Thursday, 11 March 2010

THE UNIVERSAL WEREWOLF Part I - The Werewolf of London

Even a critic who is pure in heart,
And watches films at night,
May let some spoilers slip,
While penning spurious shite!

The movies hold an enormous power to influence the popular imagination. For example, one of the classic tenets of vampirism, that sunlight destroys the undead monsters, come not from centuries old folklore but 1922 when FW Murnau had the very cinematic mechanism of the rays of dawn vanquish Graf Orlock in Nosferatu. Similarly Browning’s Dracula created an image of the Count that has brushed away the moustachioed and varyingly aged vampire Stoker created. And James Whale had an even bigger influence when he made the 1931 Frankenstein; such a successful reimagining of the classic novel that it is has supplanted Mary Shelley’s vision in the public imagination as the ‘proper’ version.

And the humble werewolf, although he has haunted our stories since the dawn of time, has not been immune to the influence of Hollywood. Indeed as we shall see, Universal’s films of the ‘30s and 40s have had a profound effect on the legend and lore of the werewolf …

The earliest screen lycanthrope I can find is a 1913 feature called The Werewolf. This silent short featured a Navajo witch who gained the power to transform into a wolf, and subsequently her daughter, whom she passes the power onto, uses it to take revenge on the invading white settlers. The film is now lost sadly but it’s worth noting that it was a very early foray into the macabre from Universal Studios, a field they would later make their own.

Next came another silent feature Wolf Blood in 1925, which though not technically a horror film, does feature some werewolf action in the last quarter. In this feature, a logger receives a blood transfusion from a wolf and shortly afterwards his fellow loggers begin dying. Here the lycanthropy is a hallucinatory phenomena rather than a physical transformation but it’s worth mentioning as it’s the first of many films that will bring psychological theme into a werewolf narrative.

It was not until 1935, when Universal unleashed The Werewolf of London that we get a proper full length werewolf feature. Often wrongly credited as the first werewolf film, but it is the earliest surviving horror picture dealing with lycanthropy. Like 1932’s The Mummy, this first werewolf talkie was an attempt to create an original screen monster, one not drawn from the pages of literature. But for a variety of reasons, this film somehow failed to capture the public’s imagination and didn’t recreate the successes of Dracula and Frankenstein for Universal. And also like the Mummy, the werewolf would have to wait until the ‘40s for silver nitrate and celluloid to do their alchemical magic and conjure forth creatures to haunt the 20th century imagination.

But The Werewolf of London does lay the foundations for the cinematic reinvention of werewolvery. To begin, this Henry Hull vehicle also brings us the hugely important idea that lycanthropy is an infectious condition, for this is a marked break with the original folklore.

Anyone studying the traditions, legends and lore of the werewolf will be somewhat surprised to discover that it is actually extremely rare to find lycanthropy being passed on through receiving a wound from a werewolf. Generally speaking, historical werebeasts are created most often by two means. Firstly the condition was a curse – sometimes from a witch or sorcerer as revenge, sometimes by the gods as a punishment, and occasionally as a trait passed down through families - and this method tends to be prevalent in the earlier tales of shape shifters. Secondly, and certainly the more frequent in later times, one became a werewolf deliberately through the use of magic. There’s a host of different methods documented - strange ritual acts like drinking water from a wolf’s paw print or consuming wolf brains, and a host of disgusting recipes for potions and elixirs – but a perennial element of the magical process is the wearing of clothes or a belt made from the skin of a wolf.

And this choosing to become a monster for one’s own purposes, usually for evil (but interestingly not exclusively), was particularly common in Europe. Most people are aware of the infamous witch trials that pepper Western history, but what is less well known is that there were similar outbreaks of public hysteria surrounding werewolves with waves of cases being brought to the courts, particularly in France and Germany in the Middle Ages. The trial of Jean Grenier is fairly typical – click here for a splendidly lurid retelling of the tale.

