Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Werewolf Triple Feature

With Halloween right around the corner, I recently had the opportunity to attend a triple feature screening of "Werewolf" movies at the historic Loew's Jersey theater in Jersey City. For any film enthusiast who has not had the pleasure of seeing a movie in this gorgeous 1929 movie palace, you owe it to yourself to check it out if you're ever in the New York City area. Each Halloween, the Loew's puts on a great program of classic horror films (in years past I've seen such favorites as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein there).

This year's program included a trio of "werewolf" movies that provide a neat evolution of the genre:

Werewolf of London (1935)
Universal's first attempt at creating a "werewolf" franchise as part of its horror cycle, it's clear why this film failed to take off with audiences in the way the studio's earlier efforts had. The single biggest problem is the rather unremarkable performance of stage actor Henry Hull in the title role. Hull lacked the larger-than-life presence and charisma that had made the performances of Lugosi and Karloff instantly iconic. Apparently, Hull objected to makeup man Jack Pierce's proposed makeup design, as he felt it obscured too much of his face, an attitude which exemplifies the problems with Hull's performance here. Additionally, director Stuart Walker was not a visual stylist on the level of Tod Browning or James Whale, and as a result, the film's look is flat and uninspired. Perhaps the best way to describe the film is "forgettable". It's not bad; it just fails to make much of an impact at all.

The Wolfman (1941)
Everything the studio got wrong in Werewolf of London, it got right in The Wolfman, starting with the inspired casting of Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. He manages to create a great deal of sympathy in his portrayal of a good-natured everyman who becomes tortured by guilt after committing acts of killing that he cannot control. Director George Waggner was a reliable craftsman who made full use of the studio's resources to create the highly evocative atmosphere that the earlier film lacked. Makeup man Jack Pierce was also allowed to use his original makeup design for the Wolfman, which is far more effective than the compromised look he was forced to settle on before. I had forgotten what a really great supporting cast the film has, too, including Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Maria Ouspenskaya, and even Bela Lugosi in a brief but memorable appearance, plus the usual array of great character types who populated the world of the Universal horror film. If the Universal horror cycle was beginning to run out of steam by the early '40s, this film proves that the studio was still capable of turning out a really first-rate, genre-defining classic.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis remains one of the most critically-neglected American filmmakers of the post-'70s/New Hollywood era. Perhaps that's because he works in highly commercial genres and directs hit crowd-pleasers, such as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, which -- like the work of his contemporary Steven Spielberg -- can be easy to take for granted. But as a filmmaker, he has a distinct and unique sensibility that provides him with the quite rare gift of being able to make a film that spans the genres of comedy and horror without ever compromising either the laughs or the scares (most recently evidenced by his very funny, and grossly underrated, Burke and Hare). An American Werewolf in London is perhaps his best film, filled with self-aware irony and humor while simultaneously creating a modern "werewolf" classic for a new generation.

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