After the success of Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris Universal missed the opportunity to hire the author as a screenwriter (MGM beat them to it - he went on to work on Mark of the Vampire, Mad Love, and Devil Doll for them), so they set about putting together their own wolf-man story, 1935's Werewolf of London. Appearing several years before the more commercially viable The Wolf Man the first real lycanthrope outing for the studio brought in Cornish actor Henry Hull as botanist Wilfred Glendon in search of a rare moonlight driven plant in Tibet. The scientist is mauled in an attack that occurs during an excursion through a valley that’s populated, as locally hypothesised, by demons - actually people that turn into wolves under moonlight. Having brought the plant back to England and now recovered from the vicious attack with only scars apparently remaining, everything seems back to normal as he goes about studying the nature of his unusual find. Soon London is in the grip of terror as a series of murders and monster sightings threaten the safety of its inhabitants - Wilfred himself is afflicted with the Tibetan curse, transforming into a homicidal wolf-like man under full moon.
This is quite a different beast (excuse the pun) compared to Universal’s Larry Talbot series. It didn’t have any major stars, though reportedly there was to be a werewolf film around this time starring Karloff - something that was ultimately abandoned. Hull had the opportunity to wear make-up similar to what Chaney would later adopt in The Wolf Man, but found the process arduous and too uncomfortable to endure so a modified version was developed by make-up artist Jack Pierce. The creature as a result is quite unusual, sort of a less monstrous cousin of Oliver Reed’s titular monster in Curse of the Werewolf. One thing that’s quite unique to this film is the fact that the transformed beast actually resembles its human alias to a point where it can be recognised by those who know him, such is the similarity of facial features. Also, the werewolf here is less animal-like than is often the case: this creature doesn’t so much as shed clothing as he does actually getting dressed up to go out - leaving home after one transformation the werewolf grabs his hat and coat on the way out! At a glance the roaming monster could be mistaken for Mr Hyde and even utters some words later on during the film’s closing sequence. One nifty little idea comes when Wilfred begins realising there’s a problem: experimenting with simulated moonlight in attempts to stimulate the Tibetan plant into growth his hand gets caught under the lamp and promptly begins growing hair.
It’s difficult to say whether Hull’s monster would have been more effective with Pierce’s full blown make-up as I never thought Chaney’s equivalent looked exactly threatening, but neither is Hull the most ferocious werewolf to be put on screen. He is, however, quite an eccentric creation and very eloquent along the way. A nice plus is the presence of the beautiful Valerie Hobson as his wife. She played alongside Colin Clive as the baron’s wife in Bride of Frankenstein and a notably different character too - while in Whale’s film she was of a slightly melancholic disposition here she is bubbly and perpetually effervescent. She brings some unwanted complexity to Wilfred’s life when she begins flirting and going out with an old flame, a situation that possibly evokes some of the darker feelings that reside within Wilfred. The engendering anger beneath the surface of his personality seeps through, bringing an air of tragedy to the character as his wife finds something 'better'. The werewolf myth has always seemed like an expression of the cathartic manifestation of man’s less desirable emotions and thoughts - the literal revelation of the primordial animal that’s buried beneath evolutionary layers to the point of almost complete suppression, at least in those of us that generally abide by the law. Thus there is much going on underneath Wilfred’s uptight exterior that can be contributing towards the creation of a beast. Werewolf of London is well written, competently acted, and features some unique ideas that elevate its value as a movie, despite the fact that it’s not especially frightening or challenging.