WERWOLF OF LONDON is what you’d get if Universal tried to make a Val Lewton film. If they pulled that off they could have used their studio’s talent to make something moodier than the okay-but-dated sequels they churned out, but it didn’t work. It’s clunky and dull, without any of the verve of the best moments in the Frankenstein movies, but the effects and photography show attempts at creating a shadowy, stylish world. It’s too bad its reputation is so much greater than the actual film, but there’s enough here to warrant a viewing.
Henry Hull is fine as the set-upon doctor who loves his wife but is so involved in his work she starts gallivanting around with an old boyfriend. The only problem is that instead of building conflict, this angle made me wonder, “Why’d she end up with this stiff when she’s got this pilot chasing her? He seems like fun!” We’re told early on that the werewolf will kill the person he most loves, but Hull menaces a woman he doesn’t much care for, then kills a total stranger. It makes one suspect Warner Orland might be taking the piss just to scare Hull into giving him his precious flowers.
Jack Pierce’s makeup effects are the highlight of the production, and the reason the movie’s remembered today. Instead of the furry approach used on Lon Chaney, Jr., Pierce chose a relatively restrained approach. With his widow’s peak and jutting jaw, Hull looks closer to Mr. Hyde than to Chaney, Jr. In the film’s great moment, Hull walks in front of a back-projection screen behind some pillars which mask the dissolve. The natural haziness of the process work adds to the dreamy quality of the transition, and the pillars add suspense, as we know the next change is going to be revealed once he clears each pillar. I know this idea doesn’t sit well with many modern viewers, but I prefer this approach to the (incredible) Rick Baker transformation in American Werewolf in London with all the lights on. It’s the difference between a great effects showcase and a moody scene that gets the job done so we can get on with the story. Too bad they didn’t have much of a story to get on with.
Warner Orland plays another doctor who knows what’s what in “werwolfery” but much more could be made of how and why he came to be the Bill Nye of lycanthropy. As in many horror movies there’s a suggestive subtext about this older dude trying to draw our skinny main character away from the good path and the wife. GET IT?! But in the end Orland’s character is just another sketchily-written evil guy who wants to hurt. Maybe because HE’s hurting, sob… Per the indispensable reference book UNIVERSAL HORRORS, which you should buy off Amazon right now if you like these movies, much dialogue was lopped off before filming, some weak, but some that fleshed out Orland’s character. Crucially, the film lost some lines from the climax that would define the antagonism between the doctors as that of a couple of junkies who need a plant to get along. As it is Orland comes off like he’s egging on Hull to get what they both need. I’m not going to say Hull’s got a werewolf on his back, so forget it.
With good makeup and good photography that never once convinces us we’re in London, characters who don’t seem to connect and too much time spent on a couple of comic-relief old bats, at a slim 70 minutes WoL is worth losing an hour or so for the makeup. I think most people know this from stills of Hull, so it’s interesting to watch the on-camera transformation, something which doesn’t occur in THE WOLFMAN until the sequels. It’s undeniably weak compared to the other Universal horror movie that came out the same year: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. But no one recorded a hit single about that.