Forever overshadowed by Universal’s next werewolf movie, THE WOLFMAN (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the ill-fated Larry Talbot, WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) starring Henry Hull in the lead role nonetheless remains Universal’s first werewolf movie.
And there’s a reason it exists in the shadow of THE WOLFMAN. It’s simply not as good, but that being said, there are still things to like about WEREWOLF OF LONDON.
Dr. Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and bitten by a werewolf while on an expedition in Tibet. He returns home to his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), where all is not well. He’s so busy in his laboratory he barely can find the time to spend with his socialite wife, and to further complicate matters, her childhood friend and first love Paul Ames (Lester Matthews) shows up, suddenly competing for Lisa’s affection.
Meanwhile, the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) arrives with the news that he was the werewolf who had attacked Glendon in Tibet. He further informs Glendon that once bitten by a werewolf, that person also becomes a werewolf. Even worse, werewolves often seek out those they love to kill. Jeesh, talk about being a killjoy!
Yogami explains that the only known antidote to werewolfism is the rare Tibetan flower which Glendon brought back from Tibet and is now growing in his laboratory. It doesn’t bloom all that often, and so its flowers are a rare commodity. Yogami wants those flowers. Of course, once Glendon transforms into a werewolf, he wants the flowers too, and so the battle is on.
So, technically, in this movie, there are actually two werewolves of London.
The story told in WEREWOLF OF LONDON isn’t half bad. The screenplay by John Colton does a nice job establishing the werewolf legend and creating two adversarial characters in Glendon and Yogami. Even better, however, the screenplay knocks it out of the park when showing the marital stress between Glendon and Lisa. Henry Hull and Valerie Hobson are also both up to the task of playing a husband and wife whose marriage is falling apart. Their scenes together are so good they’re often painful to sit through.
Valerie Hobson also starred that same year as Elizabeth in James Whale‘s FRANKENSTEIN sequel THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). I thought she over-acted somewhat in BRIDE, and her performance in WEREWOLF OF LONDON is much more realistic.
Writer John Colton also penned the screenplay to the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi classic THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936).
Speaking of Karloff and Lugosi, evidently, early in the creative process, the two horror superstars were originally approached to star in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, with Karloff playing Dr. Glendon and Lugosi playing Dr. Yogami. Had this casting happened, it’s very likely Universal would have had another classic on its hands. Can you imagine a werewolf movie where both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi played werewolves? I’m sure the film would have been a hit.
The fact that it wasn’t a hit really isn’t the fault of either Henry Hull or Warner Oland. Hull is quite good as Dr. Glendon, and Oland of Charlie Chan fame is excellent as Dr. Yogami. His scenes are my favorite in the entire movie. Sadly, Oland died a couple of years later, in 1938 at the age of 58 from bronchial pneumonia.
One of the reasons most cited for the failure of WEREWOLF OF LONDON is the tepid werewolf make-up by Jack Pierce, the famous make-up artist not known for weak make-up jobs. After all, Pierce created the make-up for Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and later for Lon Chaney Jr.‘s Wolf Man.
Rumors persisted over the years that Henry Hull refused to wear heavy make-up for the role, but evidently this is not true. Supposedly, it was the producers of the film who urged Pierce to go lightly with the werewolf effects out of fear that the film censors would object. I find this story puzzling, since Universal had already pushed the envelope with DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and THE MUMMY (1932).
Either way, the werewolf make-up used here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON pales in comparison to Pierce’s work on THE WOLFMAN (1941) six years later. That being said, it’s not awful, and Hull’s werewolf is rather creepy looking, and director Stuart Walker manages to create some eerie scenes in this one. The werewolf’s howl in this film is also quite frightening.
What’s not scary is just before Hull’s werewolf decides to prowl about London, he stops long enough to put on his hat and coat! And here’s the true difference between WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE WOLFMAN. It’s all about Lon Chaney Jr.‘s performance. He plays the Wolf Man as a wild animal, a creature that will rip a person’s throat out with its teeth. Hull’s werewolf attacks his victim’s like a man. And, of course, Chaney gave the Wolf Man the perfect alter ego with the very emotional and tragic Larry Talbot. Hull’s Dr. Glendon does not emote much emotion or sympathy at all.
WEREWOLF OF LONDON manages some fine moments of humor, like the scenes with the two old ladies Glendon rents a room from, who are constantly fighting with each other.
WEREWOLF OF LONDON is not my favorite Universal werewolf movie. I’d argue that all of the Lon Chaney Jr. werewolf movies are better than this one.
However, it’s not a bad movie, and as a standalone werewolf picture, it has its moments. For me, the best part is Warner Oland‘s performance as Dr. Yogami. Interesting about Warner Oland. He was famous for playing Charlie Chan and a host of other Asian parts, like Dr. Yogami here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and yet supposedly he had no known Asian ancestry. I guess he was just a pretty good actor!
He certainly is here in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, as he outshines lead actor Henry Hull. Of course, had Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred in this film as originally intended, that would have been something.
Seen any werewolves of London lately?
You have? Where?
“I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a piña colada at Trader Vic’s. His hair was perfect.”
– “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon