Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 27, 2018)
Usually the first movie in a field remains the best-known example of that genre. However, that wasn’t the case with werewolf flicks.
While the semi-modern release of 1981’s An American Werewolf In London maintains its adherents, 1941’s The Wolf Man stands as the most famous flick of this sort. Although its advanced age may lead some to believe it came first, this wasn’t the case, as another adventure predated it by six years: 1935’s Werewolf of London.
That was the flick that really started the genre. For the record, I recognize that at least one silent film beat both London and Wolf Man to the punch, but in regard to this discussion, I think only “talkies” matter. When I refer to London as the first of its kind, I do so within those parameters.
Despite its lower profile, I find London to provide a much better film than Wolf Man. In London, we meet Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), a British botanist who treks to Tibet to locate a rare plant.
Wilfred locates it but he also lands on the receiving end of an attack from some beast. Wilfred isn’t terribly injured, though, and he heads home with his prize.
Back in London, we watch Wilfred as he attempts to get the plant to bloom. It only does so in moonlight, but he tries to make it occur with artificial illumination.
Wilfred’s fascination with his work leads him to ignore his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), and that almost leads her into the arms of visiting childhood love Paul Ames (Lester Matthews). While he remains aloof, Wilfred clearly feels jealous when he sees the rekindled spark between those two.
Unfortunately, Wilfred encounters other concerns, as it appears his attack in Tibet left him with some repercussions: he’s a freakin’ werewolf! After Wilfred’s first outbreak of this disease, he spends most of the rest of the movie trying to deal with it, attempts that mainly deal with his stabs at cultivating the rare plant.
While Werewolf of London doesn’t qualify as a horror classic, it seems more successful than most, largely due to the terrific performance from Hull in the lead. He creates a nice sense of depth as Wilfred that contrasts starkly with the dull lump played by Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man.
London offers a certain complexity that the later flick lacks, as it relates to Wilfred’s obsessions and his jealousy. He’s a rough, gritty guy who provides a spooky nastiness totally absent from Chaney’s Larry Talbot, who was a total non-entity.
London also manages to combine humor and horror in a way that reminds me of The Bride of Frankenstein. Though London isn’t quite in that classic’s league, it nonetheless has some genuinely amusing and entertaining moments that blend well with the action. They feel well integrated and never seem gratuitous or silly.
Werewolf of London offers a very pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect much from it, but it presents a fairly exciting, scary and winning experience. It definitely stands among the best werewolf films.