The Wolf Man Movie Power Rankings

by Alex Kirschenbaum Dec 12, 2021

The original Universal Pictures iteration of The Wolf Man terrified audiences for the first time on this date 80 years ago, December 12th, 1941. Featuring one of the most iconic creature makeup designs in history (courtesy of the great Jack Pierce) and spooky performances by stars Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi that remain unforgettable to this day, The Wolf Man was a runaway hit, helping kick off a second wave of creature features for Universal Pictures in the wake of Son of Frankenstein (1939), released two years prior.

Chaney’s tormented titular werewolf, Lawrence “Larry” Talbot, would go on to hope for death across four follow-ups, all ultimately wrapped up within the grander Universal Classic Monsters world (let’s call it “UCM” because that sounds hip) beget by the original 1931 Lugosi-starring Dracula. Though only two of them explicitly name him in their monikers, his plight  generally occupies the emotional dramatic core of the various narratives. Every darn time, in the role that made him a star, Chaney turns in a stellar, pathos-laden performance as the miserable Talbot and his wolfish alter ego.

Speaking of Bela Lugosi, he would serve as one of Chaney’s more frequent co-stars in this series, though he played a totally different character across his three appearances.

Every movie within the greater UCM saga featuring the Wolf Man is excellent. What follows, then, is just one idiot’s opinion of how the flicks rank. But really, you can’t go wrong.

To be clear, we will only be ranking the original, Chaney-starring installments of the Universal Classic Monsters era. Werewolf Of London (1935) and She-Wolf Of London (1946), though both werewolf-related UCM movies, have nothing to do with the Larry Talbot saga. The 2010 Joe Johnston-helmed remake, The Wolfman (2010), features lupine prosthetics courtesy of TFH Guru Rick Baker and stars Benicio Del Toro as Talbot, Anthony Hopkins in the Claude Rains role (Sir John Talbot), and Emily Blunt subbing in for Ankers. It makes for a fun watch, but ultimately will not be considered here, either, given that it came out 54 years after the final UCM picture. We will be assessing these films mostly through the lens of our topic of the day, the Wolf Man.

5. House of Frankenstein (1944) – The Wolf Man’s third UCM appearance

House Of Frankenstein marks the third celluloid appearance of Chaney as tormented werewolf Lawrence Talbot. Following the cataclysmic climax of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), Talbot and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) have been perfectly preserved in ice after doing battle in the then-flooding Castle Frankenstein. The man who originated the role of Frankenstein’s Monster, Boris Karloff, here portrays mad scientist (is there any other kind in these pictures?) Dr. Gustav Niemann, who along with his hunchbacked associate Daniel (J. Carrol Nash) thaw out the two iconic monsters and resurrects Count Dracula (now played by John Carradine, who, while still creepily regal, lacks the otherworldly charm of Bela Lugosi).

The fugitive Niemann has revived this murderous trio in the hopes of enacting revenge on the men who turned him in. Talbot, as usual, is in desperate search of a cure for his lupine affliction, and his kindly, forlorn disposition attracts the romantic interest of gypsy Ilonka (Elena Verdugo). Ilonka hopes to figure out a cure for Talbot, and thus she is doomed to die at the hands of his werewolf alter ego. As she slowly fades, she manages to shoot Talbot with a seemingly-fatal silver bullet. To be fair, that’s already happened to him once in this series, and he came back two years later anyway.

Let’s be clear: this ranking is not intended to besmirch House of Frankenstein. It’s still pretty great, albeit just the least-great among the five great classic Universal Wolf Man movies.

Karloff is fun as a demented doc, and Chaney knows exactly how to wring the most pathos out of Talbot and the most beastly animalism out of the werewolf. Adapted from a story by original The Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak, House Of Frankenstein is excellent in its own right, but the other flicks in the franchise are just a smidge better.

