Sunday, July 15, 2012

Of Wolf and God

This is, and remains primarily, a superhero comics related blog, but that's not to say I can't write about other topics here. Especially if they relate to the things that interest me about about superheroes, in comics or otherwise. With that in mind this post has nothing to do with X-People, Bat people or Spider-people.It has to do with a man, a Wolf Man.

I watched The Wolf Man on Netflix instant watch the other morning after a nearly sleepless night. Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation, but it struck me that, for its time, The Wolf Man is a pretty good movie. At just 70 minutes, it doesn't have a chance to overstay its welcome. During that time it packs in several heavy themes and a fairly well constructed plot with admirable economy. It also serves to demonstrate the inherent connection between the movie monster, especially the iconic monsters of the Universal stable, and the superhero.

Like many films and books featuring monsters of legend the "rules" governing The Wolf Man's werewolves are somewhat different than the rules most people are probably familiar with. There are no silver bullets in the film, though they are mentioned as a method of killing a werewolf along with various other silver weapons.

Such as this wolf headed cane
The moon, full or otherwise, is never seen once during the film. The full moon doesn't seem to trigger the transformation from man to wolf; being nighttime during the right time of year seems to be enough to do the trick. The basic rules for this version of lycanthropy are laid in a haunting little poem that everybody in the movie, except poor Larry Talbot, seems to know.

As is traditional since this film, werewolfism is transmitted by bite. The afflicted also sees the mark of the five pointed star on whomever his next victim is to be. The film has almost a Hitchcockian tone at times, going back and forth between domestic family drama and supernatural melodrama. Unlike previous Universal monster franchises, Dracula and Frankenstein, The Wolf Man is an original story .

The Wolf Man carries some fairly heavy themes. From the first scene between Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr., and his father Sir John Talbot, played by Claude Rains, to the last frame of the mopvie their is a heavy sense of parental guilt. As the film opens, it reveals to us that Larry is a scion of a noble Welsh family recalled to the family's ancestral home upon his older brother's death in a hunting accident. Sir John expresses regret over Larry's prodigal years in America. In the early scenes between the two it is evident, though underplayed, that the two begin to rewarm to each other. The other figure of parental guilt is Maleva, played by Maria Ouspenskaya, whose son Bela, played by Bela Lugosi, is afflicted by the werewolf curse which he spreads to Larry via bite. (Maleva and Bela are stereotypical Hollywood gypsies, but are perhaps played fairly for the era as neither are particularly sinister or untrustworthy characters.) Maleva carries the weight of caring for her son's affliction which induces him to occasionally murder people through no fault of his own. It is interesting that there isn't really an outright villain in the picture other than abstract fate, more about that in a bit, and the curse of the werewolf. The Gypsies arrive at just about at the same time as Larry and seem to act as an externalization of his status as an outsider. In a way he and Bela are brothers. This is driven home through Maleva's vigil over Larry as his curse takes home, the same care she attempted to give her biological son until Larry beat him to death with silver headed cane. Just before the film's climax Sir John and Maleva meet in the foggy metaphor laden woods and have a brief conversation about their respective inabilities to help their troubled children.

There is also a strange feeling of predestination about the whole movie. Larry arrives at the manor house and talks with his father about his brother's death in a hunting accident. At the climax of the film the Wolf Man is killed and reverts to his natural form as Larry Talbot, something that, in the context of the scene, could almost be described as a hunting accident. Everywhere Larry goes the symbol of the wolf is waiting for him before he gets there, even before he's bitten. While flirting with a young woman in the village, he buys the wolf headed cane. The werewolves see the sign of the five pointed star in the palm of their next victims. It's like Larry's death cycles back to the start of the film, like nothing that happened could be prevented, because it had already happened in the last iteration of this cycle. Assisting this is the unreal dreamlike nature of the woods where most of the action takes place. This dreamlike quality and Larry's inability to fully remember his actions as the wolf man, make his savage outings seem almost like a case of sleepwalking gone horribly wrong.

There is also the sexual element. Larry find himself attracted to Gwen, the aforementioned shop girl. He first sees her by accident while testing his father's newly installed telescope. This seemingly random event again brings with it the feeling of predestination. It is while going out with her and her friend that he is bitten by Bela. It turns out she has a fiance and the whole thing become's a bit of a scandal, what with Gwen's friend getting her throat torn out by Bela. Angry villagers arrive at her shop and blame the death on Gwen for going out with strange men. As the movie continues and Larry is pulled deeper into his curse, Gwen seems to grow more attracted to him until the end when he transforms and attacks her in the woods.

"What does all this have to do with the superhero?", you may be asking by now. Well, in my view, the monsters of filmland are the shadow brothers to the heroes of the funny book scene. Both the monster and the superhero take these big sometimes abstract concepts and embody them in the form of human sized beings that you can construct a narrative about. The Wolf Man can be a way of talking about the often conjoined drives towards sexuality and violence, and  the tragedy of a soul divided against itself. Likewise, say, Batman can embody the unlimited potential of humanity in the material realms. This is particularly evident in supervillains who are often inspired by the themes and tropes of the cinematic monster Even the psycho killer monsters of the 70s and 80s, Jason, Freddy and the like, embody various abstract concepts and fears given human form. Both the heroes and the monsters were born of the Great Depression, though at different ends.  Both are the gods of old brought forward to the present in their most unvarnished forms. instead of the natural forces that the likes of Zeus and Odin represented these gods, these new gods, more often represent various internal and existential conditions, the more exalted, in the case of most of the superheroes, and the more inimical in the case of the monsters and supervillains. 

Next: X-Men (the rest)

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