By Orrin Grey
Werewolf of London (1935). Director: Stuart Walker. Cast: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson.
Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where, every other week, we’ll be unearthing a classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s installment is Universal’s first foray into the werewolf film, Werewolf of London, which predates its more-famous cousin The Wolf Man by some six years. The version I watched is from the Wolf Man Legacy Collection.
Strangely enough, Werewolf of London is pulpier and more comic book-y than any of the Universal Wolf Man movies that would come after it. It opens with a couple of adventure botanists braving a demon-haunted Tibetan valley to recover a rare, moon-blooming flower. During the expedition, our protagonist is attacked by a werewolf, with predictable results. From there, we go on to mad science labs and giant carnivorous plants, and that’s before the main plot even really gets going.
Werewolf of London even has two werewolves, though you only ever really see one of them in werewolf-form, except at the very beginning, and there are never both werewolves on screen at the same time. They do have a fight to the death at the end, though, anticlimactically, one of them remains untransformed throughout.
Since the cinematic werewolf had not been established yet, the titular Werewolf of London differs somewhat from those who would come later. There’s no mention of silver bullets, for instance, and their place in the werewolf mythology is largely occupied by the mysterious plant, the blossoms of which can stave off attacks of werewolfery for short periods.
Its widow’s-peaked werewolf, which is “neither man nor wolf but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both,” may not be as technically impressive a bit of makeup as Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man (Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce created both), but it’s every bit as iconic, for my money, creating a more demonic-looking figure that fits nicely with the above description.
And, of course, the final scene sets the stage for pretty much every other werewolf movie to follow it, forever.
Most of the people involved in Werewolf of London weren’t really horror-movie people (Stuart Walker stopped directing after 1935 and died in 1941, and Warner Oland was best known for Charlie Chan movies, though Valerie Hobson was in Bride of Frankenstein that same year, once again playing the wife neglected in favour of mad science and monsterism), and it shows in the final product, which tends to kind of forget the horror elements in favour of all the other stuff: relationship drama, society humour, crazy drunken old comedy-relief ladies, etc. That’s probably why Werewolf of London isn’t remembered better in comparison to its later relations, but if you don’t mind that kind of stuff, it’s really pretty great and it makes a wonderful companion to our next film, which is going to be John Brahm’s 1942 answer to The Wolf Man, The Undying Monster.
You can find Werewolf of London on Amazon.com