4. House of Dracula (1945) – The Wolf Man’s fourth UCM appearance

The follow-up to House Of Frankenstein, released the next year, presents an interesting character tweak for Lawrence Talbot: the newly-mustachioed Larry is pretty over looking for a cure (though he is open to that conversation), and now just prays for death, even attempting suicide at one point in the film. He does fleetingly wish for death in the second Wolf Man picture, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, but he never tries anything so drastic as he does here. It’s a fairly dark turn for a studio picture in that era (albeit a B picture), but that’s the nice thing about horror films of the day: they allow for content to wade into waters sunnier fare wouldn’t dare explore.

In House Of Dracula, (originally called The Wolf Man’s Cure and intended to end the character’s search for peace) several iconic Universal monsters want to stop being monsters. Dracula (Carradine again) seeks to shuffle off his vampirism via some experimental blood transfusions courtesy of yet another mad scientist, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), who lives in a spooky chateau a la that of Castle Frankenstein, tended to by Dr. Niemann in the prior flick.

Soon a frantic Larry Talbot, too, shows up at Edelmann’s doorstep in the hopes of being able to vanquish his own lupine leanings. Edelmann foolishly postulates that brain pressure could be the cause of Talbot’s lycanthropy, not the full moon. A frustrated Talbot has himself arrested, and transforms in a jail cell. Edelmann promptly transfers Talbot in the hopes of proving his theory.

Talbot then attempts to leap to his death off a nearby cliff, instead landing in a cave, where he discovers the corpse of the previous movie’s antagonist, Dr. Niemann, alongside Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange again). Edelmann is eventually able to cure Talbot, but Edelmann himself becomes a monster after transfusing Dracula’s blood into his own body. Talbot’s cure, however, is only temporary, as we’ll discover in a few list entries from now…

Here’s TFH Fearless Leader Joe Dante’s trailer commentary for the flick:

3. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) – The Wolf Man’s second UCM appearance

Set four years after the events of the initial The Wolf Man, this direct sequel kicks off with Lawrence Talbot being awakened from his Welsh grave inadvertently by a pair of grave robbers, in pursuit of the jewels with which the formerly-deceased werewolf was entombed. By extracting the wolfsbane also buried with Talbot, the grave robbers revive him.

He finds himself hospitalized in nearby Cardiff. He transforms into his lupine self overnight and murders a constable in cold blood. The next day, he tries to impress upon his attendant doctor, Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles, who also portrayed Gwen Conliffe’s possessive fiancee in the original Wolf Man), and a local cop, Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey), that he is in fact a murderous werewolf. He shows off the scar given him by Romani gypsy werewolf Bela (appropriately played by Bela Lugosi). Owen informs him that Lawrence Talbot died four years ago, leading Talbot to realize that his werewolfism makes him more or less immortal.

Dr. Mannering soon cooks up the theory that Talbot is a “lycanthrope” — a man operating under the delusion that he is a werewolf. They investigate the Talbots’ grave site, and we discover that the senior Mr. Talbot (Rains) died of grief shortly after his son seemed to perish at the end of the first movie. Larry Talbot hopes for solutions. While the doctor and cop are away, Talbot breaks loose, determined to reconnect with the mother of Bela, Maleva (Ouspenskaya, the show’s stealth MVP), who is well-versed in lupine mythos. She recommends that he consult Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke), the most recent member of the Frankenstein bloodline to experiment on the undead and supernatural in the previous year’s Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), the fourth installment in Universal’s Frankenstein saga. Instead, we discover that Ludwig is long-dead, but his daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey), is reticent to hand over her father’s research.

Talbot finds Frankenstein’s Monster frozen and encased in ice around the Frankenstein property in the small town of Vasaria. He breaks the monster free, reviving it, in the hopes of discovering Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein’s research. Though Chaney himself portrayed the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, the critter this time is played by Lugosi. As Joe Dante notes in his informative TFH commentary below, Lugosi had been playing the creature as if it were blind, given that the Monster was blinded in the last movie when Frankenstein’s assistant Ygor (Lugosi again) transplanted his brain into the Monster’s body. Universal executives opted to re-edit the movie to remove any trace of Lugosi’s dialogue as the Monster, and all allusions to contextualize the fact that the Monster was blind, which makes his performance borderline funny.

