Horror Is Universal: “Werewolf of London” (1935)

Let’s start by establishing one thing right off the bat: no, this is not The Wolf Man. That comes later. And it’s definitely not that other werewolf movie with “London” in the title. That comes way later and would also probably be five minutes long by Hays Code standards. If it somehow didn’t make the entire Hays office spontaneously combust.

But I think it will be important to keep those other movies in mind as we discuss today’s movie, and we ought to keep today’s movie in mind when we discuss those movies later on. Because Werewolf of London is the granddaddy of them both, the milk and eggs that will someday make the delicious cakes. Released less than a month after Bride of Frankenstein, it was the first major werewolf film made in Hollywood. That alone should make it an important milestone in the history of horror cinema — the operative word being “should.” But I’m willing to bet that you haven’t heard of this movie unless you’ve really gone digging into Universal’s horror backlog. It’s not that difficult to find, but it doesn’t enjoy the same level of recognition as its contemporaries. Why is that, you may ask? What complicated theory about this am I going to weave for you today?

Here’s my theory: we don’t remember it because it kind of sucks.

The Plot: Deep in the mountains of Tibet, world-renowned botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is searching for a rare flower called the mariphasa, which blooms only under moonlight. Glendon finds the specimen but is attacked by a strange creature just as he does so, getting scratched on his arm. Back in England, Glendon struggles to make the flower bloom under artificial moonlight. More importantly, his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) is growing distant from him as she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart Paul Ames (Lester Matthews). As the full moon approaches, Glendon is visited by the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), a Tibetan botanist who brings a grim warning: there are two werewolves loose in London, who will seek out humans to kill when they transform. Glendon dismisses Yogami’s ideas as mere spooky tales — until he finds out the hard way that one of the werewolves is him. The mariphasa buds can prevent a werewolf’s transformation, but only temporarily. Glendon finds himself in a race against time to use the flower to save himself, but an unseen rival seems to be one step ahead of him as the two buds that do react to the faux moonlight are stolen from Glendon’s laboratory. What other secrets is Yogami hiding? Can Glendon harness the mariphasa’s power in time, and can he protect Lisa from his own emerging killer instincts? After all, the werewolf is driven to kill that which it loves most…

In accordance with my HIU formula, I want to start out with some digging into the origins of this movie and its behind-the-scenes history. But unlike the previous movies, there doesn’t seem to be much of a story behind this one. It might have been inspired by the success of 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I can’t find any confirmation on that. It’s not impossible, though, and as I’ll show you later, these werewolves do have more in common with Hyde than with their cinematic descendants.

We don’t have much of a dramatis personae here either, since most of the cast and crew didn’t do much else of note. The director, Stuart Walker, had previously done the 1934 version of Great Expectations, and earlier in 1935 he had done The Mystery of Edwin Drood, another Universal film that occasionally gets lumped in with the Classic Monsters canon. The studio was clearly hoping for another breakout horror star with Henry Hull, but it didn’t work out — he did act in a lot of Westerns later in life, though, so that’s kind of cool. The biggest name in the cast at the time was probably Warner Oland, who by 1935 had starred in two successful film series. Oland was a Swedish actor who made a name for himself playing Asian (mainly Chinese) characters in Hollywood. His most famous roles were mad scientist Dr. Fu Manchu, a classic “yellow peril” character, and Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan, who he played in sixteen films. The Chan series was quite popular, to the point of being the main reason why the Fox Film Corporation didn’t go under during the Great Depression. Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan were pretty much the two farthest points on the spectrum of how Hollywood depicted Asian characters. So where does Dr. Yogami in Werewolf of London fall? I would say close to the middle, but not quite, as we’ll see.

This movie looks and feels a lot more different than previous Universal Horror movies. While most of those films have a rural and/or timeless element to them, Werewolf of London is very urban and modern. Outside of the prologue in Tibet and a brief sojourn to a country village, the movie spends all his time in the city: by day it mingles with the parties and outings of the upper class, and by night it stalks the lower-class victims of the werewolves. There’s also a scientific focus through Dr. Glendon’s botany work: we see his friends and family marveling at his exhibition of rare plants, and a lot of the film takes place in his greenhouse/laboratory that is filled with unusual inventions and gadgets. The collision of science and myth is an idea that keeps popping up throughout the film. Glendon, being a man of science, obviously dismisses the werewolf stories as fable. But those fables have a basis in science, as he finds out, and in a few cases, the science is what gives power to the myth. This is really well illustrated in the first sort-of transformation sequence: I say “sort-of” because it’s not a full transformation. One of the machines in Glendon’s lab is a lamp that gives off artificial moonlight, which he’s been using to try and get the mariphasa flowers to bloom. Eventually one of the flowers does respond to the lamp’s light, but that’s not the only response it triggers: when Glendon sticks his hand under the light, his hand starts to grow fur. It’s a small moment, but it’s a creative idea with effective, unsettling execution. And that’s more than I can say for the rest of the film, unfortunately.

