Monday, February 22, 2010


Directed by Stuart Walker

Starring: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson

Forty-three years before Warren Zevon wrote a song about them (and seventy-three years before Kid Rock bastardized that same song), Universal made a movie about one. Predating The Wolf Man by 6 years, Werewolf of London is considered to be the first Hollywood werewolf film, and featured make-up effects by Jack Pierce, who would go on to create the look of many of Universal's most famous creatures, including the Lon Chaney Jr version of the half man/half wolf and Frankenstein's monster, largely considered his most iconic work.

While in Tibet searching for the mariphasa plant, botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. He survives the attack and heads home to London where, at a botanical show, he is confronted by Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), who claims to have met Wilfred in Tibet while also searching for the mariphasa plant. Dr. Yogami tells the botanist that the bite of the creature that attacked him in Tibet will transform him into a wolf, and that the mariphasa plant will temporarily stop the change. Dismissing the doctor's warning, Glendon continues with an experiment he has been perfecting: he has created artificial moonlight which he filters through a huge lamp in order to get the mariphasa plant to bloom. He soon comes to find that Yogami was telling the truth, and before long is running through the streets of London with hairy palms and inch long fangs.

One of the interesting aspects of Werewolf of London is that there's a science-fiction element to it as well as horror. Glendon transforms his mansion's basement into a laboratory, which comes complete with a Jacob's Ladder and the aforementioned moon-lamp. He wears a white lab-coat and even has an assistant (who seems to show up when it's convenient for the plot). While the spectre of the science-fiction doesn't loom large over the film, Glendon's experiment does play a significant part in the story, and it's quite fun to watch screenwriter John Cotton prod the genre into what is essentially a horror film.

What the film is really about (and why we're watching it), though, is how Glendon handles his transformation, what becomes of him after he changes into a monster, and, most importantly, how he looks
when he becomes the monster.

As previously stated, make-up artist Jack Pierce was commissioned to create the effects in Werewolf of London, and his work is a precursor to what he did with The Wolf Man. While not as extensive and jarring as the make-up done one
Lon Chaney Jr., Henry Hull's wolf-visage is still effective and a great example of the kind of pioneering advancements Pierce was making in regards to practical make-up effects in the early days of cinema. Also impressive are the transformation scenes, which I believe to be superior to the one found in The Wolf Man. The first time we see Wilfred change, he stumbles out of his mansion, unsure of what is happening to him. He passes behind a series of trees, and with each pass we see he has become more beastly. A second transformation sees the camera panning from Glendon's face to his hands resting on his lap and back again, and each movement of the camera shows successive modification of his body. Both scenes are a combination of great direction and effects work.

Like all man-wolves, Wilfred Glendon must have a significant other whom he loves deeply and, therefore, is in danger every time the moon is past it's waxing gibbous phase. In Werewolf of London, Glendon's love interest is his wife Lisa, played by the extraordinarily beautiful Valerie Hobson. Lisa becomes distant from Glendon as the film progresses; she's at first spurned by his rigid dedication to science, then becomes drawn to a close friend named Paul (Lester Matthews), who fuels Wilfred's transformative rage. It's interesting that the women in Werewolf of London are portrayed as adulterers, drunks, or a combination of both. It should also be noted that the only victims of Glendon while he is a werewolf are of the female sex. Wilfred Glendon prowls the streets of London like a rabid, animalistic Jack the Ripper, complete with trench-coat and hat.

Werewolf of London may not be as iconoclastic as The Wolf Man is, and the title may have been swallowed by twenty years of more famous productions on the marquee. But the film itself is a great addition to the canon of early horror cinema. Seek it out should you be hungry for such a thing

1 comment:

  1. I've seen the film several times, and I think the transformaton scenes were impressive and sophisticated for their time. Worth seeing.