Six years before The Wolf Man, Universal took their first stab at a werewolf picture, though it didn’t quite hit its mark. Whereas The Wolf Man makes an effort to refine the subgenre and basically forge itself as the template for all future werewolf movies to come, Werewolf of London is little more than an unimaginative take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which even by 1935 had been adapted for the screen a number of times. While I don’t think Werewolf of London is deserving of being forgotten, it certainly does reek of being a failed attempt at igniting a new monster movie subgenre.
Werewolf of London (1935)
While searching Tibet for a rare blossom, botanist Dr. Glendon (Henry Hull) is bit by a werewolf. Returning to London, he finds himself in a race to unlock the blossom before the next full moon, as it is the only cure for lycanthropy. Challenging him for the botanical medicine is Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), another sufferer of lycanthropy who wants the cure all for himself. Caught in the middle is Glendon’s wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), who is looking for solace from her inattentive husband in the arms of American sleazebag, Paul Ames (Lester Matthews).
As mentioned, Werewolf of London truly does feel like an uninspired modification of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, forgoing all the subgenre-setting standards that made The Wolf Man a horror classic. The worst offender is the werewolf-itself, which can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a Hyde-like fiend in dapper clothing or the snarling, mindless brute we recognize the creature for today.
There’s a scene following Glendon’s transformation where the werewolf proceeds to put on a hat, overcoat and scarf before leaving the house. He later prowls the streets of London in disguise until the opportunity to shred a single white female presents itself. Again, his presence is very Hyde-like, and though some might enjoy the portrayal of a more intelligent and cognizant werewolf, the film really goes nowhere with such a concept. Instead, it just can’t seem to make up its mind.
The initial transformation scene is something you’ve probably seen before in clip form on documentaries or whatever, as it’s the infamous sequence where Glendon walks in front of several conveniently placed pillars, growing hairier every time he passes; his actual “transformation” being blocked from view. I actually have a fondness for that transformation, as it at least has a memorable visual identity. I recall it better than I do any transformations from The Wolf Man sequels, at least. Later transformations in the film try to be upfront about things and end up suffering for it, as the double exposures fail to keep Glendon sitting in the same position from one frame to the other.
The film also suffers from having no relatable elements or characters for the audience to latch onto. Where Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man was an all-around average Joe from America who returned to his family’s place in high society, finding a means to mix the two income classes, Werewolf of London has no such down-to-Earth character. Everyone within the film is a spoiled specimen of the London upper class with nothing to worry about save whether their next dinner party will be table or buffet. There’s a half-hearted effort thrown in with the American character of Paul Ames, but he’s hardly a likeable individual seeing as how he spends the bulk of the film trying to steal Glendon’s wife out from under him (and we’re supposed to be rooting for him, too, which is odd).
Other characters include Dr. Yogami, whom we never get to see turn into a werewolf outside the beginning of the film, missing a rather thrilling opportunity for a werewolf-against-werewolf sequence. But I guess that would have been too much for audiences in 1935. The character of Ettie Coombes (Spring Byington) exists to provide some levity and, much to my surprise, she’s actually rather enjoyable in her comedy relief role. At the very least, she’s better than the pair of gossipy innkeepers who appear later and absorb agonizing minutes of screen time. Like a dual pair of Una O’Connors, ugh.
Werewolf of London is definitely a transitioning point for the werewolf subgenre of horror films; that stepping stone between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wolf Man. In that regard, it is a necessary evil. Though there are some impressive and ambitious elements to it, the film lacks a strong identity and never feels like it’s trying hard enough to achieve one. If you’re into the genesis of the werewolf picture, then you’ll want to check this film out for historical significance, but otherwise just skip ahead to The Wolf Man and be thankful you did.