Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Bright Autumn Moon: The Wolf Man

In the DVD commentary for George Waggner's 1941 iconic film The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr., the film critic noted that the most important thing the audience doesn't see in the film is a full moon. He was right,... and wrong. There's a lot more to werewolves than a full moon and this classic film knew it, really establishing it as the best in a large canon of movies about men with hair who howl at the moon.

The reason the opening of the film is interesting is because Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) is returning from a long absence to his ancestral home, Talbot Castle in Wales, after the death of the heir, his elder brother, from a hunting accident with their father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry and Sir John discuss how it's regrettable that distance evolves between fathers and their sons and both Larry and Sir John agree that they don't want that to happen to them. Fast-forwarding to the end of the film, it will be during a hunt for a werewolf that Sir John kills Larry (who, of course, plays the Wolf Man), so this "hunting accident" the older brother was in... well, he might have been an "animal," too.
Talbot Castle in Wales, the estate Larry will inherit.
Two things happen next: a package is delivered and they walk upstairs. The package is a part to a telescope, meant for looking at the heavens. Larry tells Sir John that he doesn't know much about the heavens, and Sir John replies that when it comes to the heavens, there's only one professional. As they go up the stairs, symbolizing a higher plane of thought, they pass a candelabra that doesn't have any candles in it. Since there is no "candle to light the way," we already know that poor Larry is doomed because he has nothing to illuminate his "higher thoughts," meaning, he doesn't have any, so he's already an animal and the next scene proves that for us.
Sir John on the left and Larry up on the landing working on the telescope.
Larry's work in the optics industry enables him to put the new lens on his father's telescope (this is something of a pun because "optics" usually symbolizes wisdom, the ability to "see things which others cannot," which Larry doesn't have because he can barely see what's in front of him). Trying out the telescope, he uses it to look at a woman in her bedroom window. Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) is trying on a pair of earrings as Larry watches her, a pair of "half-moon" earrings. This is really the moment that Larry turns into a werewolf because the next action he takes is to go to the place where she lives and "the hunt is on." It's not that a werewolf needs a moon, rather, the moon is a symbol that the situation needed to turn the man into a wolf is at hand (keep reading). Gwen doesn't really want to go out with him, but it's also much later in the film until Gwen finally tells him that she's engaged to Frank Andrews (Patrick Knowles) who happens to be the "game keeper" for the Talbot Estate. 
Gwen and Larry. Note the dress she's wearing: like snakes coiling up her body.
Frank is not only the "game keeper," symbolic of being able to manage his own animal passions, but he has a dog that he "keeps on a leash." Larry is the exact opposite: after trying to hit on Gwen and failing, he buys a walking stick with a silver head of a wolf on it. So while Frank keeps his dog on a leash, Larry "leans" on his wolf, that is, it actually supports him, in some weird way. In this film, the importance of what those symbols say about him is imperative because it increases the tension between the "good guy" that no one is really rooting for anyway, and the "doomed character" who is utterly doomed and everyone is rooting for. But speaking of doomed characters...
Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot and Bela Lugosi as Bela the fortune teller. In the film, it's interesting to note that Bela had played Dracula and Larry's father, Claude Rains, was the Invisible Man, so it's almost like a family reunion.
When Larry picks up Gwen that night, her friend Jenny joins them and the three go to the gypsy camp to have their fortunes read,... by Bela Lugosi. Larry continues hitting on Gwen while Jenny is with Bela, who's trying to keep his cool. Before entering, Jenny picks some wolfsbane flowers and says the well-known song, "Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, can become a wolf, when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright." Jenny has picked a bunch of wolfsbane, so we know it's in bloom, but what about the rest of this song?
Examples of Wolfsbane, also called Monkshood.
"Even a man who is pure in heart," refers to the Gospel when Jesus says, "The pure in heart shall see God," and C.S. Lewis said, "Only the pure in heart want to see God." So a man who is pure in heart is one who cleanses himself of all sin and attachment to sin. The man who "says his prayers by night" is the man who, in the "dark night of temptation," will turn to God and ask in prayer for strength to overcome his temptations instead of giving into them. What kind of temptations? Sexual temptations.