Eventually Dr. Mannering, like all mad doctors in this saga, tries an experiment to improve the fortunes of Frankenstein’s Monster and Talbot. He sets up an experiment to use electricity to extract the life forces of both beasts, in the hopes of killing them beyond the point of resurrection in a future movie. Unfortunately, again like all mad doctors in this saga, Dr. Mannering becomes tantalized by the prospect of seeing Frankenstein’s Monster at maximum power, and opts to even restore his vision for good measure. Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man engage in the movie’s epic climactic battle, though eventually Frankenstein’s castle is exploded with dynamite and they are swept away in an ensuing resulting flood.

This puppy sports some truly spooky werewolf transformations. In these days, everything was done with lap-dissolve effects photography. The camera was locked off at a given angle and Chaney was photographed, standing (or, more often, sitting or lying down) and acting as still as possible, while makeup maestro Jack Pierce applied prosthetic makeups to indicate the transitional phases of his metamorphosis. TFH Guru Rick Baker rates Chaney’s bed transformation, where he transforms while lying on a pillow, as one of the best of the series.

We are treated to some fun set pieces, most notably the ice chamber and the flooding dam surrounding the castle. The biggest downside to the movie is the really really weird restaurant musical scene, where a folk singer’s rendition of “Faro-la Faro-Li” prompts an intense Talbot meltdown, as he is triggered by the lyrics’ references to the fleeting preciousness of life. Talbot is still frustrated by his apparent immortality at this point in the flick.

A fun cameo: Dwight Frye, who portrayed Renfield in the original 1931 Dracula, appears here as a concerned townsperson who correctly identifies the howl of the Wolf Man.

Check out Joe’s trailer commentary for Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man:

2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – The Wolf Man’s fifth and final UCM appearance

By the late 1940s, the Universal Classic Monsters had been pretty thoroughly exhausted. The Atomic Age was ushering in new ideas of terror for international audiences, and the guys-in-spooky-makeup routine had lost a bit of its luster in the popular imagination. In a tactical move, Universal pivoted, presenting a horror-comedy for the ages in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which more accurately could be called Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, And The Wolf Man (Plus, For A Second At The End, The Invisible Man). This mash-up, featuring comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello doing battle with a classic array of monsters. It’s so great in part because, while Abbott and Costello are at operating at their comedic best (Abbott the tall, stern straight man and Costello the wacky, emotional simpleton), the men behind the monsters are playing their roles totally straight. This truly is a horror-comedy, a marriage of two  seemingly-disparate worlds.

The Lugosi Dracula returns after a 17-year absence! John Carradine, though sufficiently elegant and sinister in a vacuum, could not hold a candle to Lugosi’s original Count as his direct substitute in House of Frankenstein or House of Dracula. Gloria Holden portrayed Drac’s daughter Countess Marya Zalesk in Universal’s first attempt at a Prince of Darkness sequel sans the Prince of Darkness himself, Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Lon Chaney Jr., who here portrays the tormented Wolf Man once again, took a stab at the bloodline in Son of Dracula (1943), an interesting curio, but the brutish Chaney could not capture Lugosi’s gentlemanly international panache. Chaney took a stab at depicting all of the Universal Monsters not named the Creature From The Black Lagoon or the Invisible Man. 

Hapless Florida baggage clerks Chick Young (Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Costello) receive a shipment of crates from carnival proprietor Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson). The inhabitants of the crates, who together will be the crown jewels of horror exhibit, “McDougal’s House of Horrors,” include Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. Lawrence Talbot, hot on McDougal’s trail, arrives soon after him, in the hopes of thwarting his misguided plans to put on an exhibition with the two still-dangerous monsters. Unfortunately, thanks to Chick and Wilbur’s gross incompetence, Dracula and the Monster slip away quite easily.