Do you want to want to know what the biggest strike against this movie is? It’s not poorly made or malicious racist — it’s boring. Boring as all get out, on nearly every conceivable front. While the previous Universal Horror movies have all had a distinct, recognizable flair to them — a unique fingerprint, if you will — Werewolf of London lacks the power to truly distinguish itself from the crowd. I think the best way to successfully explain this is to break down the movie one element at a time, looking at each individual thing it tries to be and how it succeeds or fails (usually fails) at being that thing.

First up, the drama. This movie really, really wants to have these serious dramatic/romantic elements. There are a couple of reasons why this stumbles, the paint-by-numbers script and the flat characters being chief among them. The actors are not to blame here at all, I think. They’re doing their best with what they’re given. No, for me, it all comes down to the presence of that most beloved and obnoxious romance trope: the love triangle.

Let’s talk about something I like to call the backup love interest. It goes right in hand with the love triangle, especially with movies of this era and genre. When you have a horror movie like this one, where the protagonist is the monster, you have to kill them at the end. Because it’s tragic, and because the Hays Code says you have to punish the bad guy onscreen. Usually the protagonist will have a love interest who tries and fails to save them, to make said protagonist more sympathetic and to up the tragedy. It’s all very delicious and heartrending. But what do you do with the love interest once the lead is dead? You can’t just leave them to be single: they have to be paired off with someone by the end of the movie, especially if they’re a woman. This part is a cultural thing, not something mandated by the Code. It makes the downer ending a little more bittersweet, and it’s just the acceptable thing to do rather than having the leading lady go off by herself.

Enter the backup love interest! This is a character who’s usually the friend of either the protagonist or the love interest who also has romantic designs on the love interest. Sometimes that desire is explicit, but not always. Either the backup is directly competing with the hero for the affections of the love interest, or they carry a torch for the love interest despite knowing that Love Interest has already chosen Hero. Regardless, the purpose of Backup is just to hang around for the whole movie so they can show up at the end to be there for Love Interest when Hero inevitably surrenders to the dark forces tormenting them and kicks the bucket.

Now, this character/storyline is not always as insipid as I’m making it sound. In fact, when executed well by the right storyteller, it can be done incredibly well. The 1942 horror classic Cat People, for example, features an excellent example of this storyline in action. Other horror films set up this storyline but then add a twist to it and take it in a new direction. In The Invisible Man, for example, Dr. Kemp is introduced trying to woo Griffin’s fiancee Flora, leading us to assume that he’ll be the guy Flora ends up with when Griffin dies. But then the movie turns that on its head by focusing instead on the direct conflict between Griffin and Kemp, leading to the sequence where Griffin brutally murders Kemp as the latter tries to flee London undetected. The effect of this already-shocking sequence is enhanced by how the film has played with our expectations up to that point.

But Werewolf of London is not a film prone to playing with your expectations. It sets up and executes this concept as straight as it possibly can, and it doesn’t even execute it that well. First off, there’s very little chemistry between Glendon and his wife. They’re supposed to be going through a rough patch in their marriage when the story begins, but we don’t get much to convince us that there was ever much there to begin with. Glendon doesn’t seem to have paid attention to Lisa in a while, and most of her dialogue to him is just variations on “Oh, I do wish you would stop playing with those silly old plants of yours!”

And then Paul Ames shows up, and he’s like…ridiculously perfect. He’s an explorer, he’s a pilot, he has his own flying school back in America, all that nonsense. And he’s Lisa’s childhood friend/ex-boyfriend, meaning that he knows her better than Glendon ever could. The minute he shows up in the film, he and Lisa glob on to each other and stay that way. They’re together for nearly all of their scenes, talking about how much fun they’re having and how much they like each other and how Paul wishes Lisa had married him instead. Glendon becomes understandably miffed about all this, but Lisa just brushes off his concerns and goes back to planning late-night rides and drives with Paul. She might not actually be cheating on her husband, but to an observer who didn’t know the context, it would probably look like she was.

