The origin story of The Wolf Man
The Wolf Man (1941) is one of the original Universal monster classics that paints Lycanthropy as a trick of the mind. Larry Talbot returns to his ancestral home and uncovers the legend of the werewolf, which he discovers is not a trick after all.
As he visits her antique store, Gwen explains to Larry that the werewolf comes out at certain times of the year. Larry’s father thinks the legend covers for dual personality disorder and local superstition. Gwen doesn’t really believe in the legend either, but says that the mark of the werewolf is the pentagram, which shows the impact of religion on the script and the story. Most of the characters in the movie know a poem, which says that a man may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms. The full moon is only mentioned explicitly in the first sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).
By the time Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man rolls around, Larry Talbot is actively seeking a cure to his wolf transformation problem. He changes into a wolf under a full moon, which is an addition to the monster’s lore. Larry is shot with a silver bullet in House of Frankenstein (1944) and apparently dies. He turns up in House of Dracula (1945) seeking a cure once again, having not been killed after all. No explanation for this is given. He dies again in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) by falling off a cliff, in his last Universal appearance. We don’t see him die, but he disappears in the water.
The werewolf poem from The Wolf Man appears in subsequent sequels and in Van Helsing (2004). It was created by the original Wolf Man screen writer and is the best link to the werewolf legend. It contains all the ideas present in the werewolf lore, including the moon, wolfsbane, and others. Larry Talbot appears as the Wolf Man in the 2010 remake, played by Benicio del Toro, and he dies at the end. Silver seems to be the one great weakness of the werewolf, and it’s used throughout the movies.
The one good thing about the 1941 original is the theme of magic versus science. Many of the scientists and experts in the film try to rationalize supposed appearances of a werewolf. It is interesting that the werewolf who bites Larry is a gypsy man, a non-Christian named Bela, originally played by Bela Lugosi. Where Bela’s lycantrophy originated from is never revealed, but the pagan origins of gypsies are alluded to in the film, but never explored. The gypsies are essentially the modern-day witches in the story. As agents of magic, they are the only ones who have any helpful advice. The scientists are of no help at all, despite their theorizing.
Lon Cheney Jr gives a great performance in the 1941 original. Larry seems troubled and no one is able to help him. His facial expressions and his reactions are perfect. As a werewolf, he can predict his next victim by seeing the sign of the pentagram on their hand, which makes him even more nervous. His father encourages him not to run away and tries to hunt down the wolf to prove to his son that he is not a Wolf Man. Not by coincidence, he runs into the Wolf Man in the woods. He beats The Wolf Man with a silver cane and Larry dies, but Universal establishes a classic nonetheless.