Nobody, but NOBODY, can play a tortured lycanthrope quite like Lon Chaney Jr. When I first saw him in The Wolf Man (1941) way back in the late 60s, staying up late to watch the all those classic Universal horror movies, I instantly became a lifelong fan. I mean, his performance in that movie as the cursed Lawrence Talbot – as it was in all the sequels he starred in – was just so awesome, so memorable, and so touching. He hated, just HATED, being a werewolf, which is exactly how it should be if we want to feel any real pity for the doomed lycanthrope. He was both scary and tragic, and that was a formula that worked unfailingly.
Honestly, there are so many wonderful memories that Lon Chaney Jr. left us with throughout the five times he played Lawrence Talbot. In every single Wolf Man movie in which he appeared, he never failed to deliver. It didn’t matter just how on earth he managed to return from the dead yet again, after being shot or battered with a silver instrument; the main thing was that our favourite lycanthrope was back to entertain and enthrall us again in his impeccably heart-rending performance as the tragic Lawrence Talbot.
Although the general aspect of the moonlight-marauding creature did have a few minor flaws – e.g. the way Talbot’s pocketed shirt always seem to be an enduring feature of his appearance, even to the laughable extent of the way he seemed to have donned it to go out on his first prowl in the The Wolf Man (1941) after clearly transforming clad only in a vest and pants – these were far outweighed by the sheer brilliance and sympathy-inducing depth that Chaney imbued the Talbot character with.
When he said he wanted to be free from his hellish curse, you really felt for him. When he begged to die, you really felt sorry for him. In short, the way he really HATED being a werewolf was the essential magic that made the Talbot character such an unforgettable character in the Universal pantheon of monster movies.
Together with Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man completed the Universal monster trilogy perfectly. In fact, these three classic monsters formed the benchmark by which all other subsequent monster movies would be judged. Give me these three monsters any day over more contemporary fiends such as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.
The supporting characters in the Wolf Man movies also served well to enhance the story of Lawrence Talbot. I especially loved the old gypsy woman, Maleva, played so brilliantly by Maria Ouspenskaya. And Evelyn Ankers supplied a great love interest for Talbot in the first Wolf Man movie. And we mustn’t forget, of course, Claude Raines who played Larry’s father with equal brilliance. The sheer look of horror on his face when he realises he has just battered his son to death with the silver-headed cane is a classic, enduring image of the Universal Wolf Man movies.
Such was the magic of Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man that I just never ever get tired of revisiting these movies, as is the case with both the Frankenstein and Dracula movies. Even though I know every single thing that is going to happen in them, remember virtually every line of dialogue, I still get a great buzz from them. It’s a big, big nostalgia thing for me. For these were the movies that first got me into horror, and I love them to bits.
The wonderful thing about the Lawrence Talbot saga was that, after years and years of searching everywhere for a cure for his horrible curse, he finally got it in House of Dracula (1945). He was cured by the kindly Dr Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), and, boy, did we cheer! As much as I enjoyed watching poor Larry endure yet more moonlight torture with each Universal sequel, I still harboured a kind of longing that one day his story would have a happy ending, without him having to die in order to terminate the Wolf Man’s slaughter spree. Well, we had to wait a few years for it, but when it came, it was a nice ending to the Wolf Man saga.
However, despite Edelmann’s cure, in 1948 Talbot was back as the Wolf Man yet again in . . . yes, you’ve guessed it: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein!
This was the movie in which all the Universal monsters had their last foray. Talbot was inexplicably cursed again, as he ranted urgently down the phone to Lou Costello’s Wilbur character that the bodies of both the Frankenstein Monster and Count Dracula were bring shipped to a horror museum. Odd now that he seemed more concerned about this than customarily finding a cure for his recurred lycanthropy, but hey ho.
To be honest, I prefer to regard Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as more of a comedic homage to all the Universal monsters rather than a straight sequel to House of Dracula, which is as it should be, after all the euphoria and satisfaction of Talbot being cured in the preceding movie. I know a lot of fans share this sentiment too. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is my all time favourite comedy horror, which, just like my No. 2 favourite American Werewolf In London, I have watched many times, and never tire of. But in regard to Talbot’s part in the story, as I have said, I look upon this as nothing more than just a simple fun reprisal, and a superb one it was too.
So there you have it. My own little tribute to the most awesome and captivating Wolf Man that has ever graced the silver screen: the late, great Lon Chaney Jr. Sleep well, sir. Your wonderful legacy will never ever be forgotten. There will never ever be another Wolf Man as fantastic as you.
If you enjoyed reading this article and are always on the lookout for a good new werewolf book, then you might like to check out my own little contribution to the terrifying world of the lycanthrope.
WEREWOLF NIGHTMARE is my own homage to the Amicus horror anthology movies I have always loved. The story is a portmanteau novella featuring four werewolf tales, with a framing story about a horror magazine editor who visits the secluded country home of an elderly writer to read four werewolf stories he has written with a view to publication in the magazine. But as the night unfolds, it soon becomes horrifyingly apparent that perhaps there is more truth than fiction in the disturbing lycanthropic tales that the old man has written . . .
You can buy WEREWOLF NIGHTMARE now by clicking on the book’s text link in this sentence or by clicking on the image link below.