Werewolf Movie Lopes Toward Immortality, But Loses By A Hair
DIRECTED BY: JOHN BRAHM/1942
STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 22, 2016/KINO LORBER
The best thing about this classic werewolf movie is the cinematography by Lucien Ballard, who would much later go on to light many of Sam Peckinpah’s better known films, and the best thing about his cinematography is the first scene, a highly complicated single-shot lighting setup that takes the viewer from a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a stormy night, then across all the points of interest in the main room of a dark mansion, from spired staircase to family crest to sleeping woman to fireplace. The mood established is more than enough to kick us into horror mode, but it also (along with the handy narration) helps tell the story of a family trapped by the threat of ancient lore that would seek to vanquish their vulnerable bodies, if not their immortal spirits. The worst thing about this classic werewolf movie is that it’s a werewolf movie with very little werewolf. We don’t get any hairy guy till the very last five minutes, and then only sparingly. But honestly, by then the movie’s been rolled out so much more like a murder-mystery than a horror that we’ve almost forgotten to expect a werewolf at all.
It seems the Hammond house has been haunted by a curse that kills one of their own every generation in the form of a “monster” feared by the entire village. When Oliver Hammond is nearly offed in the night by what he fears is the creature, Scotland Yard sends exuberantly stiff laboratory scientist Robert Curtis, along with his assistant Cornelia Christopher – a straight arrow/bumbling comic relief team in the obvious mold of Holmes and Watson – to investigate, and they attack the facts with clear, scientific eyes, refusing to believe that anything supernatural could possibly be afoot. Before long they’ve ruled out large humans and escaped monkeys and landed on several suspects within the mansion – Oliver’s sister (the sole heir after him), the family doctor (conducting suspicious midnight experiments), and even, to staple down the murder-mystery vibe, the butler. As the sleuths are going about sleuthing in their best CSI manner, a story is building up around them with totems most un-lycanthropic. In fact, as I was watching, I burned with the need to alert you to its story similarity to the Sherlock masterpiece The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) – until my thunder was stolen by horror maven Tom Weaver in one of his two (2) brimming commentaries on the Kino Lorber disc. It seems there’s nothing new to be said under the sun, nor the full moon.But perhaps I’ve just been conditioned to expect that which was codified as “werewolf lore” by Universal’s The Wolf Man, which came out in the year prior and is likely the biggest influence on its existence at all: there we have full moons, silver bullets, and a protagonist braving the now-customary forlorn existential crisis, all the trappings that would resound across the next 75 years of wereflicks; here we certainly have the proper mood, but populated by a jumpy cast of suspects from a Murder She Wrote. To be fair, Universal had been steeped in these sorts of movies since Dracula and Frankenstein and their oft-egregiously remixed permutations during the decade before, and practically had a patent on the formula, while 20th Century Fox was just dipping its toe in the brackish water with this one, so couldn’t be expected to pull it off so assuredly. Yet for me, despite the handsome Blu-ray presentation, it still boils down to an unfairly imbalanced death-match comparison, The Undying Monster vs The Wolf Man – both viable entertainments, one maybe even preferable by certain homely metrics, but the other’s just sexier as an idea, shot through, so to speak, with darker Freudian implications and the fun to be had therewith. It’s telling that the studio didn’t make significant inroads in the genre for decades, having effectively shot itself in the paw with a less-shiny silver bullet of its own making.
The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality, and are included only to represent the film itself.