Wednesday, October 31, 2012

She-Wolf of London (Universal, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I dug out my box of the Universal legacy collection of their classic horror films from the 1930’s and 1940’s and decided to run one for Hallowe’en’en (well, what else do you call the day before Hallowe’en?). Alas, the one we picked was pretty much a dog: She-Wolf of London, included as a “bonus” in the “Wolf Man” box with the 1941 The Wolf Man, the 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the 1935 The Werewolf of London (a film I’ve always thought was underrated and far better than the 1941 reboot, though it would have been even better if the originally set director and stars — James Whale, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi — had made it instead of Stuart Walker, Henry Hull and Warner Oland). Alas, She-Wolf of London was made in 1946, at the tail end of the original Universal horror cycle, and is a film so dull that I’ve never managed to sit through it without falling asleep — not in the 1970’s when I first saw (most of) it on TV, not later on and certainly not last night. On the plus side, it’s got those great old-house standing sets from the Universal back lot, lots of fog machines working in conjunction with the sets to produce the required Gothic atmosphere, marvelous chiaroscuro cinematography by Maury Gertsman and some surprisingly oblique camera angles by normally straightforward director (a boy named) Jean Yarbrough. It also has a personable cast, headed by June Lockhart as heiress Phyllis Allenby, who fears that she’s fallen victim to the “curse of the Allenbys” — that periodically members of her family change into werewolves and go out and kill people randomly. A series of murders is currently being committed by the so-called “She-Wolf of London” (the film is set at the turn of the last century) and is being investigated by Inspector Pierce of Scotland Yard (Dennis Hoey, who plays the part exactly the way he played Inspector Lestrade in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies).

Phyllis Allenby lives with her aunt Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) and Martha’s daughter Carol (Jan Wiley) in the crumbling old Allenby manse, though a clumsy bit of exposition (the writers are George Bricker and Dwight V. Babcock, not exactly names to conjure with in screenwriting history) reveals that the Winthrops are not blood Allenbys at all and have no claim to the Allenby family fortune, to which Phyllis is sole heir. Phyllis is engaged to barrister (British-speak for trial lawyer) Barry Lanfield (Don Porter — incidentally Porter gets top billing on the film itself but Lockhart gets it on the trailer — was the trailer for a reissue after Lockhart got at least a bit of fame as the mother on the Lassie TV series and then on Lost in Space?), while Carol is dating artist Dwight Severn (a wasted Martin Kosleck), of whom her mom disapproves because Severn is penniless and likely to remain that way. Early on it becomes all too obvious that the “she-wolf of London” doesn’t really exist, especially since the only evidence of her we see is a normal-appearing woman, always seen from behind, with a hood up over the back of her head, and though we hear various snarling and ripping sounds as she dispatches her victims (a small boy at the beginning and an inept policeman later on) it becomes clear that this, like the contemporaneous Devil Bat’s Daughter from PRC, is another Gaslight knockoff in which the heroine is being convinced that she’s a monster for some sinister purpose — and not terribly surprisingly, the real she-wolf turns out to be Martha Winthrop, who has been drugging Phyllis every night and smearing blood on her hands when a murder occurs so she’ll become convinced she’s the she-wolf, she’ll either be arrested for the murders or put in an asylum, and the Winthrops will be able to go on enjoying the Allenby house and money indefinitely. Needless to say, she doesn’t get her wish; she ends up chasing Phyllis through the house after Martha’s own maid Hannah (Eily Malyon) learns what’s going on and Martha decides she’ll have to dispatch Phyllis ahead of schedule — so she grabs a knife, chases Phyllis with it, then falls down stairs and accidentally stabs herself, allowing Phyllis and her nice young lawyer boyfriend to get together at the end. She-Wolf of London is a nothing movie, thoroughly boring and without the appeal of the contemporary Val Lewton films — the makers seemed to be going for the nerve-wracking uncertainty of many of Lewton’s movies over whether there is anything supernatural going on or not, but they missed Lewton’s literacy and taste by a mile and also sacrificed the more visceral thrills and shocks of the classic Universal style — though it’s at least professionally made and the cast is genuinely appealing.