After 18 years in America, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns home to his father (Claude Rains) upon the death of his brother. He meets Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), the daughter of a local shopkeeper, and falls in love. That night, they accompany a friend of hers, Jenny (Fay Helm), to a gypsy fortune-teller to have her fortune told. Unfortunately, the fortune-teller, Bela (Bela Lugosi), is a werewolf who sees the sign of the pentagram in Jenny’s hand. He sends her away, but attacks her in the foggy moors later that evening. (These things always seem to happen in foggy moors. See, for example, An American Werewolf in London.)
Larry comes to her rescue too late but kills the werewolf with his silver-handled walking stick, being bitten in the process. The gypsy’s mother, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), informs Larry of the danger he is in, educating him on the traits of lycanthropy. Larry tries to tell his father, but is dismissed as gypsy superstition.
After a local gravedigger is mauled, the town, including Chief Constable Montford (Ralph Bellamy), set out to find the elusive “werewolf,” never expecting Larry. When Larry sees the pentagram in Gwen’s hand, he decides it is time to leave town, but his father ties him up, sure that when they find the real wolf, Larry will come to his senses.
Universal was the studio for fright films in the thirties and forties. This was one of the horror classics that came out of that period. Larry Talbot is an understandable character, a man who is evil through no fault of his own. Writer Curt Siodmak (Donovan’s Brain) fills his script with all the folklore of lycanthropy: a bite causing the transformation, vulnerability to silver, quick healing of the initial bite, and the pentagram – “the sign of the werewolf.” Chaney gives a sympathetic performance and Claude Rains is his always dapper self as Sir John Talbot, spouting his knowledge of superstitions and how lycanthropy is the name for both the truth and the delusion.
As the son of the great Lon Chaney (Phantom of the Opera), Chaney Jr. had long eschewed horror films, wanting to make a name for himself as well. This culminated in his lauded performance as Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939). Ironically, only two years later, however, after finally deciding to give the genre a go, he would star in the role with which he would be associated for the rest of his life. Chaney reprised the role of Larry Talbot in four other films: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, and the horror parody Abbottand Costello Meet Frankenstein.
All in all, this is a fine entry in Universal’s horror repertoire, a true classic that should be seen more instead of just talked about.