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DVD SAVANT

Savant double-bill Review:

WereWolf of London
&
She-Wolf of London

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


WereWolf of London
Universal Home Video
1935 / b&w / 1:37 flat /75m. / aka The Unholy Hour
Starring Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews, Lawrence Grant, Spring Byington
Cinematography Charles J. Stumar
Art Director Albert S. D'Agostino
Makeup Jack P. Pierce
Special Effects John Fulton
Film Editor Russell F. Schoengarth
Original Music Karl Hajos
Writing credits John Colton from a story by Robert Harris
Produced by Stanley Bergerman & Carl Laemmle Jr.
Directed by Stuart Walker

By 1935, the first Universal monster cycle was winding down, with the exception of smash hits like The Bride of Frankenstein. Not usually mentioned among the top Uni horrors because of the lack of a Lugosi or Karlof in its cast, WereWolf of London is actually one of the best of the series.

Synopsis:

English Botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) finds the rare flowering plant he seeks in Tibet, but not before he is bitten by a feral monster-man. Back at his greenhouse lab outside London, he wows his guests with exotic (and utterly fantastic) plant specimens, but is having trouble getting new blooms to form from his imported Tibetan buds, which legend has it only open under the rays of the full moon. Already neglected, his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) becomes further estranged when Wilfred acts oddly, even more reclusive than normal. A doctor Yogami (Warner Oland) has appeared to tell him that the flowers are the only antidote for 'WereWolfry', and that he'll be 'transvected' every night of the full moon to seek a murder victim. When this turns out to be true, Wilfrid leaves home, and attempts to have himself confined in rented rooms and even a tower keep back at his wife's country estate. But his efforts are to no avail: Neither locked doors nor barred windows can keep him from going on the prowl.

A superior thriller, WereWolf of London benefits from good performances and excellent production values. With the absence of a name horror star, the emphasis is on story and atmosphere. The show has a rather un-Universal look to it, which may be explained by the fact that art director Albert S. D'Agostino soon flew the coop to RKO, where he flourished for two decades. Wilfrid Glendon's 'mad lab' does not feature Uni's standard gothic lighting, and the ersatz London is visually well-rendered, even if almost nobody seems to have an appropriate Brit accent. In what must be the best comedy relief of the series (Savant never cared for screaming mimi Una O'Connor), Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury play a pair of hilarilously drunken crones. 'Mrs. Whack' does indeed knock her drinking partner stone cold at one point, and we almost fell out of our chairs laughing. A very young Spring Byington is also at hand as an early near-victim, and she makes her busybody character far more charming than it has any right to be.

Monster fans have often criticized Henry Hull's makeup and indeed the entire conception of the monster, but Savant holds an opposite opinion. Hull's Werewolf has slightly wolfish features, as opposed to the hairy-dog conception later given Lon Chaney, Jr. And the curse-flower-full moon mythology is not founded in any mittle-European gypsy myth, but it is effective, and no less authentic than Curt Siodmak's later inventions. Savant wonders if the flower / monster connection, might have been lifted later as the 'tana leaf' gag for the Mummy movies.

Jack Pierce's werewolf makeup is very impressive and definitely an outgrowth of Henry Hull's appearance. Turning his widow's peak into a demonic hairline, and giving him sort of a second lower lip, Hull's monster is frightening in a number of almost portrait-like closeups, lit from below. Although Hull's murderous attacks all happen offscreen, his transformations are nicely depicted in setpieces far better than in the later The Wolf Man. John Fulton provides one great moving shot that shows Were-Wilfrid walking as he transforms, using traveling mattes to hide the makeup changes. On '60s television, before the general awareness of effects processes, we thought this looked great; back in 1935, it must have seemed like magic.

The relatively subtle makeup makes this less of a 'lookit the monster' story, than a human, Dr. Jekyll kind of tale, and presents Wilfrid Glendon with almost the same problem as Stevenson's creation. Henry Hull makes an interesting but unromantic lead. Never a great actor (his most memorable role is the blowhard publisher in Fox's Jesse James movies) he does give his scientist here a less-than-dominant manner, which is a key factor in 'reading' this movie.