Gwen with her fiancee, Frank Andrews, the "game keeper."
Thirdly: "can become a wolf, when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright." When a man gives into sexual temptations, he becomes a wolf, because the strength of his animal passions pulling him down (to the level of an animal) is stronger than his will to keep his mind on God and pray. The reference to a poisonous flower blooming means, when there is an occasion of sin which has presented itself, the man who is giving into his animal passions will become an animal. There reference to the "bright autumn moon" means the "harvest," which instead of being the harvesting of virtues, will turn into the harvesting of more sin and giving into more temptations until "the winter of death" comes and the man is completely dead to grace.
Larry holding the silver stick with which he kills Bela when he turns into a wolf.
Back to Bela the fortune-teller and Jenny the doomed girl. She takes the wolfsbane into the gypsy wagon with her and Bela tries to concentrate. He pushes back some of his hair and we see the pentagram on his forehead, the sign of the werewolf, so we know he is having "animal thoughts" about Jenny. He asks to see her hand to read her palms and within her palm appears a pentagram, meaning that she will be his next victim. There is only one way to understand what has happened: he's attracted to Jenny and wants her, but doesn't want to want her, so he tries to warn her that he's dangerous to her. She runs out of the wagon screaming, into the fog-ladened woods. A great black wolf appears and hunts her down, ripping her throat out. Larry shows up and, using the silver-handled stick, beats the wolf with it, after, of course, Larry's been bitten by it.
Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the mother of Bela the gypsy.
So, what has happened in this seen?
The film critic on the DVD noted that it was poor directing which caused the production crew to turn Bela into an actual dog instead of doing him in make-up like Lon Chaney and having him be a wolf-in-disguise. But I think there is important symbolic significance to this that is carried throughout the film: the degrees of falling into werewolfism. Bela is so far-gone in his pagan ways as an animal and lustful soul, that he's sunken into the deepest realm of being a werewolf, but for Larry Talbot, he will at least try to will himself from falling.
After Larry has killed Bela who killed Jenny.
"But if a man lives from a werewolf bite, he becomes a werewolf himself." This simply means that when a man sees another man acting like a wolf around women, he will become that way himself because he hasn't had any good role models. Another part of the legend is that you can only kill a werewolf with anything silver: in Hebrew, the word for "silver" sounds like the word (in Hebrew) for "word," or "the Word" which is Christ; this is why on Crucifixes, the body of Jesus is often in silver while the rest of the Crucifix is either gold or wooden. So the "Word of God" is the only thing which can kill a werewolf, that can kill the animal passions in a man. This is the reason why, when the constable finds the dead body of Bela, they note that his feet are burned: the feet symbolize the will, and the "burning" is his burning passion, so he was led to chase after Jenny because of his burning will for her. Only by giving up his will to the Will of God could Bela have been saved, but we learn when his mother, Maleva, is going to bury him, that they are really pagans.
Larry in the church with Bela's coffin after Maleva has left.
 When she peers over the body of her son, Maleva says this prayer: "The way you walk is thorny, through no fault of your own. Just as the rain falls, enters the soil, the river enters the sea, your suffering is over. Now you will find peace for eternity." The "prayer" is quite pagan: the way you walk is thorny, if a Christian prayer, would refer to the uniting of the will to Christ's Passion (the Crowning with thorns), but for a pagan to say it means that he trod in a "garden" where thorns are and was continuously being stopped from picking the flowers of his desire (seducing the women). Through no fault of your own establishes the pagan way because it essentially denies the life of grace and free will; it is Bela's fault that he gave into this temptations, but it wouldn't be to someone who knew about resisting sin. The rain falling into the soil and entering the river and sea, isn't about grace (water being the symbol of the Holy Spirit's git of Grace) but instead is a digression to naturalism, pagan ways of seeing how everything returns to the earth, not returning to God and standing in Judgment.
