Werewolf of London was Universal’s first attempt at a werewolf movie, in 1935. I believe it was not quite the first ever werewolf movie but it was the movie that first presented the werewolf to movie audiences in a fully developed form.
Universal had planned an earlier werewolf film that never got off the ground.
What makes Werewolf of London so interesting is that most of what we think of as werewolf lore was invented by Curt Siodmak in his screenplay for Universal’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man. Werewolf of London presents us with an earlier and slightly different kind of werewolf lore.
Dr Wildred Glennon (Henry Hull) is an English botanist who travels to Tibet in search of an unusual and exceedingly rare plant, the Mariphasa lupino lumino. He is attacked by a mysterious and rather beast-like figure but escapes with nothing more serious than a few cuts.
Back in England he sets to work to study this strange plant. He has built an extraordinary device that mimics the light of the moon and this is going to prove essential since the Mariphasa only blooms in moonlight. He receives a visit from the enigmatic Dr Yogami (Warner Oland) who spins him an outlandish tale of werewolves. Dr Yogami claims that the juice of the Mariphasa plant is the only antidote to a condition known as lycanthrophobia and warns Glennon that two souls are in mortal peril if he is not prepared to share the Mariphasa plant with him. Glennon dismisses all this as nonsense.
Soon however Glennon makes the unpleasant discovery that Yogami’s story might be true after all, and finds that he is indeed turning into a werewolf. The mysterious figure that attacked him in Tibet had been Yogami, and Yogami has now infected Glennon with the lycanthrophobia from which he himself suffers.
Unfortunately the only three blooms of the Mariphasa have been stolen from his laboratory. He remembers Dr Yogami’s warning that the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill that which it most loves, and Glennon fears for the safety of his wife Lisa.
A series of murders now sweeps London, with the victims showing signs of having been mauled by a wild animal. Dr Glennon strives desperately to find a way to escape his fate and to save Lisa but it may be too late.
It has been suggested that this film represents a lost opportunity, and that with a better director and a better cast it could have been a true horror classic. There’s no question that Stuart Walker proves to be a fairly pedestrian director. There’s also no question that it would have been a far better movie had Boris Karloff been cast as Dr Glennon (Universal had in fact planned to a werewolf movie starring Karloff as far back as 1932). Karloff would have brought to the role the right combination of obsessiveness, stubbornness, decency and kindliness, along with real menace as the werewolf. Henry Hull manages the obsessiveness and the stubbornness but he projects very little human warmth and as a result we feel less sympathy for him than we should.
It has also been suggested that Bela Lugosi would have been a better choice to play Dr Yogami. Lugosi in fact would have been perfect for this part but personally I like Warner Oland’s performance a great deal.
Werewolf of London has some major flaws and lacks the dramatic intensity and the sense of tragedy of The Wolf Man. Despite these flaws and despite having received a fairly bad press over the years it also has some very real strengths. The werewolf makeup by Jack Pierce is first-rate and is actually better and more effectively bestial than the makeup he created for The Wolf Man. The early scenes in Tibet are excellent and the first transformation scene is one of the best I’ve ever seen and very cleverly done as Dr Glennon passes behind a series of pillars, each time coming back into view with the transformation more advanced. The moon machine is also very cool.
The film’s greatest asset is that it incorporates so many good ideas and while it doesn’t quite do those ideas full justice it’s still a considerably better movie than its reputation would suggest. If you happen to be a real fan of werewolf movies then it’s absolutely essential viewing.
The DVD presentation in Universal’s Wolf Man Legacy set is very impressive.