Death Rides the Moonbeams

Werewolf-of-London-1935

The werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.

-The Werewolf of London (1935)

The first mainstream Hollywood werewolf film stalked into theatres in 1935, courtesy of Universal Studios. It was another six years before they tried again. Directed by Stuart Walker, and starring Henry Hull, The Werewolf of London is, like the eponymous lycanthrope, neither one thing, nor another. Where it’s successor, The Wolf Man (1941), is a fairy tale writ large, The Werewolf of London is as much a Wodehouse farce as it is a tale of lycanthropic madness.

Maybe that’s why no one really remembers Wilfred Glendon, and Larry Talbot gets all the copy. There’s something of the whipped dog about Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man – all instinct and fury. A murderous engine, much like Frankenstein’s creation. But Glendon’s monster is a different sort of beast altogether. He’s more calculating; almost slyly malign. A man’s cunning, married to a wolf’s instinct.

From his first scene, Glendon is damned by his own hubris. Where Talbot is sympathetic, Glendon is a son of a bitch. And yet…there’s something charming about such a charmless man. His transformation is more subtle than his predecessor’s agonised contortions – Glendon’s wolf isn’t buried very deeply at all. A bit of moonlight, and the beast slips right out. Glendon fights, he struggles, but even the juice of the marifasa lupina is but a stopgap measure. Blood will tell, and Glendon’s blood is as black as night.

There’s something hideously gleeful about the beast’s savagery – a calculating pleasure, quite at odds with the unfocused fury of the Wolf Man. Glendon is a man of icy calm, of almost inhuman restraint (save, notably, when in pursuit of a goal – there, the beast is all too visible in his eyes). But his alter-ego is Id run wild. Glendon is a man of sharp angles and precision, but his other self is almost…fluid. A shadow-self, a night-sending, loosed to visit terror and pain on those unlucky enough to cross his path.

Unlike Talbot, who has little memory of his other self, Glendon seems fully, painfully cognisant of these nocturnal perambulations. As with the Invisible Man, the curse is not just an imposition from outside but also something that has long been boiling away within Glendon. Once it takes hold, he is, in a sense, free to act on his worst impulses. The werewolf is a tulpa, born of frustration.

This frustration is the heart of the film, for me. Glendon is perennially frustrated – an adventurer, who would rather be in the foothills of Tibet than the drawing rooms of London; the jealous husband of a wife many years his junior; a scientist on the verge of a breakthrough that never seems to come; a man who demands solitude, but desires love; and finally, a beast who yearns to destroy that which he loves most. It all builds in soft layers, wrapping ever more tightly about him, until he finally gives in.

The wolf slips its leash.

Death rides the moonbeams.

Thanks for the bullet. It was the only way. In a few moments now, I shall now why all this had to be.

– The Werewolf of London (1935)