(Though it should be noted, Grenier was far more fortunate than many accused of shape shifting. A common belief, dating back at least as far as the Roman era, was that werewolves possessed a double skin – human on the outside and lupine within – and that they literally turned their hides inside out to change. Hence the Latin term for the creatures is versipellis, which translates as ‘turn skin’, and a standard test for werewolvery was to be flayed to see if the accused was furry on the inside. Grenier was lucky on two counts; firstly not to be subjected to this often fatal procedure, and secondly to have a judge who considered that there was more madness than black magic at the heart of his crimes.)

This kind of magically created werewolf dominated the stories and legends for centuries, and in the main was seen as an agent of evil. When gothic fiction arrived, some like Captain Frederick Marryat in The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains (1839) continued the satanic tradition with werewolves that were clearly allied with the powers of darkness, but other works such as Wagner the Werewolf (1847) revived lycanthropy as a curse and introduced the now familiar trope of the decent man doomed to change into an evil beast. Gothic fiction was often as concerned with questions of theology and morality as it was crumbling castles and clanking chains, and hence the concept of the werewolf offered an arena to explore the dividing lines between man and animal and good and evil.

And perhaps the most enduring expedition into this territory, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), which while not technically a werewolf tale, certainly borrows heavily from both mythological and gothic lycanthropy. The smoking potion clearly is the scientific descendant of the medieval elixirs, and created from similar drives alter individual morality in a physical fashion. Yet the results of Jekyll’s experiments are clearly the same tortured moral dilemmas of a gothic hero. And there is more than touch of Stevenson’s good doctor in the character of Dr Glendon in The Werewolf of London.

However it is in The Werewolf of London that establishes the idea that lycanthropy is transmissible like vampirism. And as far as I can tell, this is possibly the first instance of becoming a werewolf by infection in fiction. Marryat’s lupine femme fatale is diabolic creation, Wagner’s condition is the catch in a deal with Dr Faustus and Bertrand in Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris has lycanthropy as a hereditary curse.

Now down the centuries in European folklore, vampires and werewolves have been closely aligned in the legends of many different regions. Some traditions hold that a slain werewolf rises again as a vampire, some that the reverse is true, and yet others have the werewolf as a supernatural guardian that protects people and crops from vampires and witches*. To further confuse the issue, in Southern Europe, particularly in the Balkans, the same terms have been used to describe both creatures – vrykolaka and vurdulak.

However in the case of this Universal film, it’s a good bet that the writers were actually cribbing the plot dynamics from Dracula; something also seen, but more overtly, in The Mummy which appears to be using the 1931 Browning adaption of Dracula as a plot template. However Stoker, having studied Southern and Eastern European folklore, noted the blurring of the lines between the vampire and the werewolf and hence his immortal Count has more than a touch of the lycanthrope about him. Aside from the obvious shape shifting into what witnesses describe as a large black hound, Dracula is not dissimilar to the willing werewolves of the Middle Ages. What many people don’t realise is that the Count has an origin story of sorts, outlined by Van Helsing in Chapter 18. His vampirism is linked to the practice of the dark arts learned at the legendary Scholomanse, a secret school presided over by the Devil himself.

So this borrowing back of elements from Dracula is fair trade. And this new idea of lycanthropy as an occult kind of transmissible disease was to be hugely influential. However this is not the only addition the mythos presented in The Werewolf of London.

Although the medieval writer Gervase of Tilbury associates the full moon with werewolf transformations and a handful of rituals to become lycanthropic that either specify performing the rites under the full moon or utilise its rays, mainly this phase of our planet’s satellite does not figure much in lycanthropy through the ages. After all, curses could be a permanent change of shape or be tied to a variety of different significant times, while the career werewolf could change whenever they chanted the spell, quaffed the potion or donned the wolf skins. However The Werewolf of London has the full moon as a key part of the transformation process, and so far my researches into werewolf fiction have yet to uncover a literary precedent, so it is possible that this is the first instance of the full moon lore (if you know any different leave a comment or drop me a line).

