characters we inevitably see in the sequels other actors taking on the roles of these famous monsters either as the character themselves like John Carradine with Dracula or someone carrying on the terrifying legacy like Vincent Price as the Invisible Man. One monster stands out with this as he was only portrayed by one man throughout the run of the Universal Monsters franchise, the Wolf Man brought to life by Lon Chaney Jr. As far as the actor and audiences were concerned, the Wolf Man was Caney’s furry baby stalking through the fog shrouded forests of the universe these monsters inhabited. This gave the character something none of the other monsters truly had a thrilling and emotional character arc which he would go through over the course of five movies. As Lawrence Talbot, all he wanted to do was die and rest in peace, but the wolf inside of him would not allow that.
The character was introduced in the 1941 film The Wolf Man, and the Lawrence “Larry” Talbot we are first introduced to is a far cry (or far howl) from the man he would become. Having lived in America for the past several years, he has returned to his family estate in England to reunite with his estranged father Sir John Talbot. We see that he is a resourceful, confident, blue-collared guy. The hosts of the Borgo Pass podcast put it best by saying he is the kind of person you would be cool having a beer with. For a man who seemingly spent a good number of his formative years in a life of privilege, Talbot is down-to-earth and very relatable to us as an audience. Even if we do not see ourselves in him he comes off as a decent guy, not perfect, but decent. In the wake of his brother’s death, Larry Talbot is making a genuine effort to reconnect with a father that he has not spoken to in quite some time. These likable qualities he has as a character is what makes his ultimate fate that much more tragic.
What should have been a night at the carnival ultimately becomes the most pivotal moment of his life as Lawrence Talbot is seemingly attacked by a wolf. As we all know, this was no ordinary wolf, but instead was a werewolf and this attack has put a curse on Talbot that he will have to endure with every full moon when he transforms into the Wolf Man. To the good people of the village, the behavior he now exhibits sees him shunned as someone to be avoided. While there are those who believe that, he believes he is a werewolf, they try to assign it as something psychological. He is largely treated in the same manner many in our society even to this day are treated when they are struggling with mental illness. There may be those closest to him who believe something is wrong, even if they do not take the time to truly understand it, by and large they are the subject of avoidance and brief rumor-filled whispers by people cutting their eyes at them. Even when he turns to the gypsies from where his curse came, he finds no help aside from the clan’s matriarch who gives her grim news. Aside from his well-meaning father, Larry Talbot is ultimately alone.
This tale has always been reminiscent of a piece of lore from a rural community near my hometown, the story of the “Georgia Werewolf” Emily Isabella Burt. Like the Wolf Man, this young woman came from a well-to-do family and became convinced in her mind that she was transforming into a werewolf on a nightly basis. Knowing things were beyond their control, her family sent her to Europe for mental treatment. In the Talbot household, it was made clear by his father that Larry was expected to simply power through this “phase”. Whereas Burt returned to her home cured, the Talbot family had to endure the horrific tragedy of John bludgeoning his werewolf son to death with his own cane.
Normally this would be the end of the story but in a good horror movie, the monster always comes back. In 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man Talbot would embark on a storyline which would continue throughout the ensuing Universal Monster movies. Grave robbers who break into the Talbot family crypt and remove the wolfsbane plant he was entombed with. Once it is removed the full moonlight hits the Wolf Man restoring him to life once more. It is now clear the monster inside of him will never allow Talbot to rest. From here he turned to science as a cure for his monstrous side. In this film as well as the ones which followed, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, Larry Talbot would seek out various scientists who held the promise of salvation. While he held out a sliver of hope that they could cure his lycanthropy, Talbot knows realistically his only hope of salvation would come in death. By now he is a man who has lost everything he once knew. When he was resurrected the first time, Larry discovered that his father had passed shortly after he did, carrying the grief that he had killed his own son. The Talbot family home is in ruins and those who do remember his family only associate them with the horrors they brought on the community. He is left to wander alone across Europe becoming a monster every time the moon is full unable to die. We can piece together that his life span has long outstripped what it should have been leaving him with a world-weariness and sense of melancholy. No longer is Larry Talbot the charming young man we met upon his debut he is now the Wolf Man.
Standing as an obstacle every time he went this route as the monster made by Dr. Frankenstein. Baroness Frankenstein, Dr. Mannering, Dr. Nieman, and Dr. Edelmann all began with concern for the Wolf Man and a desire to help him, but all of them became sidetracked at the prospect of carrying on the work of Frankenstein. This has led to the Wolf Man and the monster coming to blows much to the excitement of monster fans.
The next time we would see the Wolf Man onscreen, Larry Talbot was completing a character path he began venturing down in House of Dracula, carving out a destiny as a monster hunter. He has now seen first hand the terror Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster could wreak and the idea of the two creatures joining forces was too great of a threat to allow. Despite the dangers the oncoming full moon posed, Talbot travelled down to Florida where both of his fellow monsters had set up shop. Not only did he have to contend with his lycanthropy this time, but also the fact that his only allies were the duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in the horror/comedy classic Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Despite being seemingly cured by Dr. Edelmann in House of Dracula, Talbot once again transforms into the Wolf Man
Throughout much of a decade, Lawrence Talbot AKA the Wolf Man served as a throughline in the Universal Monster films. An ongoing plot thread that could be followed throughout the “Monster Mash” movies. As this tragic monster stumbled around trying to find peace, moviegoers were with him the entire time. He was cursed with an undeserved fate which will seemingly follow him for the foreseeable future. As the gypsy Maleva said in the end of The Wolf Man, he was cursed through no fault of his own and for that reason we as the audience had an emotional attachment to him as we followed him on his doomed quest for solace. Whereas the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Phantom of the Opera were adapted from literature from Universal, the Wolf Man stands largely as an original creation. The legendary screenwriter of The Wolf Man, Curt Siodmak took pieces of folklore from around the world of men turning into wolves and brought them together with ideas of his own to create the mythology surrounding the monster. Crafted by Siodmak, designed by make-up fx legend Jack Pierce and brought to life via a haunted performance from Lon Chaney Jr., the Wolf Man has been one of the most beloved monsters in filmdom who will always connect with audiences.