Tuesday, October 10, 2006

132. Halloween Roundup (3):
Sad, Sad, Sad

Not to be too cute with the title of this, but watching The Wolf Man (1941) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man* (1943) I was reminded of another, slightly similar title, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, made into one rough night of a movie in 1966 by Mike Nichols, in which Dick and Liz--and a suitably hapless George and Sandy--do some pretty thorough tearing and rending themselves, as "sad, sad, sad" as they may be. The similarity, then, goes beyond the W-word, because Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) wins hands-down the title of Saddest Monster of Them All, sadder than all those creepy-creaking child-ghosts in J-horror movies, or--and this is saying a lot--Karloff's haunted face, even in its most extreme bouts of loss and descent in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Chaney the Younger had a strange face--I always want to use the word "mug"--whose dull despair had made him a good choice for poor Lennie in the 1939 film version of Of Mice and Men. (It was Broderick Crawford on stage in 1937.) In The Wolf Man, the last thing he looked like was a Scottish gentleman--and while the plot tries to cover that up a bit, his Larry Talbot still seems straight out of Brooklyn (circa 1935), a weary schlump trudging back and forth from depressing job to threadbare existence. It is a Depression face, beaten but only realizing it after the fact, the big galoot who doesn't get his as much as someone else's.

In other words, a perfect werewolf, a victim of another's violent spree--Bela Lugosi's, in fact; the werewolf (actually named "Bela") who bites Larry. It's interesting to watch Talbot's split reactions in these movies, as he seeks death with all the energy of a convalescent-home inmate while his werewolf counterpart/stunt double rolls around with reckless glee through glade and glen, nimble as a faun, hungry as a satyr. But even more, notice how all that energy does not lead to "eternal delight"; no, we'll save that for some postmodern Goth-werewolf who finds liberation in consumption. Larry is only miserable, and the werewolf is simply scary. My sixteen-year-old daughter still remembers when she was little, up and itchy-hot with chicken pox, sleeping on the sofa bed under a penguin-patterned counterpane, watching The Wolf Man late at night with me. And sharing her first viewing, I was reminded how frightening Larry was as the Wolf Man, how perfectly at home in the thick fog, always snarling sotto voce, the only sign we needed that he meant business, and that business was booming--and shrieking, at least for a moment, until his slavering embrace cut it off short.

Like Lugosi's Count, Chaney's lycanthrope produced no blood to speak of; but he seemed at once the most unwholesome, unstoppable and also least understood of Universal Studios' monsters, a cruel cipher that everyone, Larry included, knew needed killing. (Some day I'd like to write about T.R. Hummer's poem, "The Rural Carrier Stops to Kill a Nine-Foot Cottonmouth," the most arresting thing I've ever read about "things in this world a man can't look at without / Wanting to kill." And I suppose, this being the Halloween Roundup and all, over the next few weeks such a poem should pretty easily come to mind again.) I'm reminded of The Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's own little tale of death in the woods, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and the mopey-yet-teeth-gnashing progress through his "meanness"; and how still, at the end, all the loose ends tied up in bloody knots, he too must wearily admit, "It's no real pleasure in life." Now there, kiddies, is a fitting motto for the Talbot family crypt.

*I was calling it Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man, but my son corrected me. He didn't stick around to watch it, but he was right: Between Larry's kindred-spirit rescue of the Monster (Lugosi at last accepting the neckbolts) and dogged (sorry) insistence that Dr. Frankenstein's work must somehow hold the secret to a cure for what ails him, it is definitely more a matter of meet rather than vs. Indeed, their spirited tussle at the end almost seems an afterthought; the crumbling dam already ensures mutual destruction. Still, my memory of it as a kid is much more pugilistic, and I'll hang onto that when no one's looking.

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