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The Werewolf of London (1935)
23rd May 08
World-renowned botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked by a strange beastie whilst on an expedition in Tibet but not before finding the reason for his travels, the mariphasa. The mariphasa is a rare orchid that blooms by moonlight and whose clippings are a temporary antidote for the symptoms of lycanthropy.
Back in London Glendon, increasingly obsessed by his find, begins to ignore his younger wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson). He foolishly encourages her to jolly herself up by enjoying the company of a former suitor and childhood friend Paul Ames (Lester Matthews), an idea she wholeheartedly embraces.
Glendon also finds himself pursued by Dr Yogami (Warner Oland), a man with a secret, who is keen to nab the plant clipping that the good doctor has been dedicating himself to. If that wasnít enough for his already full plate, Glendon also has the rather pesky matter of turning into a werewolf to cope with. No wonder heís not very happy.
A flop at its time of release director Stuart Walkerís The Werewolf of London was considered by critics of the time to bear too many resemblances in plot structure to Frederic Marchís Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Critics claimed that it didnít help that the lead character was wholly unsympathetic but then that was kind of the point. Hullís Glendon is meant to be a selfish bore, thatís why his wife starts engaging socially with a former flame rather than sit around and watch him poke around at his plants.
The movie is seeped in atmosphere, full of fog and shadows and grisly murders all off-camera. It delights in the smaller details such as a creepy man-eating flower which gobbles a frog. The scene at London Zoo with the wolves brought to mind John Landisí An American Werewolf in London (1981) and it would be interesting to know if the bearded director was deliberately referencing this in his comedy/horror masterpiece.
The Werewolf of London (a.k.a. Unholy Hour, the first werewolf talkie following 1913ís The Werewolf, also produced by Universal, doesnít lean towards the werewolf conventions that were probably yet to come into effect with 1941ís The Wolfman. So ok, we get dogs barking and the odd cat hissing at our good doctor as a foretelling of the changes he is about to experience, but thereís no talk of silver bullets and how often do you come across a werewolf movie where not only is there a rare plant that can cure the effects of lycanthropy and is also known enough to be documented in books.
Zeffie Tilbury and Ethel Griffies brighten up proceedings around the half-way mark with their banter and constant sparring as Mrs. Whack and Mrs. Moncaster, is a welcome relief from the unsympathetic lead and his young wife. The comedy duo of the old ladies is not the only source of humour. Spring Byington is also a pleasure to watch as the drunk and giggly Ettie Coombes.
There is good support too from Warner Orland as Dr. Yogami, better known as Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, who harbours a dark secret and is keen to get his hands on Glendonís buds. Indeed it's fair to say that aside from Hullís lead the supporting characters steal the movie with the other leads, Lester Matthews and Valerie Robson, (Robson also appeared in that yearís The Bride of Frankenstein), fairly much clogging up the screen with their wooden performances.
Growing up with werewolf transformations that saw the poor guy moan and scream and take/rip their own clothes off in the likes of Danteís The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, it came as a surprise to not only see Glendonís werewolf remain clothed but also don his hat and coat before venturing out into the London fog to sink his claws into some beauty.
Given the leaps and bounds seen since in terms of make-up effects and CGI there is some amusement to seeing how they go about changing Glendon into a furry fiend. The most effective scene here is when Glendon crosses from his house, across the courtyard, to his lab. As he passes another column his facial features and hands up the hairy factor, itís quaint but still effective.
The make-up devised for Hull to wear as the werewolf was devised by Jack P. Pierce was originally the same design that Lon Chaney Jnr went on to wear in The Wolf Man. Hull was not keen to wear the full make-up feeling it would impede his performance by inhibiting his facial expressions and thus taking from his performance.
Rumour has it that this was not the only reason for the less full-on make-up. Apparently Hull was not keen on the length of time it took to apply it so a less furry version was devised. There was also a rumour that Hull did not favour the role and would rather not had done it so perhaps this was another reason for his gripe with the time taken to do the make-up.
The Werewolf of London makes for an engrossing watch and stands heads and shoulders above the movie it is unfairly and quite wrongly considered a companion piece to, She-Wolf of London (1946). Unfortunately swamped by the success of Lon Chaney Jnrís turn in the The Wolfman, The Werewolf of London is deserving of being reassessed and seen for the mini-triumph it always was.