[Tearing Through Werewolf Cinema] Universal's 'Werewolf of London' Set the Stage for Later Lycanthrope Films
Welcome to a weekly series in which Doris V. Sutherland takes readers on a trip through the history of werewolf cinema...
...Botanist Dr. Glendon (Henry Hull) travels to Tibet in search of a rare plant called the phosphorescent wolf flower. Just as he finds it, he is bitten by a werewolf that was exploring the area in search of the same flower – which is said to be an antidote to lycanthropy. Back home in England, the doctor tries to cultivate the flower in the hopes of curing himself before the full moon rises and he transforms. As he does so he is visited by a mysterious man, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), who claims to have met him briefly in Tibet: the werewolf who bit him has followed Dr. Glendon all the way to England, leaving London with two lycanthropes locked in a battle over the rare plant.
Werewolf of London is not one of Universal’s best-loved films. It never attained the classic status of its predecessors Dracula and Frankenstein, and even in the field of werewolf cinema it’s overshadowed by its successor, The Wolf Man. But it was nonetheless influential. For one, Werewolf of London is the movie that codified the idea of werewolves transforming during a full moon.
Yes, something that most people assume is part and parcel of werewolf folklore in fact entered the popular consciousness because of this film from 1935. In fact, Werewolf of London played a pretty big role in shaping the werewolf genre: it also popularised the notions of lycanthropy being passed on through a bite, and of a particular plant being used as an antidote (although later films tend to use wolf’s-bane rather than the “phosphorescent wolf flower”). On top of that, it did much to influence the physical appearances of subsequent werewolves. Although the make-up job that Jack Pierce gave to actor Henry Hull is rather less hairy than would become fashionable later, it is unmistakeably the template for future generations of celluloid lycanthropes.
But Werewolf of London has its oddities, as well – in particular, its heavy usage of elements from mad scientist films.
Hull’s performance as the cursed botanist has unmistakable echoes of Colin Clive in Frankenstein and Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, the latter film also being echoed when Dr. Glendon seeks refuge at an inn. The doctor also has a laboratory filled with elaborate electrical apparatus; although his experiments aren’t the cause of his condition – indeed, they’re intended to help him to find a cure – the fact that his first transformation occurs in a laboratory leaves obvious shades of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And like Mr. Hyde, the werewolf turns out to be more a bestial man than a true man-beast, even stopping to put on a hat, coat and scarf before he heads out to stalk the streets like a pointy-toothed Jack the Ripper.
For context, shortly after Universal released Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Paramount got in on the action with the well-regarded film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. With this in mind, Werewolf of London starts to seem like a belated response from Universal: an attempt to swipe Dr. Jekyll away from rivals at Paramount.
But trying to be both a werewolf film and a mad scientist film is more than Werewolf of London can manage. The movie’s first act spends too much time on pseudoscientific details with little bearing on the overall plot – the exact workings of the phosphorescent flower, for example – to actually build any sort of atmosphere. As the story develops it gets cluttered up with an oversized cast including two werewolves, multiple female victims, a typically bland hero, police officers, journalists and gossipy elderly ladies who spend their time trading amusing anecdotes about sitting in salad (here, the film is apparently trying to emulate the camp humour of James Whale’s filmography, but not quite succeeding). Any horror to be had is lost in the noise.
This is too bad, as Werewolf of London has some good ideas on its plate. It establishes that if a werewolf does not kill on every night of its transformation, it will eventually lose its human form altogether; the implication is that Glendon is consciously aware of his evil deeds, but commits them anyway so as to avoid a still worse fate for himself. This is an intriguing moral dimension lacking from many later werewolf films, making it unfortunate that the film has so little time to explore the concept.
All that was needed to turn Werewolf of London into a classic would be for the misjudgements to be stripped away, leaving only the good points – and that’s exactly what happened when Universal revisited the werewolf theme in 1941 with The Wolf Man.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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