Soon, the awakened Dracula is scheming with duplicitous Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert) to transplant a simple, pliable, obedient brain into the head of the newly-revived Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange). He dangles the promising of granting any wish Sandra might have, in exchange for presumably hoping to conquer the world with his new oafish goon.

Guess whose brain they’re considering for the procedure?

Poor Wilbur has no idea that he is being duped, with Sandra seducing him with promises of a masquerade ball, though she fully intends to murder him and steal his brain. Meanwhile, after Dracula and the Monster escape from the crates, McDougal has Chick and Wilbur arrested for theft. Insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), pretending to be helplessly in love with Wilbur, springs the duo from the joint and tries to seduce Wilbur herself, hoping to locate Dracula and the Monster. Chick, of course, is flabbergasted by Wilbur’s sudden romantic luck.

Sandra lures Wilbur to the sprawling castle of a “Dr. Lejos” (Dracula under an assumed name). Wilbur stupidly has invited Joan Raymond to be his second date. Chick is tagging along, in the hopes that Wilbur will ultimately opt to ditch one of the women. Just when Wilbur is on the heels of doing so, they receive an urgent call at the house from Talbot, who tells them his (ultimately very astute) theory that Dracula and the Monster are both inside.

Hijinks ensue at the castle, and soon Sandra has been converted into a vampire and Talbot has arrived on the island, trying (and failing) his darnedest not to transform into a werewolf at inopportune times.

A box office smash upon its first release, Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein stands tall as a supreme all-time entertainment, and remains incredibly watchable even 73 years after its initial theatrical run. The one lame element of this particular enterprise? Jack Pierce, who created the original Wolf Man makeup and then reprised it on Chaney across his first three follow-up appearances, had been cast aside by Universal in 1946. Instead, makeup artist Emile LaVigne approximated Pierce’s original design, under the supervision of makeup department head Bud Westmore. By 1948, foam rubber had become the industry standard due to how quickly it could be applied and its improved comfortability for the performers. LaVigne used mostly pre-fabricated foam rubber appliances, whereas Pierce preferred to build up his make-ups, by hand, for every application, using spirit gum, cotton and collodion. His snout piece for Chaney, however, was a pre-made rubber prosthesis.

This time, TFH Guru John Landis, who like Joe Dante knows a thing or two about a good horror comedy, presents his trailer commentary for this Frankenstein flick:

1. The Wolf Man (1941) – The Wolf Man’s first UCM appearance

The one that started it all remains the mother of all werewolf pictures. Though it might have been preceded by Universal’s prior wolf picture, Werewolf of London, the first Chaney-starring The Wolf Man set the stage for decades upon decades of spooky lupine fun. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s terrific, tight script established trendsetting rules in the eternal werewolf mythos, chief among these the conceit that humans transform into werewolf only under the light of a full moon (“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” is the recurring poem recounted by local townspeople). Director/producer George Waggner’s atmospheric original picture certainly plays like a tragic metaphor for alcoholism, as young Larry Talbot, upon being bitten by fortune-teller Bela (Bela Lugosi), finds himself transforming into a bloodthirsty werewolf, roving the Welsh countryside and murdering hapless victims. Like any good drunk, Talbot has zero recollection of his homicidal rampaging on the succeeding mornings.

At the top of the tale, Larry returns to his childhood home in Wales after 18 years abroad (presumably somewhere in North America, given his accent) for the funeral of his brother John in a hunting accident. He reunites with his father, wealthy researcher Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and they exchange uncomfortable pleasantries in a mansion that’s somehow still too big for the both of them.

Larry by this point in the flick is smitten with comely local antique shop manager Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers, who in reality did not get along with Chaney at all). Though Gwen informs him she’s engaged, that doesn’t dissuade Larry’s romantic pursuit. One foggy night, Larry, Gwen and Gwen’s friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) go for a walk in the forest to consult with Bela. Jenny is attacked by a lone wolf. Larry comes to her aid, attacking the wolf with his walking cane. In the fracas, the wolf bites Larry and rips out Gwen’s throat (an off-screen moment, still discussed pretty graphically for the movie’s era) before ultimately succumbing to Larry’s blows. When Larry awakens, he is told by local police that there is no sign of a wolf, but that the corpse of Bela has been discovered, alongside the top piece of Larry’s walking cane.