You would expect this plot to become entangled with the werewolf plot somehow, like it does in the aforementioned Cat People. You would expect something like werewolf!Glendon trying to stalk and kill Paul out of jealousy, or even attacking Lisa because he suspects her of infidelity. And while the film does try to imply a sort of resentment towards Lisa and Paul on Glendon’s part, it never really becomes part of his character. He doesn’t attack people who have wronged him directly, he just attacks the most convenient target. Because of that, the Lisa/Paul plotline is just left hanging on the movie like a vestigial limb, serving no purpose other than to give Lisa a backup husband at the end. You could write this subplot out of the script and not lose much, which is pretty much the worst thing you can say about a subplot in anything.

So, the movie fails on the romance/drama angle. It also manages to fail on the horror angle. Despite being the progenitor of a subgenre that has spawned multiple horror classics, Werewolf of London really isn’t that scary. I think a big part of that is how the movie handles its violence, or lack thereof.

You might recall me talking about how the Hays office censored a lot of the violent content in Bride of Frankenstein. Despite these cuts, Bride never feels like a movie confined by the limits of what it can put onscreen. There are still several deaths and dead bodies, and the film’s creative staging of its violence is able to make things feel more shocking or creepy than they actually are. Werewolf of London, on the other hand, absolutely feels confined by the limited amount of violence it can show. This is a movie in which a werewolf goes around hunting people Jack The Ripper-style, and I think you only see him kill somebody once. The rest of the time it’s just him chasing a random woman offscreen and then a cut to the next morning where someone is reading a paper about the horrible murder that happened. The most graphic it ever gets is at the beginning when Glendon gets attacked by the werewolf in Tibet.

Now, obviously Universal couldn’t have given this the full goreshow treatment, and even if they could have, I don’t think it would have improved the movie at all. The point I’m trying to get at is that if you’re portraying violence like a werewolf attack in a situation where you’re limited in what you can actually show, it’s gonna be difficult unless you have a creative way of working around or within the censorship limits. And the filmmakers behind this movie don’t have that, because very little about this movie can be called creative. I really don’t mean to keep bringing up Cat People, but that movie does a lot of cool stuff with silhouettes and scene design to convey the horror of characters being stalked and mauled: you think you see more than you actually do. This movie gives us nothing like that, because we see nothing to begin with.

Even the film’s questionable attitude towards Tibet and its Tibetan characters fails to be an interesting topic of conversation. It’s not the kind of blatant, bizarre racism that makes you want to analyze just what the hell is going on — in other words, it’s not The Mummy. In fact, a lot of the bad implications here seem to result not from malice, but simply from the incompetence of the script.

Not all of it is unintentional. There’s the opening scene in Tibet, for example, where Glendon and his assistant are all like “By Jove, what a strange foreign country full of things the white man was not meant to know!” There’s also the fact that the villagers in this scene speak Cantonese rather than some form of Tibetan and that Glendon’s response to them is straight-up gibberish. But that’s only in the first few minutes, so it’s not much to sink your teeth into. What I’m more interested in is the film’s complex, flawed portrayal of Dr. Yogami.

If you read my summary and watched that trailer and you still didn’t get the twist, I’m gonna have to spoil it for you: Yogami is the other werewolf, and the one who infected Glendon. This is foreshadowed with all the subtlety of a burning Ferris Wheel rolling through a ticker tape parade. Because of that, it’s a no-brainer that the film will reveal Yogami as the ultimate villain so Glendon can properly dispose of him, and so it comes to pass. But to me, there are two problems with how this is done. One is how the film handles said reveal, and the other is how Yogami being the villain is at odds with all his characterization up to that point.

I said earlier that the character of Yogami sits somewhere between the “yellow peril” archetype and the sympathetic hero. While he doesn’t adhere to one or the other, he definitely swings a bit closer to the latter. Throughout most of the film, he’s portrayed in a fairly respectful and sympathetic light. He’s intelligent, proactive and has the noble goal of stopping the werewolf attacks. More than that, he seems genuinely remorseful when he’s unable to stop someone from dying. The film would have you believe that he only followed Glendon to London so he could get at the mariphasa, but it feels more like he’s there because he takes responsibility for cursing Glendon and wants to help him.

