After the recent death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) returns home from life in America to the mansion house in Wales where his father Sir John (Claude Rains) runs the estate. Sir John hopes that with one of his sons dead, the other will decide to stay and take over from him, but Larry has grown used to living abroad, having trained in engineering. What he will do is attend to the telescope on the top floor, his father being an astronomy enthusiast, and after fixing it he tries it out, scanning around the nearby village for anything interesting. And he finds it when he spies antique seller Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), but his hopes are about to be dashed...
...and that's because sooner or later he's going to become The Wolf Man. The inevitability of this tragedy looms large in Curt Siodmak's script, a script which almost single-handedly laid down the rules of werewolf lore with its silver, full moons (oddly never seen), wolfsbane and pentagrams all fashioned into one of the most instantly archetypal horror movies since... well, since Universal's original Frankenstein from ten years previously. Horror fiction has been attempting to hit upon something that catches on so strongly ever since - there are still those who believe this was all based on actual folklore.
The notion of the werewolf had been around for centuries, of course, but here was a film that pinned down that somewhat vague legend, far more so that Universal's previous try at it, Werewolf of London. It made its star Lon Chaney Jr inescapably linked to the fright genre and ensured that he would spend the rest of his career as monsters (when he wasn't in westerns, that is), but that is no slight on his presence here, as he truly fitted the role of the angst-ridden but doomed hero, a very nineteen-forties character that would develop into film noir before the decade was out.
Funnily enough the fellow who bites Chaney is none other than Bela Lugosi as gypsy fortune teller, er, Bela, who notices while reading the palm of Gwen's friend Jenny (Fay Helm) that there is a pentagram on it that only he sees. This means she is to be his next victim and although he sends her away it's too late and he transforms into a wolf (actually a big dog) and kills her, but Larry rushes to the rescue and beats the beast to death with his silver-topped cane. Though not before he has been bitten... Surprisingly, the plot keeps Larry from transforming until over half the film is over, but Jack Pierce's makeup work is worth waiting for.
The dread of knowing there is no avoiding the terrible things one is capable of informs the storytelling and Larry's personality and Chaney was well cast as a man haunted by a curse he has no idea how to lift. Being the forties, there had to be a psychological angle to the terrors and Sir John has his son see a doctor to persuade him that all this werewolf nonsense is all in his head, with much talk of mental illness and the patient wanting to be cured at the forefront of the discussion. Yet the villagers are more superstitious, and indeed the script takes the opportunity to present the animalistic side of Larry as being brought out to counter his lust for Gwen, his jealousy over her other potential suitor and his frustrations at being trapped in a life chosen by his father that he wishes no part of. Add to that lashings of studio-bound atmosphere (and fog) plus a definitive gypsy woman performance from diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya and you have a chiller that may be too brief, but was undeniably influential.