So, although it is often glossed over in horror movie history, this movie deserves a good deal more attention than the usual write-off as a botched dry run for The Wolf Man. Admittedly, Universal’s second treatment of the creature is a much superior film, but it draws a great deal more from its predecessor than merely learning from its mistakes.

While searching in the wilds of Tibet for the exceedingly rare plant, the Mariphasa Lumina Lupina, noted botanist Dr Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and wounded by a strange man beast. On returning to London with the plant, he encounters the mysterious Dr Yogami (Warner Oland) who reveals that the flowers of the Mariphasa may be a cure for lycanthropy and hints heavily that it was he who attacked Glendon and now he bears the same condition as a result. Naturally as a man of science, Glendon does not believe in werewolves until while using a special lamp that simulates moonlight on the night blooming Mariphasa his hand begins to change…

…And you can probably guess the rest – Glendon struggles to contain his feral alter ego and fails to find a cure before he is killed menacing his loved ones - the typical werewolf movie plot in other words. But it must be remembered that for the time, this was anything but standard werewolf fare, indeed it’s from this film we derive a lot of the familiar elements of modern werewolf stories. However, there is also a good deal in The Werewolf of London which is quite novel in the lycanthrope canon.

To begin with placing the genesis of the lycanthropy in Tibet is an interesting alternative to the usual Old World werewolf stylings, giving the movie the exotic oriental flavour that was popular in works as diverse as the Fu Manchu saga and the National Geographic reports of Dr Joseph Rock. Rock was an explorer and botanist, and his accounts of his travels in Tibet are said to have inspired the best selling 1993 novel Lost Horizon which established Tibet as a mystical milieu in fiction and the parallels between Glendon and Rock are obvious.

However The Werewolf of London does not draw upon the magical potential of its Far East opening locale, as it is science rather than folklore that will dominate the movie. The MacGuffin of the movie, the Mariphasa plant, is presented as a possible source for a biological treatment for werewolvery rather than an occult cure. And there is more than a touch of science fiction in the film: Dr Glendon has a hot house filled with bizarre carnivorous plants, his own hi tech secure laboratory with a futuristic looking lamp that produces artificial moonlight and a proto CCTV array so he can see anyone approaching the locked door.

However, all the scientific stylings do not preclude the supernatural and the film wisely doesn’t offer us some cod scientific explanation of lycanthropy. What we do get however is the birth of the familiar full moon mythos. But in The Werewolf of London, the full moon is somewhat more significant than usual, as according to an ancient tome of werewolvery Glendon consults, a werewolf must kill on the nights when the moon is full in order to stave off becoming a beast permanently.

Although The Wolf Man would later elaborate on the full moon’s role and fix it forever in the minds of the public, so far no subsequent werewolf stories have picked up on the intriguing concept. The idea that the lycanthrope must kill in order to retain its dual form is a great plot twist, and it’s a shame no one has thought to resurrect it.

However, the Werewolf of London doesn’t exactly capitalise on the concept either. On the third night of the full moon Glendon is thwarted in his attempt to kill, yet the script seems to have forgotten the rule it introduced earlier and the next morning the good doctor has transformed back into an English gent again. Instead the film seems to switch focus onto another piece of lore - this time delivered to Glendon by Dr Yogami - that the werewolf will always seek out and kill that which they love most. But considering what a staple of the lycanthrope stories this plot has become, I’m inclined to forgive the movie for ignoring the old tome’s lore.

Certainly concentrating on Yogami’s warning meshes better with the overall plot. The key relationship in The Werewolf of London is between Glendon and his wife Lisa, whose marriage is showing the strain Glendon being tied to his work and researches. At the same time he is infected with lycanthropy, Lisa has encountered her childhood beau, Paul, who soon notices her dissatisfaction with her forever working husband. Naturally an intelligent fellow like Doc Glendon also spots her unhappiness and the temptation posed by Paul but as the moon grows full, he has no choice but to sequester himself further. And aside from imbuing the werewolf myth with a psycho-sexual subtext, it also introduces another classic lycanthrope plot device - in order to prevent himself killing, Glendon attempts to cage himself prior to moon rise.

