Recently remade (under the slightly respelled The Wolfman) as a (just okay) big budget horror/action adventure movie starring Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, the 1941 Universal Studios film The Wolf Man (find it here) stands as a much more moving and tragic tale in comparison. The plight of poor, hapless Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr., in his most famous role), cursed with the ability to turn into a werewolf every full moon and endangering those around him, still packs a wallop after almost seventy years! (Check out the original trailer for the movie here.)
The plot: After the death of his brother, Larry Talbot returns to his family's estate somewhere in England (film historian/author Tom Weaver says on the DVD audio commentary that the locale in the script was Wales), reconciles with his slightly distant father Sir John (Claude Rains) and begins pursuing local antique shop clerk Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), only to run afoul of gypsy fotune teller Bela (Bela Lugosi in a brief but effective extended cameo). Bitten by Bela while he was a wolf, Larry tries to convince people of his awful situation, only to be met with suspicion and ridcule. Then the full moon returns...
A solid script by screenwriter/science fiction author Curt Siodmak (Donovan's Brain) and powerful performances by the skilled cast (with okay supporting turns by Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles and Warren William, and a great one by Maria Ouspenskaya as Bela's all-knowing mother, Maleva) overcome average direction by George Waggner, whose idea of setting the mood is cranking up the fog machine. The film's undercurrent of impending horror and tragedy is effectively conveyed by the script and acting; you can't help but feel sorry for Larry as he tries and fails to get anybody (aside from Maleva) to help him. Moreover, thanks to the cast, you also feel sorry for the other characters, who refuse to consider the obvious. In the end, Larry's plight affects not only him, but by the movie's downbeat finale, everybody else.
Much has been written over the decades about the classic "Wolf Man" make-up (devised by Chaney and Universal's Jack Pierce), and I can't add anything to that documentation. (Although I do wonder why Larry, as the Wolf Man, always wears the same clothes, even though he's in different clothing before and after his tranformations.)* It's still an amazingly effective, ferocious-looking piece of work. Chaney himself does a great job of acting, in and out of the wolf make-up, showing the torment and anguish Larry goes through in the film.
Universal's two-disc Legacy Collection DVD set of The Wolf Man is a great package. Disc One features the original film, digitally restored, and it's 1943 sequel Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (a guilty pleasure of yours truly), plus the aforementioned audio commentary by Tom Weaver (who has a LOT of cool facts about the making of the film), while Disc Two has the 1935 film Werewolf of London (okay, despite a plot turn concerning the title creature's appearance that's telegraphed way in advance), with Henry Hull and Warner Oland, and 1946's She-Wolf of London, with June Lockhart, that's a horror movie for people who don't like horror movies. Trailers and a entertaining documentary, "Monster by Moonlight" (wait'll you hear what writer Siodmak intended the Wolf Man character to be a metaphor of), round out the package.
*(Another quibble: When Bela the gypsy turns into a werewolf, he's an actual wolf, running around on all fours. Yet when Larry turns into a wolf, he's a human-shaped biped..)