I didn’t know what to expect from ‘Werewolf of London’ (1935) last night besides being a werewolf movie which it most certainly is and, considering the title, I’d have been somewhat baffled if it wasn’t. It’s got lycanthropic transformations, slashed throats, ancient curses and all against backdrops of eerie Tibetan mountains and fog wreathed London streets. Yet the most notable aspect of the film was, for me, a surprisingly smart and funny script; imagine ‘Carry On Screaming’ by Oscar Wilde and you’ve got a rough idea what we’re dealing with here.
Botanist Dr Glendon is exploring Tibet for a rare, exotic flower which only blooms during the full moon when he is attacked and bitten by a mysterious creature. Returning to London Dr Glendon discovers he has become a werewolf with only the juice of the Tibetan flower able to arrest his lycanthropy. But with supplies of the flower running low, a rival botanist also desiring blossoms from the moon flower entering the scene plus a growing number of dead bodies piling up it seems like Dr Glendon might need to undertake in some social distancing whenever the Moon is out.
What immediately grabs the attention with ‘Werewolf of London’ is the atmosphere, the strange Tibetan landscape immediately providing a real sense of otherworldliness. This vibe continues throughout the film as strange, alien looking plants writhe and coil their tendrils in Victorian London greenhouses to the shock of the well-to-do Londoners whilst murderous creatures prowl the moonlit alleys. The atmosphere’s so thick you feel you could reach out and pull chunks of it off.
If the setting is rich and heavy then the script and dialogue balances things out with a lightness and buoyancy, usually revolving around British customs and idiosyncracies. There’s some great stuff regarding a woman’s dislike for buffets as opposed to a sit-down meal although the funniest exchanges occur between the gin-soaked women who drink their troubles away down the gin lanes of London. There’s a real depth of character at play here with every woman a forceful, distinct and funny personality.
The transformations sequences are also fun to watch with Dr Glendon’s initial one being particularly impressive, the camera cutting as the transforming man walks past a series of pillars. It’s so simple but totally inspired.
I had way more fun with ‘Werewolf of London’ than I was expecting. It works strongly as a werewolf film and as such an early one it’s a joy seeing all these tropes being laid down. But it’s the script that really lifts it up a notch or two and puts it, for me anyway, into similar territory of the films of James Whale and that feeling that Britain in the 1930’s seemed to be an ideal place for comedy and horror to meet.