So then, here we have a movie that is brimming with imagination, coupled with a fascinating plot and is breaking new ground left, right and centre for the werewolf mythos. And yet despite all these strengths, the movie flopped and its critical reputation hasn’t exactly blossomed over the subsequent decades either. So what went wrong?

Over the years, the main contender for the fatal flaw has been the titular werewolf himself. Many have fingered the make up as being insufficiently wolfish – and certainly looking at the make up job with post Wolf Man eyes he certainly looks insufficiently hairy to be a lycanthrope. In a quick straw poll, I showed several friends who are unfamiliar with early horror movie history, a still of Doc Glendon and asked them to identify the monster...

And all bar one (a spoilt ballot that read 'is this Ron Pearlman's dad?') guessed it was an early Mr Hyde as I suspected would be the case.

Now, the standard story behind the effects goes something like this – legendary make-up man Jack Pierce originally devised a far more hirsute werewolf – and according to some the very combination of appliances and yak hair Lon Chaney would don several years later. However Henry Hull was not keen on being subjected to the long hours in the make-up chair and hence Pierce created a simpler look for the beast which was quicker to apply and consequently a lot less furry.

However, personally I tend to think that Jeremy Dyson is quite right to wonder if this piece of movie lore is apocryphal. As the paperwork shunted between the studio execs and the film makers are now sadly destroyed, there is now no evidence to consult to discover the truth. But I think Dyson’s view, found in his excellent book Bright Darkness, that it is exceedingly unlikely that Universal would bow to pressure from an actor of Hull’s status is nearer the mark. Although he had been appearing in films since 1917, it was only the previous year he had transcended bit part work and garnered the attention of the studio bosses with his portrayal of Magwitch in Great Expectations. So he certainly didn’t have the star clout to veto a make up job.

And considering how important and influential Jack Pierce was at the time, and indeed knowing how much of a prima donna Pierce could be, it’s very unlikely he would have allowed an actor getting his first top billing in a major feature to dictate terms in this fashion. More likely I think, is that after the film failed to ignite the box office or make Hull an icon like Karloff and Lugosi, the reasoning behind the make-up was reconned by Universal or possibly Pierce himself.

But despite looking a little bald to modern viewers, Pierce’s make up work is still top notch. And it’s important to remember that we are seeing the first screen wolf man. Although folklore and legend occasionally has depicted the lycanthrope as a bipedal wolf, in the main the old tales usually maintain that the werewolf transforms completely into an animal. Now such a transmutation brings a whole mess of problems for a film maker and so The Werewolf of London cannily has Dr Yogami tell Glendon and the audience, that contrary to legend, the werewolf does not change into a wolf but a hybrid creature that combines the worst features of both species.

And this is a salient point as the altered Glendon behaves in a fashion somewhat different from other fictional werewolves. While he is still a raging beast most of the time, he does display unusual characteristics informed by the twist to the mythos in the script. He appears to retain a high degree of intelligence – for example, when venturing out to hunt the shadowed London streets he dons a voluminous overcoat and a large cap to disguise his monstrous form.

But while this is an interesting idea, the script never develops it sufficient to work properly. As the Glendon-wolf never comes across as having a distinct and separate personality of its own but retains a very human-like intelligence, this ultimately serves to undercut the savagery of the werewolf itself. Furthermore, the audience is left in something of a muddle as to how much control Glendon has in his shifted form, and this becomes a major factor in the effectiveness of the grand finale.

At the film’s close, when Glendon is finally gunned down, we get another familiar werewolf trope making an early outing – the dying speech forgiving his slayers and the now cliché ‘you killed me but you’ve saved my soul” routine. But the problem is that in this movie, the speech is delivered BEFORE Glendon transforms back into his human form. Now this breaks all the rules of dying transformed man-monsters for the modern viewer, but I think it also struck all the wrong dramatic notes for audiences back in the day. As Glendon’s final words are delivered while he still in beast form, instead of feeling pathos for the doomed doc, the audience is left rather surprised werewolves are so loquacious.

