Monsters! The Wolf Man

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Larry Talbot has come home to his ancestral manse in England after 18 years in the US. Like David Kessler in American Werewolf, much in England seems foreign, backward and mysterious to Talbot. When he finds himself turning into a werewolf, his only goal is to know: is this really happening to him or is it all in his mind? He doesn’t even get as far as wanting to find a cure for his affliction — he just wants to understand the stats

WHO IS THE MONSTER? Talbot goes on murderous rampages when he is transformed into the wolf-man, but in his daylight life he’s as gentle and guileless as Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Is he responsible for the murders he commits, or is the wolf-man some other personality altogether?

WHAT IS THE WARNING? The script clearly states that lycanthropy is a metaphor for the dual nature of all men, but a modern perspective suggests a more complex, nuanced message.

The Wolf Man packs four clearly-defined acts into 70 fleet minutes of narrative. In Act I, Talbot shows up at his dad’s 300-year-old house and makes himself at home — his look-alike brother has died in a hunting accident. He helps his dad install a powerful new telescope (Talbot is a craftsman, not an aristocrat like his father) and, no sooner is it installed but Talbot uses it to spy on an attractive woman in town. This is made light of in the movie, but Talbot’s sexual aggressiveness is as plain as the waist-high, seven-foot telescope he uses to find his mate.

(The telescope isn’t the only phallic object in Talbot’s life — his story is filled with an unending parade of sexual signifiers, including rifles, walking sticks and bear traps — not to mention every other man smoking a pipe.)

Talbot is a little spooked by the aged grandeur of his father’s mansion and flees it to pursue romance with — what else — a comely young antiques dealer (who he’s been spying on, in her bedroom, from across town, with his father’s telescope — something tells me that the father could have easily been the protagonist of The Wolf Man, a story about a man whose son dies, so he replaces the dead son with a new son, then uses that new son as a sexual tool and ends up in a heap of trouble because of it). The Old and The New are constantly butting heads in The Wolf Man — Talbot drives a fancy new car but it seems to be the only one in town, everyone else drives horse-drawn carts. The town is practically medieval, but everyone’s fashions are right up-to-date. Talbot is English by blood but thoroughly American in his manner, clearly uncomfortable wearing silk pajamas and posing bythe fireplace. I get the feeling Talbot is pursuing romance as a way to define himself in this new situation, to define himself as something other than his father’s son or his dead brother’s brother or the heir to the Talbot fortune.

But the more he pursues his romance, the more the past catches up to him. He takes Gwen, his antiques-dealer date, to a gypsy fortune-teller camped in the woods. Gypsies in The Wolf Man are repositories of ancient, unknowable wisdom and magic, and their effect on Talbot is profound. The fortune-teller transforms into a werewolf and kills Jenny, a friend of Gwen’s before Talbot tussles with the werewolf, gets bitten and beats it to death with his new silver-topped cane (the cane has werewolf symbols on its head, but again, I see a clear sexual metaphor: Gwen, the sex object, has given Talbot his stick, and Talbot has used it to kill a man-beast attacking another woman — the gypsy/werewolf-Jenny conflict is only a dark reflection of Talbot’s date with Gwen — that is, the werewolf is only doing to Jenny what Talbot wants to be doing to Gwen).

A pipe-smoking American detective, who hangs around the Talbot mansion for some reason, gets on the case of the murdered Jenny and the dead gypsy fortune-teller and the whole act is completed at 22:00. He seems pretty far out of his jurisdiction but the town, which employs a full-time grave-digger and supplies its society ladies with the latest in hats does not seem to have a working police force, so it makes perfect sense that a pipe-smoking American detective would take charge.

In Act II, Talbot awakens to find that his bite from the werewolf is healed and he feels anxious and disoriented. The ladies of the town treat both Gwen and Talbot as sexual deviants for going out in the woods to begin with. Talbot sneaks about town, spying on the dead gypsy’s funeral rites. A whole gypsy caravan comes to town for the fortune-teller’s funeral. A romantic rival for Gwen’s affections shows up with both a pipe and a rifle, two phallic objects with which to intimidate Talbot. Talbot, shamed, skulks off and meets the dead were-gypsy’s mother, who reveals the terrible secret of werewolfism to him. Talbot goes home and, in a state of self-hatred and dread, watches himself transform into a werewolf, heading out into the night to kill the gravedigger, unfortunately the one guy the town really needs this week.

(Transforming into a werewolf makes Talbot a murderous beast, but he still, apparently, finds time to change his shirt before he heads out on his rampage — he pointedly wears a white tank-top when he transforms, but is out in an all-black ensemble when he kills the gravedigger.)

Act III begins at 45:00. Talbot awakens and finds, to his horror, muddy wolf-prints on his floor. Pipe-Smoking Detective organizes a hunting party to pursue and trap the man who has killed the gravedigger. (Funny that when Talbot transforms he looks like a guy in wolf makeup but when the Gypsy fortune-teller transforms he looks just like a German Shepherd.)

Night comes and Talbot transforms again. He’s chased by hunters organized by Pipe-Smoking Detective and caught in a bear trap (that’ll teach him to seek identity through sexual conquest). The Old Gypsy Woman comes to his aid and recites a magic poem that restores his humanity. He escapes into the night.

Act IV begins at 1:00:00 on the dot. Talbot buttonholes his father and they discuss the possibility that lycanthropy is all in the mind. Talbot, a practical man, is terrified by the notion of psychology — if it’s a disease, he seems to feel, then it’s not his fault, but if it’s his mind then there is an evil that resides in him that cannot be cured. (In current understanding of psychological problems, it seems to me, this argument becomes splitting hairs — Talbot’s psychological problems, if they existed, would be treated as a disease in and of themselves, not a condition separate from disease, and certainly not as a metaphor for the duality of man). Talbot’s father then talks about two ways of looking at the world, either in black and white or in shades of gray. I could be wrong, but this seems to be another old-and-new conflict: the "old" Europe, he’s arguing, is superstitious and fearful, and needs the reassurance of easy answers, while the "new," post-Enlightenment Europe is filled with reasonable, educated men who see all sides of an issue. I thought the speech was out of place until I found out that the screenwriter, Curt Siodmak, was a Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany in 1933 — which accounts not only for the dim view of humanity as murderous beasts just waiting for an excuse to reveal themselves, but also the motif of a star appearing on someone who’s marked for death.

Talbot seeks refuge in the arms of Gwen, but then realizes that he is bound to murder her. His father binds him to a chair (another sexual signifier, the father binding his son to eliminate his power) to rid him of what he thinks is his mania, but Talbot gets loose at nightfall and heads out into the woods to kill again. He encounters Gwen but is unable to complete the act of ravishing her — his father appears and beats him to death with his own cane. The man who, mere minutes before, preached logic and enlightenment has now beaten his own aroused son to death with a phallic object in the middle of a dark wood of the id.


15 Responses to “Monsters! The Wolf Man”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Minor Note

    He doesn’t just have a rival chasing after Gwen. She’s engaged to the guy the whole time. And Larry knows it. But that still doesn’t stop him from pursuing her. And it doesn’t stop her from being drawn to him sexually.

  2. craigjclark says:

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen this. I clearly need to give it another look.

  3. laminator_x says:

    The beatdown with the cane at the end stands out in my mind after the many years since I watched this. There’s something about beating your own son to death with such deliberate and purposeful brutality.

  4. johnnycrulez says:

    You should watch the Blob. It’s on Criterion, which shows that it is an important and good monster movie. Also, it lived under my bed for years.

  5. While you’re on the monster movie kick, and looking for ones that tell the story in new ways, I cannot recommend The Host highly enough.

    Although I must say, if you watch it see if you can spot the scene where my friends and I invariably say “OMGWTFBBQ!”….

  6. sheherazahde says:

    “heading out into the night to kill the gravedigger, unfortunately the one guy the town really needs this week.”

    I love your witty comments.

  7. laminator_x says:

    So, have you seen the new one yet?