After his first time of changing into the wolf man, note the dark clothing.
Larry now understands that he has become a wolf but can't make his father seem to understand this. Maleva, Bela's mother, on the other hand, is trying to get Larry to understand what he has become. This struggle between his father who is a man of faith and reason, but more so reason, and Maleva, a mother who has kind of adopted Larry and is a pagan, is being won by Maleva because Sir John isn't enough of a man of faith to help his son when he needs it. Sir John goes to church, but doesn't object when Larry doesn't go in with him, and that's the biggest problem. When Larry first starts turning into a wolf, the first thing that changes is his feet, i.e., his will power. His feet wouldn't carry him into church, but they will carry him into the dark, foggy woods to kill a gravedigger.
Sir John and Larry discussing that Larry needs rest from his delusions.
There are two important aspects about this. When Larry started changing into the werewolf, he was wearing a lightly colored suit; when he starts hunting in the woods, he is wearing dark work clothes. Obviously, the colors symbolize the character of his soul, lightly colored means lightly burdened with sin, and darkly colored means burdened with dark sins. The change from suit to work clothes symbolizes that his higher self and reason has been replaced by the work of sin and his lower (dirtier) self. Killing the gravedigger is an interesting reference to Moses who killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. Larry doesn't bury his sin, rather, he buries the one who could bury the sin, God, and this is the first act of being a werewolf that Larry makes.
Larry wearing the clothes of the wolf and giving a pentagram "charm" to Gwen.
In support of this interpretation, we have to remember what it is that Larry sees over his heart, a pentagram, which is also a sign of the devil, and in this case, it's the devil leading his heart, not God. Maleva had given him a "charm" of a pentagram necklace to wear, and Larry gives it to Gwen, hoping it will protect her from him. He tries to run away from her but turns back into the wolf as she runs after him.
The Wolf Man getting Gwen in the dark, foggy woods.
It probably seems pretty stupid of Gwen to run after Larry into the night, into the woods, into the fog, when men are hunting for a werewolf and she has no protection... but the truth is, women do this every day. "He needs me," she thinks, and she goes into the "dark woods" of his mind and his problems, making herself emotionally vulnerable, and he accepts her vulnerability and totally takes advantage of her. Her pursuing him emotionally when he's "unstable" is trying to save him from himself when she's really setting herself up to be ruined, and that's what almost happens. The werewolf, like the vampire, goes for the jugular vein, because that's what animals do to kill their prey the quickest.
Sir John, Larry and Gwen towards the end of the film.
The hunt is on to "get the wolf" and Sir John joins the hunt even after Larry has warned him that he's the wolf. Sir John takes the silver-handled walking stick that Larry begs him to use for protection, and then the two split up. Of course, Larry finds Gwen in all her vulnerability and attacks her; Sir John hears her screams and comes running. He beats "the wolf" with the walking stick of Larry and this explains a lot: Larry is so much bigger, taller and muscular than his father, there is no way this silver-handled stick is going to subdue him, but it does, and that's because it's the "power of the Word" (the silver) and the wood of the Cross (the stick) that is working on Larry, not his father's physical strength. A father, literally, beats the Gospel into his son to keep him from becoming a werewolf.  Larry's greater size symbolizes the great task before fathers in leading their sons on the path of light, not allowing them to wander in the woods of darkness.
Nearly the last scene, the struggle between Sir John and the wolf man.
In conclusion, the regrettable distance between fathers and sons that both Larry and Sir John lamented in the beginning of the film, is the cause of Larry turning into a werewolf. If Sir John had shared a little more of his faith with his son, then his son's soul wouldn't have turned into the "dark forest of the night and fog" where he has to hunt to find and destroy him. Because of this lesson, the film is as potent today as in 1941 and all other werewolf films still have to reference and site what was established in this classic. 
Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man.