Premise: The juice of a rare Tibetan flower is the only thing that keeps Dr. Glendon from turning into a werewolf during a full moon.
Though it underperformed commercially compared to the success of The Wolf Man six years later, 1935’s Werewolf of London has the distinction of helping to create much of the mythology that is still associated with werewolves today. Prior to the film, transforming into a werewolf involved witchcraft, did not involve a full moon, and bites were not transformative to humans. Thus the legacy of Werewolf of London is indelible even if the film itself is slightly uneven and muddled with too many protagonists.
Werewolf of London opens with an origin story of sorts. Botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and bitten by a werewolf in Tibet. The scene makes excellent use of light and shadows to depict the physical struggle Wilfred endures that sets the plot in motion. It’s violent, well-choreographed, and propels the story (and Wilfred himself) onto a trajectory that is thrilling and tragic at the same time.
Once Wilfred returns to London, a ticking clock effect takes hold of the audience. Wilfred works tirelessly to find a way to cure his newly acquired lycanthropic burden. However, things don’t go as planned once he meets Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland); as Yogami absconds with the flower that will keep Wilfred’s lycanthropy at bay. He does this because Yogami himself is a werewolf. In fact, he’s the very same werewolf who bit Wilfred in Tibet.
It’s in the interactions between Wilfred and Yogami that Werewolf of London truly shines. The dialogue between the two men is not only incredibly strong, it serves the purpose of delicately dispensing the film’s exposition. The dialogue in these expository moments is carefully constructed so as to keep the film compelling. Yogami doesn’t simply divulge the werewolf knowledge to Wilfred. He spouts beautifully poetic, yet doomed, statements such as, “The werewolf is neither man nor wolf but a satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.” Or when he speaks of himself and Wilfred in the third person and laments that, “These men are doomed”. The rich dialogue enhances the story ten-fold.
Unfortunately, Werewolf of London does have its faults. As the story progresses, the film almost feels as though it’s confused as to who its protagonist is meant to be. Wilfred’s full moon werewolf adventures give the film its monster. It would stand to reason that Yogami, who has stolen the flower to keep his own symptoms at bay during a full moon, would work to stop the werewolf Wilfred transforms into. He doesn’t. In fact, there’s really no attempt by Yogami to reckon with how his actions directly result in the loss of innocent lives.
If the film’s identity crisis was confined to Yogami and Wilfred, the weak characterization would be forgivable. However, the film brings a third potential protagonist into the mix in the form of Paul Ames (Peter Matthews). Ames brings what’s arguably the most interesting plot thread in Werewolf of London to life. He’s an old friend fo Wilfred’s wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), who is enamored with her. The triangle that forms among the married couple and Ames is the most intriguing part of the film. As Wilfred becomes more desperate and reckless to cure himself, he pushes Lisa away and into the arms of an eager Ames. Surprisingly, it gives the film some of its most dramatic tension.
The issue that arises here is that Ames is built up to be a potential central protagonist. However, we already have Yogami and Wilfred competing for our attention. Further muddling things is the introduction of a Scotland Yard inspector by the name of Forsythe (Lawrence Grant) investigating the murders. With Forsythe, the film has four characters who at times feel like they are competing for the central character spotlight. It makes Werewolf of London feel uneven and awkward at times.
As for the thriller/horror aspects of the film, Werewolf of London delivers on that score. The movie doesn’t shy away from having its main character (err, one of them, at least) actually follow through on the unimaginable when he has transformed into a werewolf. Adding to that tension is the wonderful set design of a foggy London night set and then, later, a scene in a zoo after hours.
Furthermore, the mythology established in the movie makes for an intense dilemma for Wilfred. The idea that a werewolf must kill at least one human being during each full moon (lest they be cursed to stay in werewolf form forever) keeps Wilfred from simply locking himself away. It’s a strong obstacle to impose on the character and makes the time he decides to lock himself away carry much more weight.
Despite the aforementioned character issues, Werewolf of London does lead to a satisfying conclusion. Wilfred and Yogami have a confrontation that pays off the tension that Yogami has caused quite well. Although it makes one wonder why Ames and Forsythe were so involved throughout the movie when it ultimately comes down to Wilfred and Yogami, it still leads to a satisfactory conclusion.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.