“Neither man nor wolf…”
Stuart Walker’s Werewolf of London (1935) succeeds in terrifying sensitive souls. The movie tells the story of botanist, Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) who goes on an expedition to Tibet where the rare mariphasa lupina lupina can be found. Also known as the moon flower, the mariphasa is said to take its life from the moon.
After many months and several warnings about the dangers that lurk in the Tibetan valley, Glendon finds the mariphasa, but not before he is attacked and bitten by a strange-looking half-man half-creature. Glendon survives the attack and manages to bring home a live sample of the mariphasa. Soon after his return home Glendon is visited by a Dr. Yogami, another botanist interested in the flower who also has strange tales to tell. While the two discuss the properties of the flower Yogami mentions that it is also the only known antidote for lycanthropy. Catching Glendon by surprise Yogami touches his arm, exactly where the beast had bitten him. The werewolf, Yogami goes on to say, is “a satanic being that is neither man nor wolf, but possesses the worst qualities of both.”
Dr. Glendon discounts the werewolf tale altogether. Or rather discounts it at first. He starts to take it seriously when one of his hands gets hairy and grows claws under the moon lamp in his laboratory. After a gruesome murder on the night of a full moon Glendon grows concerned that Yogami is right – he now suffers from the strange werewolf affliction. Like his descendants would do in later werewolf movie incarnations, Glendon attempts to lock himself up so as to avoid another attack. Unfortunately, the attempt proves ineffective. Glendon escapes, succumbs to his urges and kills and by doing so puts those he loves in grave danger.
Werewolf of London is credited as the first mainstream werewolf movie, but the way it tells its story is not necessarily original. By 1935 Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had already been adapted for film several times. Werewolf of London has more in common with that story than it does with werewolf tales that follow. For instance, when Dr. Glendon, already transformed into a werewolf, skulks London at night he is more reminiscent of an aristocratic creeper than a wild beast. That’s a glaring truth if one compares Glendon’s werewolf to the one seen in George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941), which is Universal’s definitive lycanthropy movie. One appreciates Lon Chaney, Jr’s tragic portrayal of Larry Talbot even more after watching Hull as Glendon. Both Dr. Glendon and his beastly counterpart are too restrained. They never lose control – not the cursed man or the beast. In both cases the hat and overcoat are never forgotten, which detracts from the “uncontrollable urge” side of the monster. As a result, we never empathize with the suffering of the werewolf of London as compared to how our hearts break for Talbot and his cursed alter ego. Werewolf of London also makes a grave mistake in the telling of the story. It lets it be known far too soon that werewolves attack the person they love, which means we know early on what the film’s climax will be.
All that said, however, Werewolf of London is definitely worth a look. The movie moves along at a great pace and although Henry Hull does not ascribe the heart of the wolf to his portrayal, he’s certainly menacing enough to give this viewer a few chills. While we’re not likely to be terrified by the scenes during which Glendon skulks about as a werewolf, the first transformation scene is terrific with Glendon becoming more a werewolf as he passes a series of pillars. And while the make-up by Jack Pierce in Werewolf of London is not as memorable as his work on other legendary monsters, the large fangs, ears and widow’s peak are quite effective. I’ve read that Pierce’s plan for Hull’s make-up in this was what he’d end up using on Chaney in Waggner’s 1941 film. The story goes that Pierce was livid with Hull’s refusal to use the extreme amount of make-up and chose the lighter version in order to emote better. Whatever the reasons for the change in design this fan is happy about it. We would have not gotten the 1941 Wolf Man or the contrast in the two versions had that not been the case.
There are several other reasons to watch Werewolf of London. For instance, Warner Oland brings some of his enjoyable Charlie Chan wisdom to Yogami. Valerie Hobson turns in a fine performance as Lisa Glendon despite being 17 years old, nearly three decades younger than Hull who plays her husband in the film. Also worthy of note are Paul Ames who plays Lisa’s friend and Dr. Glendon’s possible rival and finally, the great Spring Byington – who is as reliable and entertaining a supporting player as there ever was. The film’s art direction and music also help enhance the horror elements throughout.
If you’re looking for a classic alternative this Halloween, you’ll do just fine with Werewolf of London. Audiences in 1935 didn’t turn out to see it, but it’s a worthy member of Universal’s horror legacy.
–Aurora Bugallo for Classic Movie Hub
Aurora Bugallo is a classic film-obsessed blogger, and co-founder and co-host of the Classic Movies and More Youtube show. You can read more of Aurora’s articles at Once Upon a Screen, or you can follow her on Twitter at @CitizenScreen.