Sunday, 17 May 2020

Werewolf Of London

Mariphasas Set To Stun

Werewolf Of London
USA 1935 Directed by Stuart Walker
Universal  Blu Ray Zone B

Continuing my re-watch of classic Universal Monster movies for my blog, I finally catch up to another of my favourites, Werewolf Of London.

Six years before they hit on a werewolf franchise that was a success for them, with the Lon Chaney Jr picture The Wolfman (which I reviewed along with its remake here), Universal attempted to jump start a werewolf franchise with this wonderful gem, Werewolf Of London. Alas, it was nowhere near as successful as their previous five monster movies... Dracula (reviewed here), Frankenstein (reviewed here), The Mummy (reviewed here), The Invisible Man (reviewed here) and Bride Of Frankenstein (reviewed here). It is one of the ones which is well worth a watch, though... and there are a number of reasons for this.

Number one being that this, like The Wolfman which came after it, pretty much reinvented the modern concept of legends surrounding the werewolf and influenced all that follow in much the same way that Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead helped refashion the zombie movie years later. So things like the titular creature changing at moonlight, which is essential to the plot in this one as the main protagonist/antagonist, Dr. Wilfred Glendon as played by Henry Hull, is involved in experiments with creating artificial moonlight which, in turn, brings him into contact with the other lycanthrope, Dr. Yogami, at the opening of the movie.

Another thing this film sorts out for future generations is the idea that werewolvery can be passed through a bite, such as an infection may pass from person to person. Both these elements were, of course, retained for The Wolfman in 1941 although, curiously, there is no shot of the moon in The Wolfman at all. Also, presumably due to a mixture of limitations of the makeup and perhaps the end result not looking scary enough, this might well have been (according to the IMDB, so take this one with a pinch of salt) the first werewolf tale to depict a man/wolf hybrid creature rather than a straight transformation into a wolf (such as Dracula might utilise).

Six years later and The Wolfman would add elements such as the now cinematically forgotten, it seems, idea of a werewolf seeing a pentagram on the palm of the hand of the next person to be his or her victim. It also added the idea that silver in the form of a weapon such as bullets or, in The Wolfman, the silver head of a cane, can be used to kill a werewolf. This last is an element definitely not set in place by Universal here yet as the titular character has as much to fear from the common lead bullet as any other projectile or weapon in the film.

What Werewolf Of London does have in its freshly created set of rules, which certainly didn’t travel to later productions, was the idea that a rare flower that grows only in Tibet and which only blooms in the moonlight can, when an infected human pricks himself with a fresh thorn, fend off the transformation for one night when the moon is full.

This flower is called the Mariphasa Lupina Lumina and it’s the very reason why Dr. Glendon finds himself in Tibet in the first place... so he can get a sample to bring home with him and prove to himself (and the scientific community at some point in the future) that his new invention is working. And it’s in Tibet that the movie starts.

That is to say... it’s in Tibet where the opening of the movie is supposed to take place. Anybody who loves the old, classic Star Trek show or even the Bill And Ted movies will tell you, of course, that the Tibet depicted here looks remarkably like the Vasquez rocks, famed for their appearance in the Star Trek episode Arena. There’s a wonderful dialogue moment near the start when Glendon is warned by a Tibetan wise man thusly... “You are foolish... but without fools there would be no wisdom”. It almost sounds like something Charlie Chan might say, talking of which...

It’s here in ‘Tibet’ that Dr. Yogami, played by Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu luminary Warner Oland, bites Glendon and curses him with the same affliction as himself. Not speaking in aphorisms... werewolvery. An affliction which causes Yogami to follow Glendon back to London and steal his samples of the Mariphasa Lupina Lumina to stunt his own, hairy murder sprees. Now it’s down to Glendon to try and resist the pull of the moon and stop himself from murdering the one he loves most, which in this case takes the form of his very young wife played by Bride Of Frankenstein’s Valeria Hobson.

In the case of Hull, this was one of the world famous and much in demand stage actor’s big attempts to break into movies... alas, he never did get much of a hold with cinema audiences and, when this was shot, he was 45 years old. Valerie Hobson was only 19 years still and was already playing the wife of 35 year old Colin Clive the same year in Bride Of Frankenstein. In these days of Twitter that’s seen as a big age gap but in those days, when love conquered all, well... what’s a few years between lovers?

A couple of other things worth watching this for... besides the fact that it’s completely entertaining... would be the transition scenes, one of which is both an eye opener and a disappointment at the same time.

There’s a wonderful moment at the end of the Tibetan sequence, where Henry Hull has been fighting the Dr. Yogami incarnation of a werewolf and he’s beaten it off but he’s been bitten on the arm and, for a 1930s movie, there’s quite a lot of visible blood (when you’d expect to see none). As we see a close up of his bloodied arm reaching out for the flower he came for, we transition to the same arm, scarred but not bloody, reaching out for the same flower in his laboratory in London... which is nice stuff.

Now the other transition which I was primarily thinking of is the first time we see Hull transform into a wolfman. These sequences are not nearly done as well as the later ones in The Wolfman even but the first of these is interesting because it’s using what I can only refer to as a travelling matte. Remember, this is 1935 and it may be my own ignorance but I didn’t think they were as adept in those days as we are now at this kind of thing. This involves Hull walking along in mid shot from left to right with the camera moving along with him. However, he passes three columns in the foreground of the shot and, of course, each time he reappears from the right hand side of a column, he has fuller werewolf transformation makeup on his face, courtesy of Jack Pierce. Okay, so it’s clumsy in concept but the moving camera and everything else must surely have made it a stand out shot of it’s era, I suspect.

The other big pull for me in this movie, asides from the wonderful comic relief of the two old landladies in the local pub, Mrs. Moncaster (Zeffie Tilbury) and Mrs. Whack (Ethel Griffies), who each punch the other into unconsciousness when the mood takes them... is the soundtrack by Karl Hajos. It’s never been released commercially, more's the pity, but the whole score was pretty much recycled for the first of the three big budget Universal Flash Gordon serials the following year (with the second and third serials using a lot of the Bride Of Frankenstein score in their musical DNA). And it’s grand hearing anything with this music playing alongside the on screen action... this is just brilliant stuff.

And there you have it. A werewolf movie with a, it has to be said, fairly emotionless actor in the title role but which has a monster who actually welcomes death, wears a flat cap and apologises at the end. It’s not for everyone but Werewolf Of London is certainly my all time favourite werewolf movie and it’s always something I’d recommend to fellow cinema enthusiasts. An essential piece of classic monster cinema, despite the lack of extras on even the latest Blu Ray release.

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