Horror Is Universal: “She-Wolf of London” (1946)

I really, really didn’t want to watch this movie. I put it off as long as I could. Because people had warned me about this movie. They told me that it sucked, that it was the worst movie in the big 30-film Universal Horror collection I own, that I would never want to watch it again afterwards.

And were they right? Well, I wouldn’t call it the worst film in the collection. The Mummy’s Tomb still exists, after all. But two out of three isn’t bad. I may not have hated She-Wolf of London with a fiery passion, but don’t take that as a seal of approval. This film is still a miserable mess, and not even in a fascinating way.

The Plot: In late Victorian/early Edwardian London, the beautiful, wealthy and emotionally fragile Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) lives with her housekeeper/surrogate aunt Martha (Sara Haden) and Martha’s daughter Carol (Jan Wiley). Phyllis is engaged to a lawyer named Barry Lanfield (Don Porter), but her happiness is shattered when a series of bizarre murders begin to plague the park near her family’s ancestral home. All the victims appear to have been killed by some kind of dog, and London is soon buzzing with rumors of a werewolf on the loose. Meanwhile, Phyllis shuts herself away in her room, refusing all visitors and eventually breaking off her engagement with Barry. Her reason? She believes that she is the one responsible for the murders and that her family’s curse of lycanthropy has finally come to claim her. Barry, suspecting that all is not as it seems in the Allenby household, turns detective and sets out to find the true cause of the murders. Will he be able to clear his fiancee’s name? Or is Phyllis really the “wolf-woman” after all?

The first clue of what we’re in for when we start this movie is the opening credits, namely the fact that there are almost no familiar faces in the cast or crew at this point. No Siodmak, no Carradine, not even Erle Kenton. The director was Jean Yarbrough, who had found success directing films for comedy teams like Abbot & Costello — not the last time we’ll be hearing those names — and the Bowery Boys. George Bricker, who had written other low-budget horror films, including House of Dracula, did the screenplay. June Lockhart would later become famous for her starring roles in the classic TV shows Lost In Space and Lassie, but she she was still just doing minor film roles at this point in her career. She’s also still alive and still working at age 96, with her most recent IMDB credit being a voice cameo in the final season of Netflix’s Lost In Space reboot. Pretty cool! Don Porter was a prolific stage and film actor, while Sara Haden was best known for playing Mickey Rooney’s spinster aunt in the popular Andy Hardy film series from MGM. Her presence here must have looked like typecasting to audiences in 1946, and they would have been right…at first.

The problem with discussing a film like She-Wolf of London is that you need to start at the ending and work your way backwards from there. The ending, and how the rest of the film fails to properly support it, proves to be the only part of the film that’s interesting to talk about. So needless to say, we’re jumping right into spoilers.

She-Wolf of London falls into a subgenre that most horror fans, myself included, really do not like. Let’s call it the “fake supernatural” subgenre. This is when a story reveals that the supposedly fantastical elements of its plot were actually a hoax being carried out by an ordinary antagonist, usually for the purpose of defrauding the protagonist somehow. Stealing the lead’s inheritance is a popular motive: the antagonist is often in a position where they would be in control of the protagonist’s money should they become mentally unfit to manage it themselves. Though ostensibly a work of horror at first, these plots are more accurately categorized as domestic thrillers. Specifically, they owe a lot to the 1938 play Gas Light, about a Victorian woman whose husband tries to drive her to insanity in order to steal from her (and yes, that is where the modern-day term “gaslighting” comes from). Another example would be The Hands of Orlac, which we discussed back in our look at German Expressionism.

To give a quick run-down of the “twist,” there is no werewolf in She-Wolf of London. The villain of the piece is Phyllis’s “aunt” Martha, who has committed all the murders in the story. Martha knows that she and her daughter will be left homeless if Phyllis gets married, so in order to prevent that, she faked the werewolf attacks and encouraged Phyllis’s paranoia about the Allenby curse, drugging her each night to leave gaps in her memory. Her ultimate plan is to murder Phyllis and make it look like a suicide, clearing the way for her own daughter to marry Lanfield (after murdering her daughter’s boyfriend, of course). The whole thing gets uncovered by a maid at the last second, and Martha is dispatched by a quick tumble down some stairs. Happy ending!

My first instinct is to compare this to The Hands of Orlac, since that’s the other cinematic example we’ve seen of this type of plot. In a way, it’s slightly better than Orlac because the fatal twist doesn’t come roaring up out of nowhere. But it’s also a lot worse than Orlac as well. For one thing, Orlac was actually a decent film up until the reveals started. But more importantly, She-Wolf of London does absolutely nothing to try and hide its big twist.

When you first meet Martha, she might as well be wearing a giant sign that says VILLAIN around her neck. She steals Carol’s mail to prevent her from sending a message to the boy she likes, then she sits Carol down to explain that neither of them are actually related to Phyllis. Martha herself is just the bitter ex of Phyllis’s late father. After the death of her own husband, she found work as the Allenbys’ housekeeper and then just…never left after Phyllis’s parents mysteriously died, instead choosing to live in the house and pass herself off as Phyllis’s aunt. So right off the bat, we are given an extremely clear motive for why Martha would want to keep Phyllis under her control. Is it any surprise when weird things start happening to Phyllis and Martha isn’t fazed by them?

