Both shakier and less engaging than Lon Chaney Jr's 1941 Wolf Man, although that's a high watermark. It's another good-looking classic Universal horror, but it lacks focus and Henry Hull isn't as good a werewolf as Chaney.
The most common criticism today seems to be that Hull isn't a particularly engaging hero. Personally I quite liked him, but I won't argue the charge. Sometimes Hull will underplay lines that you'd expect him to shriek in horror, such as "Go, get out, get out!" There's something sardonic about him, which at its best will be witty. I liked that. However more importantly he's playing a cold-blooded scientist more interested in his laboratory than in his eighteen-year-old wife, Valerie Hobson. This is a man who never confides in his wife or lets her even see what he's working on day and night, thus driving her into the arms of another man even as he gets jealous of the two of them.
He even shuts out those who might have helped with his problem of becoming a wolf and killing people. This is not a cuddly character. The Chaney film is a romantic tragedy, but this is almost the exact opposite. It's a story of infidelity, alienation and the loss of love. One of Hull's victims is a girl at the zoo who's trying to persuade her lover to leave his wife. They get quite a lot of dialogue, by the way. Similarly, the third member of the central love triangle is an old flame of Hobson's who's always right about the werewolf killings even when the police don't believe him and would have looked like the hero if he weren't also trying to steal Hobson away from Hull.
On the other hand, you've also got the curious element that a werewolf in this film "instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best". Then you've got the evil-good duality that shows itself in things like Hull's Aunt Ettie seeming so pleased to have found a flat in the good part of London but one that overlooks lower-class streets of thieves and murderers.. Hull himself eventually finds himself alternating between two worlds: the genteel rich and the backstreet riff-raff.
All this strikes me as interesting and if anything, I'd have liked them to push it even further. The finale in particular could have done more, studiously avoiding surprises when it could have perhaps pushed the Hull-Hobson relationship just that last little bit further. Hobson gets a nice final speech, but I wanted more meat to his final confrontation with Hobson.
At the time though, the film was criticised for being too similar to the 1931 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It's certainly hard to deny the parallels and I'd been thinking the same thing even before I read it online just now. Thematically they're very different, the Fredric March film being all about sex, but both are stories in which a respectable scientist has a secret life in which he turns into a monster, sneaks out by night to the seamier side of London and kills women.
As a werewolf story, it's mildly extraordinary. I'd thought the 1941 film introduced some wacky lycanthrope lore, but check this one out. You've got a flower called the 'Mariphasa lupina lumina' whose sap prevents "werewolfery", also counter-intuitively known as "lycanthrophobia". I've already mentioned the fact that they most want to kill their loved ones, but I haven't yet talked about Hull's Tibetan expedition, upon which he'll get attacked and bitten. The implication would seem to be that Yeti sightings are really of werewolves, but then again there's also the forbidden valley and its invisible monsters. Maybe Tibet is a Lovecraftian gateway from beyond the stars for everything that's evil?
If nothing else, that would explain the Audrey II sitting near the Venus flytraps in Hull's botanical collection. The copyright record synopsis apparently mentions a scene of Hull stopping a plant from eating a boy. There's no such scene in the finished film, but I bet I know which bit of flora was to have been responsible.
What's more, this film has two werewolves. In itself that's not so unusual, with Lon Chaney Jr for instance getting bitten by Bela Lugosi, but this original wolfman survives longer than Bela. The only disappointment is that we never get a full-on wolf vs. wolf battle, but you can't say Universal didn't do monster mash-ups in films like Frankenstein meets the Wolfman. This wolfman is Dr Yogami, played in vaguely oriental fashion by Warner Oland, better known as Charlie Chan. He'd also done three Fu Manchu films. I suppose we're meant to assume he's Tibetan. He's a sympathetic figure, always treating Hull courteously even when being given the brush-off, and I particularly enjoyed him not reacting to being called "Yogama" by Spring Byington. Unfortunately the film later repeats the joke with the more obviously wrong "Yokahama" (sic).
The werewolf make-up's better. Jack Pierce's original designs were the same as those he later used on Chaney, but Hull objected to spending hours and hours in the make-up chair and so the hairpieces were simplified. This is a good thing. Wolf-Chaney looked like a cuddly teddy bear. Wolf-Hull looks creepy and eerie, with the additional feature that his make-up is understated at first, but gets more and more extreme with every metamorphosis. That's another thing this film has in common with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by the way.
A still photograph of Hull's original test makeup has survived, though.
I said that the film lacks focus. It has quite a lot of attempted comedy, which I don't think really works in a film with such a downbeat theme. The tone is often almost flippant. There's Spring Byington twittering away as Miss Ettie Coombes, then Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury as a grand old double act of boozing old ladies who knock each other unconscious whenever the urge takes them. One of them's called Mrs Whack. Then there's the simple fact that we have rather a lot of inconsequential little scenes with Hobson's boyfriend, the police, Dr Yogami, posh people at parties or whoever, most of which tend to feel as if they're contributing nothing towards the plot.
This isn't a film you watch for its cast. They're fine, but there aren't any famous or even semi-famous names on show here. Lester Matthews as Valerie Hobson's boyfriend looks like General Charles de Gaulle and is almost exactly twice her age, although he's meant to be only five years older. I believed it though. Hobson's mature for her years. She was also Elizabeth von Frankenstein the same year in Bride. The main draw in the cast these days might even be Warner Oland, although Bela Lugosi was apparently considered for Dr Yogami instead. I'd have paid good money to see Lugosi attempt an Oriental accent.
I noticed more quirks than usual. There's a newspaper called the London Dispater. (What's a Dispater?) The girl at the zoo is doing such an abominable Cockney accent that I rewound the film to hear it again. Hull and Oland are getting awfully excited about a mere two or three flowers, each of which only yields a few hours' antidote after which you'll need more again. That Tibetan dude at the beginning doesn't know how to talk slowly convincingly. Matthews has a strange pronunciation of "coyote".
Oh, and Hull has closed-circuit television in his 1935 laboratory. Even ordinary television would have been a neat trick.
This film flopped at the box office, incidentally. It's better than I expected, being a solid Universal entry rather than one of their second-tier knock-offs like the 1940s Mummy sequels, but it's also a bit of a mish-mash that fails to make a satisfying synthesis of its tone and themes. It's often light-hearted, with plenty of authentic English offhandedness, but there's nothing fun in watching Hull building a wall between himself and the outside world. Hull's story is a bleak one and it's a shame the film tried to swim against the tide with silly old ladies.
Fundamentally the triangle of Hull, Hobson and Matthews is unsatisfying. As a tragedy it's thin and as a romance it's even weaker, but it also doesn't do anything worthwhile with all the potential it had in its wife-stealing, jealousy and attempted infidelity. All that said though, the film's still worth watching. The skeleton of a much more important movie can be perceived in here, occasionally poking its ribs above the surface, while what we have is often of interest too. The weirdness in Tibet is worth a watch, if nothing else.