A reeling Larry, still convinced he killed a wolf and not a man, later consults with Maleva, a Romani gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya), who relays that Bela, her son (though Lugosi in reality was just six years Ouspenskaya’s junior), was a werewolf, who attacked him in lupine form but reverted back to his human shape upon his death. Maleva gives Larry a charm to ward off his transformation and sends him on his way. suddenly she and her fellow gypsies are high-tailing it out of town. A disbelieving Larry hands off the charm to Gwen.

During his first werewolf transformation, Larry kills a gravedigger in the evocative forest that appears to be the preferred murder site for his werewolf self. Local villagers notice that the gravedigger’s jugular has been shredded, much like that of the unfortunate Jenny Williams. They also spot animal tracks near the gravedigger’s corpse that lead directly to the Talbot estate. When Larry comes to the next day, he has no memory of his transgressions. It’s all fairly analogous to a blackout after a night of heavy drinking, an activity with which Chaney was pretty familiar. The next night when he transforms, Larry almost devours Gwen, and it’s up to his father to stop him.

The Wolf Man thrives off a still-intimidating score, courtesy of Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner, Charles Previn, terrific acting, a well-paced script that is economic in its various plot machinations while being effectively thorough in its character development, and, perhaps most importantly, one of the coolest makeups in history. Pierce initially developed the design for a scrapped Boris Karloff werewolf project, then pitched it to Henry Hull for Werewolf of London. Pierce eventually scaled it back to the more vampiric look in that good-but-not-great picture. TFH Guru Rick Baker reveals that he has heard the Hull makeup referred to as the “Elvis Werewolf” in “Monster by Moonlight,” a bonus featurette included on The Wolf Man‘s DVD and Blu-ray, due to its sporting a pronounced widow’s peak and Vegas decline-era sideburns. This is probably the best way to unpack the look. Knowing how darn cool the original, much hairier makeup was, Pierce resurrected it yet again when the time came for The Wolf Man.

A curious general note about the two men most responsible for the physical embodiment of the ultimate cinematic werewolf: Chaney and makeup genius Jack Pierce had a famously contentious relationship, which even spilled over into some of their publicity stills. Here, Chaney pretends he’s set to sock Pierce while the monster maker puts the finishing touches on Chaney’s signature character. Sure, the pose was all in good fun, but there was a kernel of truth behind it, from Chaney’s side at least. “I’m sure he really felt like that many times,” Baker jokes of the image in “Monster By Moonlight.”

Per Scott Essman’s book Jack Pierce: The Man Behind The Monsters (2000), the star once autographed a picture of himself to the makeup mastermind with the following inscription: “To the greatest goddamned sadist in the world. – L.C.” Essman notes that, though Chaney was the son of legendary actor/makeup artist Lon Chaney Sr., he had little patience for Pierce’s process. The pair also collaborated on Man-Made Monster (1941), Son of Dracula, Chaney’s three The Mummy sequels, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and Dead Man’s Eyes (1944).

Chaney apparently especially loathed his Wolf Man makeup. “Lon Chaney Jr. had that kind of thankless job of sitting in the makeup chair and having all these torturous things put on him,” Baker comments in the home video featurette. Essman indicates that the makeup was rumored to reek and be uncomfortable to wear. Then there was the time commitment. “It took 2 1/2 hours to apply this makeup,” Pierce explained, according to Essman. “I put all of the hair on a little row at a time. After the hair is on, you curl it, then singe it, burn it, to look like an animal that’s been out in the woods. It had to be done every morning.” To be clear, Chaney also had great respect for Pierce, once praising him as “one of the finest makeup men who ever lived.” Sounds about right.

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