Larry is at a loss to understand what happened, but Sir John offers a rational explanation: Jenny was indeed attacked by a wolf. Larry and Bela ran to her aid at the same time, and in the confusion Larry killed Bela, thinking that he was attacking the wolf. But Larry is unconvinced: how could anyone mistake a man for a wolf, even in the dark? How could wounds on his chest be his imagination? And why wasn’t Bela wearing his shoes?
No one, that is, except the Gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), whose own son Bela suffered from the same curse….
Comments: If you imagine human history as an endless game of craps played in a smoky back room in a Jersey City gambling club (as I do), the Roma people of eastern Europe would’ve been the ones rolling snake eyes for close to a thousand years. They have endured slavery, diaspora, pogroms, institutionalized racism, generations of grinding poverty and attempted genocide at the hands of the Nazis. Here in the U.S. they are known as Gypsies, a misnomer based on an old belief that they originated in Egypt (in fact, their ancestors came from the Indian subcontinent). Even today, the Roma aren’t popular among the ethnic majorities of Romania and the other countries they settled in, most often perceived as vagrants and troublemakers.
Just as their luck has been consistent, their depiction in the movies has been surprisingly consistent as well. Since the early days of Hollywood they’ve been portrayed as operating outside the normal boundaries of civilized society. The enclaves they inhabit serve to safeguard forbidden knowledge, and the Gypsies themselves, though suspicious of outsiders, can serve as guides to both the spiritual and the sensual worlds, which in horror movies tend to be inextricably linked.*
In the case of The Wolf Man, the forbidden knowledge the Gypsies protect is lycanthropy. Werewolves, like the Gypsies themselves, are both spiritual and sensual in nature. Werewolf stories are all about the id running amok, and while Margaret Atwood has pointed out that this is an adolescent fantasy, it is also the sort of adult nightmare in which horror films regularly traffic: specifically, the nightmare of losing your marbles and destroying everything that’s precious to you. In light of this, the casting of Lon Chaney, Jr. was inspired, because he easily conveys not only Larry Talbot’s genial and happy-go-lucky nature, but also his capacity for self-destructive rage. In the scene where he confronts Jenny’s mother and the other town biddies who are accusing Gwen Conliffe of improper behavior, we see clearly that he’s capable of violence. When he towers over them** — angrily brandishing the cane that they all know killed Bela — there is murder in his eye and the townsfolk see it, nearly falling over one another trying to get out of the shop.
That Chaney conveys this rage so effortlessly might speak less to his acting chops than to his real-world experience. By all accounts he was a mean as well as a habitual drunk, and he all to easily captures the brutish mien to which his unfortunate co-stars were all too often exposed.
Talbot is the active agent throughout the film, trying to extricate himself from the trap in which he’s found himself. But in many ways he isn’t the center of gravity in this movie. That honor goes to Maria Ouspenskaya’s Maleva. She isn’t surprised that Talbot’s angst and self-pity come to nothing. To her there is no sense of urgency, because Talbot is doomed, the way her son Bela was doomed. But because her brand of fatalism is alien to the can-do American audience for which it was intended, she can only occasionally appear on the sidelines as the movie goes on, stepping forward only at the end to deliver the same eulogy that she’s offered for the luckless Bela:
Ouspenskaya provides just the right tone here, ending the movie with the appropriate measure of sorrow and dignity. Alas, she wouldn’t be as well-used in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man; in that opus poor Maleva has to undertake a week-long road trip with Larry Talbot, and get grilled by the flatfoots of the Vasaria Police Department.
Comments: Evelyn Ankers appeared in a total of eight films from the Shock! and Son of Shock! packages, and tonight we’re treated to two of them. The Wolf Man, of course, is one of her best (and best-known) performances. The Mad Ghoul isn’t, but it’s hardly her fault.
What’s most often mentioned about this little under-achiever of a film is the fact that it manages to tell an extremely ghoulish story (a zombie slave digging up freshly-buried corpses, cutting out their hearts, and eating them in order to return to normal) without showing a single drop of blood. In fact the method of obtaining and ultimately using the “heart matter” retrieved from the graveyard is handled so obliquely that we’re allowed to draw our own conclusions of exactly what happens. It seems fairly clear that by “heart matter” we’re talking about the heart itself, or a portion thereof, but how the heart matter restores the afflicted human to normal isn’t specified. But it seems likely that the heart is, in some manner, ingested by the zombie.
Since all the gore is off-camera and all the talk about the gore is handled in euphemisms, the chore of scaring the pants off the audience falls to the moody lighting of cinematographer Milton Krasner and the makeup effects of Jack Pierce. Pierce’s salad days at the studio were behind him now, and it wouldn’t be long before Universal would unceremoniously dump him. But he does well on what’s clearly a limited budget here, giving David Bruce the appearance of sunken eyes and dessicated, parchment-like skin, somewhat reminiscent of Boris Karloff’s Ardeth Bey in The Mummy.
Speaking of members of the Bey family, let’s not forget Turhan Bey as that old smoothie Eric Iverson; in a very few scenes, Bey manages to come across as a decent and likable fellow, though I still maintain that Isabel — who asks Dr. Morris to tell David she’s breaking it off with him, even after she’s become engaged to Eric — is the biggest coward to ever scamper across the screen in a Universal horror film.
I can’t blame Evelyn Ankers for that, though; she’s only responsible for how Isabel is played. I’m trying to remember her performance, but I can’t.
Sorry. It’s gone.
*This idea persists even today, perhaps because everything most screenwriters know about Gypsies comes from old movies. 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows offers a stereotypical view of Gypsies as the anti-Amish: they are an insular society of fun-loving but superstitious fortune-tellers, sneak-thieves and sensualists.
**The six-foot-two actor is shot from below here, to make him appear more imposing.