Savant is as tired as the next viewer of essays that invent homosexual subtexts for popular movies, but in WereWolf of London this idea is almost impossible to ignore. Wilfrid's unholy bond with the mysterious Dr. Yogami completely overwhelms his jealous / indifferent relationship with his unfulfilled wife. Together, he and Yogami share 'secrets' unacceptable to the police and society at large. Wilfrid has the courage to enter a forbidden Tibetan valley, but not enough to tell his wife he's a sick man. If he honestly informed her of the truth, Lisa might well vanish to California with her old beau, on a moment's notice. Wilfred seems to be ashamed of his 'disease', as if he's responsible for it. For his part, as a 'brother sufferer', Yogami sincerely tries to convince Wilfrid of their mutual need for a supply of Tibetan flower blossoms. When he begins stealing them, it's only because he's as desperate as our hero. Interestingly, although he endures a constant stream of insults (Dr. Yokohama?), Yogami never becomes an 'evil Oriental' stereotype.

(spoiler)

The proof is in Wilfrid's death scene, where Lisa witnesses a repulsive monster transform back into Wilfred as he expires. His final closeups hold his face upside-down in the frame, visually robbing his death of a peaceful repose, in compositional terms. She shows little remorse at discovering her husband's secret identity. Her fright and disgust more than justifies Wilfrid's earlier decision not to confide in her. As far as Lisa is concerned, Wilfred wasn't a victim, he was scum. The picture dissolves to a plane winging its way to California (no deviants there, of course) without further comment.

With its refreshing set of characterizations, superior monster mythos, and subversive subtext, WereWolf of London is one of the best Universal Horror movies.



She-Wolf of London
Universal Home Video
1946 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 61m. / aka The Curse of the Allenbys
Starring June Lockhart, Don Porter, Sara Haden, Jan Wiley, Eily Malyon
Cinematography Maury Gertsman
Art Direction Abraham Grossman, Jack Otterson
Film Editor Paul Landres
Original Music William Lava, Frank Skinner
Writing credits George Bricker from a story by Dwight V. Babcock
Produced by Ben Pivar
Directed by Jean Yarbrough

Usually with a double-bill, you can tell right away which is the better feature. WereWolf of London is great, so it isn't surprising to find one of the weakest latter-day Universals on the bottom half of the ticket. She-Wolf of London is one of their last-gasp horrors, obviously rushed out on the cheap; it's more like the half-hearted Inner Sanctum series, or the Creeper movies in which Universal had little faith.

Synopsis:

A series of brutal murders in a London park, thought to be from a dog or a wolf, throw soon-to-be-wed Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) into a dither. She's all too aware of the legendary curse on her family name, and she's becoming certain that she's the monstrous She-Wolf who's been stalking the parks at midnight. Neither her 'aunt' Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden), Martha's daughter Carol (Jan Wiley) or her fiancee Barry Lanfield (Don Porter) can shake her of this notion, especially after she starts waking up with blood on her hands and mud on her slippers.

Except for the presence of June Lockhart, the perfect mother in the later television Lassie (I can still taste her cookies, as if I got to eat them instead of that little twirp Timmy), this is an extremely forgettable movie. The script never should have been green-lit, considering that there's really no monster, only a tired drive-the-heiress insane story. It's the kind of show audiences were responding to favorably, in the Edgar Ulmer and Joseph Lewis films noir Strange Illusion and My Name is Julia Ross. The only explanation for Universal making it must have been a desire to emulate the successful Val Lewton formula over at RKO. But because the trappings of the movie are pure Uni gothic, and even the poster raises expectations of seeing a female werewolf, it's unlikely that any audience was ever satisfied by this one. The word on the playground circa 1963 was a curt 'skip it'; this is the first time Savant's seen She-Wolf all the way through.

The film does serve as a good reminder that 'standard production values' are never good enough for a movie. She-Wolf of London is competently shot and not embarassingly directed; but the good actors (obvious villain Sara Hayden is most of the show) can't do anything with a concept that nobody seems to have cared about. The IMDB lists a couple of cast members who were to appear in scenes that were deleted - since the feature lasts only 61 minutes, these cuts couldn't have happened for length considerations.

The only other subject of note is actor Martin Kosleck, frequent Joseph Goebbels imitator who pepped up a couple of the Inner Sanctums and the Creeper film House of Horrors with his ability to project undiluted loathsomeness. Here he has a bit as a totally benign possible victim ... and the filmmakers don't even have the sense to use his villain persona as a red herring.

This disc is WereWolf of London all the way ... don't skip that great film to avoid She-Wolf.



On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
WereWolf of London rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer, production notes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 26, 2001


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
She-Wolf of London rates:
Movie: Poor
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer, production notes
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 26, 2001



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