Josef Stalin once said: "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." Now I hate to disagree with such a distinguished gentlemen, but the death of one man isn't a tragedy, it's fucking boring.
Or at least it is is in a horror movie. (Stalin was talking about the cinema, right?) I'm not a gore hound by any means, but nonetheless I do expect there to be a few good murders in a monster movie. And unfortunately, the 1941 version of the Wolf Man is seriously deficient of action.
How deficient, you ask? Well, it features 3.5 action scenes in its 70 minute run time, which sounds like a decent batting average... Until you realize that I'm being extremely generous with my definition of "action". The first scene is when Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) is bitten by a werewolf while he's near a Gypsy carnival; the second is when Lawrence turns into a werewolf for the first time and attacks a grave digger; the .5th time is when some angry townspeople try to hunt "the wolf" down (it only gets half credit, however, because the two groups never interact); and the final attack occurs at the movie's climax when Lawrence's dad has to face what his son has become.
Now, three and a half scenes would be a slender total under any circumstances, but it is particularly meager here. The wolf is almost completely obscured from the camera's sight in the first attack; they were obviously trying to cover up the fact that it was not, in fact, a live creature but rather a stuffed one that Chaney was jiggling around. The second attack is fairly legit (although the gravedigger's death does take place off-screen, it is still implied in a sufficiently horrific fashion.) As I said before the third attack doesn't count because it was a non-event. And that fourth attack - well, it's brief and anti-climactic, which is unfortunate, because it's the climax of the movie. So that leaves us with one legit action scene (where the action actually takes place off screen) in the entire movie - as I said, pretty deficient.
This is not to say that the Wolf Man is without it's charms, because there are parts of it that work. Actually, what this movie lacks in scares it makes up in subtext, because the emotional and political undertones of Lawrence's story are compelling.
The emotional component is fairly straight forward: Lawrence's "curse" makes him function a lot like an alcoholic. He's fine by day, but at night he goes berserk, harassing woman, attacking random men and generally acting like an animal, then the next morning he wakes up with torn clothes and no memory of how he got home. The Wolf Man plays up Lawrence's self-destructive nature; he repeatedly pleads with his friends and family to lock him up because he knows that he has no control over his condition, but they refuse to admit that he has a problem. Its like he's hitting rock bottom while they still think he's the same old fun-time guy that they used to enjoy drinking with.
The political component is a little thornier: the Talbots are landed gentry who live in a castle and most of Lawrence's would-be victims are commoners that work on the Talbot estate. This sets up a certain class dichotomy - a socialist could easily interpret Lawrence's animalistic actions as a commentary on the fundamentally corrupt nature of the hereditary aristocrat. However, the film doesn't directly comment on any sort of class issues; all of its messages about how too much unearned privilege can turn a good man into a monster are implied, so I don't want to dwell on them for too long.
However, while it's all well and good for a work of art to have serious themes, I didn't start watching this movie about a bloodthirsty man-beast in the hopes that it would educate me about the working stiff's eternal struggle against their economic oppressors. No, I fired it up because I was hungry for some hot Wolf-on-Man action, and since this movie didn't deliver that action I have to pan it. And that's not on me - the filmmakers made some implicit promises to their audience when they decided to call this "The Wolf Man" instead of "Hereditary Aristocrats Are Bloodsuckers, Sometimes Literally So", and it's legit to call them out for not living up to those promises. Which reminds me of that other famous Stalin quote: "Fool me once with not enough werewolf violence, shame on you. Fool me twice, I'm going to wish I had watched Dracula instead."
Winner: The Cat