Where the film stumbles with Yogami is when he starts doing stuff to save his own skin, like stealing two of the mariphasa buds from Glendon’s lab. The story doesn’t give this act the attention it deserves. We know he does this so he can temporarily stop his own transformations, but we don’t get into the thought process behind it. Did he intend to share the buds with Glendon but end up driven to this point by desperation and fear? Or was he always planning to steal them for himself? We never get a clear answer because after the reveal, he only gets in one or two lines before Glendon kills him. Yogami’s unceremonious death squanders any good will the movie had built up with him beforehand, turning an interesting character into another one-dimensional bad guy. It’s a real shame how his storyline turns out.

There is, in my opinion, exactly one aspect of this movie which doesn’t fall flat on its face. It turns out this movie is actually not that bad as a comedy — hardly the thing you want to say about a horror film, but it’s true. There’s a weird yet truly inspired motif running through this movie, and that motif is “drunken old women who really, really want to hook up with the werewolves.” I’m not joking. First up is Lisa’s spinster aunt Ettie, the first comic relief character we meet here. And I won’t lie, she’s kind of amazing. She cracks jokes, she drinks like there’s no tomorrow, she revels in her “wicked worldliness” and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about it. And she’s immediately smitten with Yogami, who actually seems a little bit interested? Honestly, if the movie was focused on those two, that would be really fun. Everything that Aunt Ettie does is very quirky and watchable.

But then we get to Mrs. Whack and Mrs. Moncaster, and that’s when the real madness kicks in. These two are some elderly women that Glendon encounters when he tries fleeing to a country village to stay away from Lisa on the night of the full moon, and he ends up renting a room from one of them. By this point in the movie he’s in full angsty werewolf mode, spouting off gloomy observations about how he’s “more single than I ever realized it was possible for a human being to be.” The two women, being drunk as skunks, start gleefully hitting on him without realizing that something is very off about this guy. But the most incredible moment, the single most baffling and wonderful line in this whole movie, happens during this exchange.

Glendon: What would you say if I were to tell you it was possible…for a man to turn into a werewolf?

Moncaster: I’d say…I was Little Red Riding Hood!

That is a direct quote from this movie. I pulled up the clip so I could type it out exactly. Did this movie somehow predict the “sexy werewolf” subculture approximately 60-70 years before it was a thing? I don’t care what the real answer is, I’m saying yes.

But here’s the best part of all this: in a proper horror film, none of it would be funny. I would be saying the same things I said about the goofy old lady schtick in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, that it clashes with the intended tone and takes the viewer out of the creepy atmosphere. But with the rest of the movie being so bland, the comedy here ends up adding some much-needed flavor to the proceedings. Yes, it takes the attention away from the main characters and main plot, and that’s why it’s great.

The last few major things I want to discuss here all relate to the werewolves and the werewolf lore, since understanding those will be handy in our later discussions. Sort of. Very few of the werewolf ideas from this movie have actually been reused, either by Universal or by other works of werewolf fiction. This is because, again, the movie stumbles a lot here.

First, there’s the general appearance of the werewolf. We’ve got Jack Pierce doing makeup design again, as usual, and his original plan for Glendon’s werewolf form closely resembled the design that we’ll see in The Wolf Man. The final design, on the other hand, takes a more minimalist approach. It focuses on the eyebrows and widow’s peak and makes minor alterations to the ears and teeth, but it leaves most of the face relatively untouched. The end result is that it’s a lot more human than animal. Apparently this was done at the insistence of Henry Hull, who argued that the other characters should be able to recognize Glendon as the werewolf in order for the story to work. What gets my attention is the close resemblance between the werewolf makeup here and the makeup used in the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The similarities between these werewolves and Hyde also extend to their behaviors. Glendon may not speak when he’s a werewolf, but the rest of his mannerisms are still quite human in nature. When it’s time to go hunting, for example, he stops to grab his hat and cape before leaving. Can’t have a werewolf going on the prowl without his hat and cape, obviously. The way he stalks and chases down his victims is much more reminiscent of a human serial killer than an animal.

And then there’s the best/weirdest part, which is the all-important werewolf rules. This film eschews any actual werewolf folklore and decides to just make up its own stuff instead. This, as you have probably predicted by now, goes horribly and fascinatingly wrong.

