As werewolf movies go The Wolf Man is probably the best. It was written by Curt Siodmak and directed by George Waggner. The script, though it gets the job done, has altogether too many wolf and dog references in it for comfort, many in the first fifteen minutes. A horror movie should never at the outset tell you that it is a horror movie. The title and and cast often give this away anyway, I grant, not to mention lobby cards and reviews. But the idea is or should be to draw the viewer in slowly, enabling him to acclimatize himself to the people and atmosphere so that the horror can, as it were, creep up on him. For all its excellent qualities The Wolf Man does not do this. Otherwise it works fairly nicely.
A thoroughly Americanized Larry Talbot arrives at the estate of his British father, Sir John (A baronet? I wish they'd made this clear). Aside from the fact that he is three times larger than his father and altogether different in temperament (shy and fumbling as opposed to assertive and incisive), the two hit it off well enough. Larry has returned from the States due to the death of his brother, and Sir John clearly wants Larry to take his place (whatever it is) in the village. Larry spies on a young woman through a telescope (Sir John is an astronomer), and goes to her shop, where he buys a cane, with a wolf's head, and asks her for a date. She agrees, but when they meet later on she brings a friend, just in case Larry gets too, well, wolfish. It is autumn and the gypsies are in town. Larry his girl and her friend go to a fortune teller to get their palms read. The palm-reader sees death in the friend's hand and urges her to go. Later on, in the form of a wolf, he attacks and kills the girl, and is in turn killed by Larry with his cane; but Larry is bitten by the wolf, which guarantees that he will become one, too. In time Larry does indeed become a werewolf, but as with everything else in his life only goes half-way. While the animal that attacked him was a wolf, Larry becomes only partly wolf in appearance, though when the transformation occurs he is wholly wolf in spirit, yet walks on two human, albeit furry legs. He is more or less adopted by the dead Gypsy fortune teller's mother, who looks after him, and has a way of turning up in her wagon at appropriate moments. She also recites a poem about werewolfery (or lycanthropy if you will), which I shall not repeat here and which everyone in the village seems to know by heart. Sir John, being a man of science, does not believe that his son is a true werewolf but suffering from some form of mental illness. Yet when the moon rises Larry turns into a werewolf and goes on rampages.
The Wolf Man is quite well made on what appears to be, for its studio, a generous budget; fog swirls everywhere, and the landscape is dominated by gnarled, leafless trees. It's tone is evocative of the Sherlock Holmes films, though not of course the content. There are so many good and bad things in the picture they're difficult to enumerate, and are often jumbled together. Of the bad, the casting of Americans Evelyn Ankers and Ralph Bellamy as Brits. Neither give a bad performance, but they don't belong in this film. It's difficult enough to keep one's disbelief in suspension with Lon Chaney on hand, but the addition of these two is a bit too much. Claude Rains, as Sir John, is a great asset to the movie, giving it a touch class and gravitas. His occasionally supercilious manner is in keeping in with the part he plays; and though he doesn't look at all like Chaney's father, he acts it. Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi make marvelous gypsies, and they play their parts sincerely, with none of the hamming one might expect. Chaney's Larry Talbot became, after his Lennie in Of Mice and Men, his most famous role. He is sincere if somewhat phlegmatic in his 'normal' scenes, and early on, before the wolf-bite, lacks the joi de vivre he ought to have, as he is supposed to be a carefree young man. Chaney never seemed carefree. On the other hand his tragic, deeply lined face, sad eyes and prematurely middle-aged appearance suggests a troubled soul,--not an easy thing to fake--and in this regard he is magnificent in the part. His worry, over the prospect of another werewolf transformation, and the damage it will cause, appears genuine, and to a degree seems to come at times from outside the character he is playing, which as we know Chaney had serious personal problems, is a case of art imitating life, and the result is a kind of sad serendipity.