Another big tell in the first section of the movie is that we never actually see a werewolf. Any werewolf. Not even Phyllis imagining herself as a werewolf, which could have been something of a red herring. The only glimpse we get of the alleged monster is a few shots of a veiled woman in white creeping around lunging at people, her face always obscured. Why is this a dead giveaway? Because Universal likes to show off its monsters. Think back to when the studio executives altered Curt Siodmak’s original concept for The Wolf Man because they assumed audiences would want to actually see the werewolf instead of leaving its existence ambiguous. These are not the kinds of movies which will hint that a monster might be present: they love spectacle and makeup wizardry. If the monster is there, you’re gonna see the damn monster. So when you don’t see the monster in She-Wolf, it’s the movie telling you that there is no monster to show.

This absence, I think, becomes a big mistake on the film’s part when we get to the ending. See, the reveal of Martha as the villain actually raises more questions than it answers. We never get a good look at how she’s murdering all these people, but the descriptions of the corpses are pretty ghastly: there are mentions of people having their throats bitten and being torn apart. Martha does possess a pair of vicious dogs that she could use to fake the wolf attacks if she wanted, but we never see her use them for that purpose. She always leaves them behind when she sneaks off into the park. So I’m pretty sure that the conclusion the movie wants us to draw is that Martha’s just mauling all these people to death with her bare hands and her teeth. On one level, it is intensely disturbing to imagine a human having the ability and desire to do that. But on another level, it becomes absurd when you think about it for a few seconds. The ending might have been salvaged a bit if we got a twist where it turned out Martha was a real werewolf the whole time: her being able to do all these murders would have made more sense. But alas, we presumably had no budget for werewolf makeup, so we need to make do with what we have.

Another problem is that the movie tries to be a mystery, but it fails to show the actual investigative process. Oh, sure, we get a few scenes of Barry snooping around the mansion and the park, but the main characters seem to uncover most of their information offscreen. This is especially blatant when it comes to one missing scene towards the end. Phyllis takes all the information/evidence she’s gathered about the Allenby curse — things we never saw her collecting, by the way — and goes to share them with Carol. We don’t see the women’s subsequent discussion. We only get the scene afterward where Carol confronts Martha, reveals that she knows someone is gaslighting Phyllis and that she’s off to get the police. It really is that simple. I say that if you’re not going to give us a proper werewolf movie, at least make an effort to give us a mystery movie. Show us the characters working together and uncovering secrets! It would help to give them all a bit of depth, because God knows they could use some!

I wish I could say that the rest of She-Wolf of London is as interesting to talk about as its ending, but it’s not. The film isn’t completely devoid of creativity: you do get some nice off-kilter camera angles, as well as a neat little camera effect to show how Phyllis’s POV changes when she gets drugged. But for every somewhat good choice the film makes, it also makes a bad one. Take, for example, the scene early on where Phyllis wakes up with blood on her hands. We don’t get an insert shot of her hands to actually see the blood! The dialogue is atrocious and boring from beginning to end, and the acting is just as bad. None of the characters actually have any real depth: Phyllis is hysterical, Carol is ditzy, and Lanfield is the hero who needs to save both of them. The closest we get to having someone interesting around is Martha, who seems to have some kind of Gothic horror obsessiveness going on, but this is never properly explored. Just like most of the film. It feels like something made from an incomplete first draft, a story with large chunks simply missing. The result is a movie that’s not quite unwatchable, per se, but trying to watch it is one hell of a chore.

She-Wolf of London is an exercise in how not to pull off a supernatural hoax. The film’s twist that it’s barely horror at all puts it at a disadvantage to begin with, but it ends up being more of a let-down than it was necessarily fated to be. Instead of trying to craft a compelling mystery, the script eschews any mystery at all by leaving obvious markers as to what’s really happening and who the culprit is. Little thought or creativity is put into the script, giving the actors nothing to work with, and their performances suffer as a result. What we ultimately end up with is an hour-long diversion designed to do nothing other than kill time and attract audiences via false advertising. It’s a badly told story with too many pieces missing, and there’s nothing you can do to prop up or obscure a flaw as fundamental as that. This one is a hard skip. Talking about it for even this long feels like giving it more attention than it truly deserves.

Final Rating

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

At the end of my House of Dracula review, I mentioned that the end of an era was approaching for Universal and the studio’s horror films in particular. Shortly after She-Wolf of London premiered in April 1946, that end came. The studio recorded a profit of only $4.6 million in that year. That July, the studio underwent a big merger with three other entities: producer Kenneth Young, stakeholder Arthur J. Rank and independent company International Pictures. It was the biggest restructuring of the studio since the Laemmles were forced out in 1936. Universal-International, as it was now known, dropped most of its contracted actors and decided to pivot away from low-budget fare, including the horror films. But just like last time, Universal Horror wouldn’t stay sidelined for long. And in this case, the new merger would pave the way for the Classic Era’s final great burst of imaginative filmmaking.

UP NEXT: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

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