I first saw The Wolf Man as a kid, watching it on one of Denver’s TV channels, probably presented as a “Fright Night” special. The story is basic, about a man newly returned to his British home, at odds with his father, the lord of the manor. Lon Chaney, Jr., son of silent movie acting sensation, Lon Chaney, plays the son, Larry Talbot, as a sad outsider who soon falls victim to a nasty malady in the county: a werewolf bites him and thereafter he is forced to terrorize the area each month in search of blood. He searches for information–from the doctor, from the villagers, including the old Romani woman who finally tells him the truth. He is now a werewolf and there is no cure but death. His personal horror at what he’s become is what I best recalled from my early viewing of the film. He fights to avoid hurting anyone, particularly the young woman who’s interested in him. He can’t connect with his father, leaving him alone with his terrible secret. It was that existential loneliness I remembered, heightened by its being filmed in black and white. Though the special effects were low-tech, the movie continues to have an emotional impact on me to this day.
In the eighties, another werewolf movie was hot and happening: An American Werewolf in London. Two American students are backpacking across England, stopping at a Yorkshire pub for a pint. When they ask about the pentagram on the pub’s wall, the pub customers become hostile and the two leave. Warned to stay on the path across the moors, they are attacked by what appears to be a wild dog, and one of the boys is killed, the other mauled before the creature is shot. Of course, the wounded man is now a werewolf and will transform at the next full moon. Despite warnings from the shade of his dead friend, he ignores the danger. And when the full moon rises, he ends up killing six people.
Directed by John Landis, the film’s colors were garish and its special effects brilliant, especially the makeup by Kenny Baker, particularly in the transformation of the bitten man from human to werewolf. That sequence was almost nauseating in showing the biological details and the pain such a change would require. That was the most horrific thing about the story for me, the gag-inducing reaction to the sheer physicality of the process.
So, emotional horror as opposed to physical horror…There’s a place for both, no doubt, but I was struck, as I compared the two films, at how much more affected I was by the old black and white movie over the shiny, bloody one. I’m sure it says something about my esthetic state, but I’m damned if I know what. Both films are worth watching, especially during the month of Halloween.
Enter the Halloween drawing by commenting on the post. The prize: a signed copy of the Wisdom Court books, Edge of the Shadow; A Signal Shown; All In Bad Time.