According to Yogami, the werewolf is a Satanic creature combining the worst elements of man and wolf. This might be why he’s such a wimp. We’ve established that he’s less of an animalistic predator and more of a weird stalker dude. We also find out that a normal human can get into fisticuffs with one of them and come out fine, and that a single shot from an ordinary bullet is enough to kill them. What I’m trying to say is, any other werewolf in cinema history could kick Glendon’s ass. The werewolf in Werewolf could kick his ass. The Were-Rabbit from Wallace & Gromit could kick his ass. My cat could kick his ass.

Second thing, the kill quota. I’m not going to call out how the full moon lasts for four nights in this movie, because we need some way to up the dramatic tension. What I am going to call out is the rule that the werewolf must kill at least one human on every night of the full moon or else they are “permanently afflicted,” which I assume means stuck in wolf form. Just the way it’s phrased makes it seem less like crazed bloodlust and more like some kind of weird work obligation. It’s not an inherently bad rule, just a wholly unnecessary one. You turn into a giant dog when there’s a full moon out, your life already sucks. Adding this is unnecessarily cruel as well as redundant.

Then there’s everything about the mariphasa flower, and I do mean everything. First, the movie keeps insisting that it’s not a cure, it’s an antidote. That’s the movie’s phrasing, not mine. I know my synonyms. I guess the difference is supposed to be that the flower only prevents you from transforming for one night. But only if you wait for it to bloom and then squeeze the juice into this part of your body using this thorn on this part of the flower and ignore the urge to just grab a silver bullet already because nobody has time for this shit.

If I had to choose one word to describe the werewolf lore in this movie, it would be “overcomplicated.” Instead of building up the world of the film, they just bog down the plot with obstacles that don’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t make for good horror, and it doesn’t make for good storytelling either.

I don’t want to leave us on a wholly downbeat note, so I’ll end by mentioning some of the good things that this film does. Because I mentioned the makeup, we should also talk about some of the other special effects. At this point, we’re a little less than fifty years away from the technology that will make the most famous werewolf transformations possible. So we’ve got to make do with simple camera tricks for now, but those camera tricks are still quite clever. For some of the close-up shots, such as when fur is growing on Glendon’s hand, the effect is achieved by fading through still photos of the makeup at different stages of application. Simple and effective. Equally simple and effective is just cutting away from Henry Hull pre-makeup and then cutting to a shot of him post-makeup. The most complicated effect is probably the scene where Glendon transforms as he’s walking across his yard. This appears to have been done by filming several shots of Hull walking — again, while he’s in different stages of makeup — and then stitching them together, hiding the transitions with passing scenery imposed over the foreground. But a big part of making the transformations effective isn’t the technology, but the physical performance of the actor. It’s remarkable how much Hull is able to convey visually just by shifting his jaw or flexing his fingers in a certain way.

And the other really good thing about this movie is something very small, something you probably won’t even notice the first time around — the werewolf howl. You hear it a few times in the second half of the film. It’s a harsh, grating, creepy noise that sounds a bit more like an agonized scream, and it was created by a wonderfully simple method: combining Henry Hull’s voice with the sound of a gray wolf howling. That method was used in this movie and, believe it or not, in no other werewolf movie since.

That piece of trivia surprised me, too. If any bit of lore or filmmaking technique from this movie deserved to be carried forward, it’s that. Because combining the howl of a wolf with the scream of the person trapped inside it? Well, isn’t that the essence of what the werewolf is all about?

Werewolf of London is the first Universal Horror film that’s genuinely disappointing. Lacking a memorable character of its own, it gets dragged down further by the dull script and the absence of any real scares. There’s some decent comedy, but it feels funnier than it actually is due to the rest of the film being so lifeless. The werewolf lore is needlessly complicated and dense, and the werewolves themselves aren’t that scary or impressive most of the time. But in contrast to these shortcomings, there are some genuinely good qualities to the film. The cast is giving it their all, particularly Henry Hull and Warner Oland, and it’s fun to see how the filmmakers pulled off the transformation scenes with the rudimentary technology available. Unless you’re some kind of horror film completionist, you can skip this one without feeling too guilty. Most of the ideas it presents were done much better in other, not only in subsequent Universal films but in unrelated films like Cat People and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This may be the granddaddy of all Hollywood werewolves, but the true trailblazing was ultimately done by its descendants.

Final Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

We won’t be seeing another werewolf film for a few years. However, we certainly aren’t done with monsters that come out at night.

Up Next: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

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