Universal Studios got into the horror movie business in 1931 with the release of Dracula, which was hugely successful. Many classic monster movies followed, including the definitive werewolf movie, The Wolf Man staring Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot. Though it is the most famous, The Wolf Man was not Universal’s first night of howling at the moon. That honor goes to a forgotten werewolf classic released in 1935, Werewolf of London.
Henry Hull plays botanist Wilfred Glendon. As the film opens, he is in Tibet searching for the mysterious Mariphasa, a plant who’s flower only blooms in the moonlight. Despite being warned by a missionary that no one ever returns from the valley he’s headed to, Glendon journeys on and finds the prize he seeks. However, he also finds a strange hairy creature who attacks Glendon, leaving a bite on arm. Since he is a scientist, you’d expect him to be at least curious about what this strange creature was, but he seems completely unfazed by the incident. He’s much more concerned with getting his samples back to England.
When Glendon returns to his London home, he becomes absolutely obsessed with figuring out the secrets of the Mariphasa. His laboratory has so much equipment that glows and zaps, Dr. Frankenstein himself would be envious, yet he is having little success. Plus, his wife is growing more and more frustrated at having a husband who never wants to socialize with her swanky friends. Soon Glendon is paid a visit by another botanist from Tibet, Dr. Yogami, played by Warner Oland (a Swedish actor known for playing Asians, including Charlie Chan). Yogami claims to have “met” Dr. Glendon while in Tibet and is anxious to find out if he was successful in obtaining a sample of the Mariphasa. It seems that the plant is the only known antidote for Lycanthropy…or Werewolfism. Strangely, all this talk of werewolves does not seem to make Glendon consider that he may have been bitten by one while in Tibet.
Soon, Glendon is able to get the plant to bloom by mimicking moonlight with specials lamps, but he also finds that when he steps into the same light, his hands suddenly need a shave. When the moon comes out in full, the transformation is total…he becomes a werewolf. Soon, mysterious murders begin happening all over London. Meanwhile, Dr. Yogami has been taking clippings from the Mariphasa plant to curb his own Lycanthropy condition. Without an antidote of his own, Glendon needs to try and hide himself away to avoid harming the woman he loves.
Many of the films I’ve covered here at Forgotten Films have been stinkers…and I love bad movies. However, Werewolf of London is a great movie! At the time of it’s release, it was a flop and it would be 6 more years before Lon Chaney Jr. made the werewolf an iconic movie monster…but this movie is every bit as good as The Wolf Man. It has that classic Universal horror feel, but not as dark and gothic a setting as the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein. Henry Hull is also the classic sort of Universal mad scientist…arrogant and self-absorbed. Many of the supporting performances are great as well, especially some of the characters who contribute comic relief. Actress Spring Byington has a fun role as the absent-minded Aunt Ettie, but the two Monty Pythonesque old women who run a boarding house practically steal the show.
The makeup used in Werewolf of London is very different from the classic design used in The Wolf Man, but is still striking in it’s own right. Much more of Hull’s actual face is visible here, whereas Chaney’s features almost completely disappeared when he wolfed out some years later. It helps leave a hint of humanity in the character even when in full werewolf mode. The makeup does seem to progress somewhat as well, changing slightly with each transformation.
Lon Chaney Jr’s version will always be the ultimate werewolf, but Werewolf of London is truly a forgotten gem that deserves a place alongside the great Universal monster movies.