Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Wolf Man (1941) - George Waggner


As a remake of the classic horror movie The Wolf Man is due next year, with an all star cast of Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Toro, Hugo Weaving and Emily Blunt, I thought it would be an appropriate time to dig up one of my older drafts of a review on the 1941 version featuring Lon Chaney, Jr and Bela Lugosi and put it up on Macabresque.

The film is about Larry Talbot, who returns to his homeland, Wales from the US upon learning about his brother's death. One night, as he is walking with a woman called Jenny Williams around the gypsy camp near the town, he is attacked by the werewolf/gypsy Bela. Larry manages to kill him but is bitten during the process. Bela's mother Maleva tells him that he's marked (he has a pentagrad appearing in his hand) and that he will turn into a werewolf during certain times. The rhyme popularised by this movie goes:

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright.

Talbot then starts turning into werewolf and terrorising the townsfolk. He tells his father Sir John about his curse, but he doesn't believe him. Sir John, hunting down the "wolf", finally catches him and kills him, only to find out that it was actually his son Larry, when he turns back into his human form.

Gypsies were often represented as untrustworthy, uncanny (bearing an uncanny sexuality) and supernatural people in gothic literature and early horror cinema. Bram Stoker, for example, employs them as Dracula's faithful servants. In old horror movies, a gypsy is, by default, an old hag who looks at whatever tool available to see the future (tarot cards, crystal spheres, palms) and see ill omens.

This is far from the romantic image of gypsies as an irrational (by which I mean "not belonging to the rationality of the Enlightenment and current capitalistic world order") people who hail each and every minute of life (and death) with songs and dance in a joyful manner - an image brought to life by such directors as Emir Kusturica and Tony Gatlif and recently bands like Gogol Bordello.

The Wolf Man presents a mixture of both these images related to gypsies. This is a movie set in England and it bears elements from the gothic literature tradition. In that same spirit, gypsies are portrayed as a source of the supernatural and as an uncanny people, yet they are not agents of absolute evil. They are allowed to live their tragedies. When the gypsy Bela dies, the old gypsy woman Maleva and a priest have a conversation about how the funeral service should be. Maleva does not want a Christian service, which makes the priest angry. He says he knows what they do, they dance and sing around the dead. To this, Maleva replies, "Us gypsies bury our dead like this for a thousand years. I couldn't change this tradition even if I wanted to."

This in an interesting case of representing a minority, that has been subject to much discrimination until very recently, in a more humanistic light. One may wonder if it has anything to do with the screenwriter Curt Siodmak being a victim of the Nazi policies, and having to escape his homeland, Germany, and move to the US, and therefore understanding the plights of being a minority.

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