Another reason often trotted out for The Werewolf of London flopping with audiences over the years is that Glendon as played by Hull is too cold a character for audiences to sympathise with. But I’d contend that the role is written to be cool and scientific – the focus of the script isn’t to invoke sympathy for the lead character as The Wolf Man does, rather the key dynamic is that Glendon is so driven by his researches that he is already losing touch with his humanity before he’s bitten by Yogami. In fact, the script actually presents Doctor Yogami as the sympathetic character; he is far more the usual tortured lycanthrope than Glendon is – a very interesting twist for a character that in a less imaginative script would have been written as a conventional villain.

The tragedy of Dr Glendon isn’t that he suffers the torment of lycanthropy like Larry Talbot, but that his commitment to science is destroying his marriage and makes him ignore the warnings of Yogami. And the cruel irony is that he must isolate himself further to continue the very research that is wrecking his relationship with Lisa in order to cure his condition, and more importantly, save her life. His lycanthropy can be seen as an outburst of his repressed emotions, and it’s no coincidence that in the final act he breaks free from the ancient hermit’s cell when he spots Lisa out walking with Paul through the bars. His predicament echoes both the ancient myths and fables that preceded it where a divine punishment mirrors the sinner’s crime, and the myriad mad scientist yarns that would follow where the pursuit of knowledge comes at a high personal cost.

But at the ending of tale, where such ironies of fate should resonate, is botched by having Glendon deliver his final oratory in monster form. This robs the film of a satisfying symbolic close; the proper order of events in such a tale should be that the transforming spell is broken, he regains his rightful shape and then his humanity is reasserted leaving the viewer with a sense that good has triumphed, albeit at great cost, over evil and normalcy has been restored. Instead the close of The Werewolf of London has you almost wondering if Glendon’s human side was not quite as in thrall to the wolf as they’ve made out.

And I strongly feel that it is this botching of the conclusion that has damaged the film far more than a furless werewolf or an unsympathetic hero. Now the film has other flaws; for example the script has Yogami referring to werewolvery as ‘lycanthrophobia’ rather than ‘lycanthropy’, a trio of tipsy old ladies for comic relief, and director Stuart Walker seems unsure whether to emphasise the gothic or the contemporary, but it is the simple misplacement of Glendon’s last words is what effectively stops the film from becoming the properly rounded mythic tale it should be.

But folks, I come not to bury this film but to resurrect it. In all fairness, Universal’s Dracula is as equally hampered by Todd Browning’s static direction as The Werewolf of London is by its slightly uneven scripting. Yet the former is regarded as a classic while the latter is often relegated to footnote status. And while it is perfectly true that The Wolf Man would bring werewolvery to the screen in a far more accomplished manner, as we have seen The Werewolf of London establishes a huge part of the modern werewolf mythos. And for these innovations alone, the film deserves a better reputation than it currently enjoys.

But aside from meriting a place both in movie history and modern myth making, The Werewolf of London has much to recommend it. Once you separate the film from the shadow of The Wolf Man, you discover a very unique take on the werewolf, bursting with imagination. Admittedly it never generates the atmosphere of either Dracula or Frankenstein but it is still very entertaining, with solid performances from the leads and some memorable visuals. And whether loping about in tweedy impertinence or prefiguring the beatniks with his choice of groovy head gear, Doc Glendon must surely be the best dressed werewolf of all time.

The original audiences may have been nonplussed by its blend of the gothic and sci-fi, but after decades of werewolf flicks that are virtually unofficial remakes of The Wolf Man, The Werewolf of London now feels remarkably fresh and original. It may have laid the foundations for the modern fictional lycanthrope but it also has a great many elements that have not been picked up in subsequent lycanthrope tales. And there is so much that is unique in the plotting and concepts of The Werewolf of London that this film is surely as deserving of a modern remake as its better known sibling.

* - For those you intrigued by this little known good side to the werewolf, may I direct you to Paul Devereux’s Haunted Land (Piatkus Books 2001) which has a fascinating section on this subject.

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