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Saturday, 2 September 2017

CRY OF THE WEREWOLF (1944)


By 1944, Universal were losing faith in their gallery of once-prized monster icons to the point where all the franchises were consigned to a B-movie graveyard that would end in tawdry multi-creature package titles. The last one to the party had been Lon Chaney’s promising The Wolf Man (1941), but even his heartfelt (and sole actor) inhabiting of the role through its sequels couldn’t prevent Larry Talbot and the werewolf idea itself from an awful destiny of being dragged down to cinema’s doldrums. It didn’t help that other studios had been exploiting the human/wolf horror premise though careful to avoid name infringement.

Probably the most well-known, though far from helping the cause, is Columbia’s lacklustre Cry of the Werewolf (1944) scripted by the man who put the pap in papyrus, four-time Mummy sequel scribe Griffin Jay. Something of a sheep in wolf’s clothing, its only benefit to the mythology is making the protagonist female rather than male, yet the film never lives up to such glimmers of opportunity and is constantly hamstrung by B-movie treatment. 

After a credit sequence superimposed over an aimlessly chewing wolf specimen, the opening prologue text attempts to set out its stall by echoing the poignant themes of fate and insistent legendry that bedevilled Chaney’s character so compellingly: ‘Anything that happens in the world is never lost…Perhaps our story is something that has lived on in a person's memory or perhaps it is just a legend’.  This fuzzy, bet-hedging optimism persists as the plot aims to tick off some of the familiar lycanthropic tropes.

We have a lycanthropically-cursed bloodline of Transylvanian gypsies complete with caravans, scarves and a forebidding biddy of a matriarch who keeps pulling her family back into the fold of inexorable sorrow with her Cassandra-like predictions. As Bianca, ex-Broadway star Blanche Yurka lacks the warmth of The Wolf Man’s iconic Maria Ouspenkaya, and also a sure handling of camera acting technique – hack director Henry Levin sloppily misses that she eyes the camera as she turns around in her first scene. Her daughter Celeste (Nina Foch) is the beautiful eldest child of the La Tour clan, the ‘daughter of a werewolf’ (at one point the proposed title for the film) and current living possessor of that pelt that commands nocturnal roaming and blood-lust. She satiates herself by targetting academic Doctor Morris (an anaemic Fritz Leiber) whose La Tour Museum houses his manuscript that will expose the family’s awful history. This protection of her legacy becomes the inciting incident that gets the plot rolling – or rather ambling. Celeste murders Morris and burns his offending text, leaving the tour guide Peter a babbling catatonic.

On paper this may work, however all the proposed horror clashes are tepid in execution. Celeste’s transformations are never shown during her living scenes; the closest we get is an awkward cheap-jack cut from her shadow on a wall to a (vague animal?) silhouette. Morris’s death for example is reduced to an off-screen gurgle, more comedic than tantalisingly subtle. This is a fatal flaw that drains the meat of the movie into bloodless by-the-numbers sleuthing.

Foch is the most appealing actor in the movie which is unintentional faint praise when compared to the generally pedestrian supporting players on offer. She gives Celeste a sexy imperious confidence in her occult power - which would be more attractively impregnable if it wasn’t offset by a sudden single burst of tearful remorse in Bianca’s bosom after she kills wayward museum janitor (and fellow old-countryman) Jan played by Ivan Triesault.

Meanwhile, further diluting of the mixture is provided by the turgid wooing between Morris’s son Bob (Stephen Crane) and assistant Elsa (Osa Massen) who it turns out is the younger sister of Celeste and is later positioned by her to follow in the family line. It is the women of the cast who fare the best in this film. Massen gets by on her looks and a beguiling accent that though Danish sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Austrian. Crane sadly, like movie father, like son is a wooden lead opposite her.  His acting career was mercilessly short-lived, encompassing only three credits in 1944 while he was more involved with a fiery marriage, annulment then remarriage to Lana Turner and later channelling his real talent for restaurant entrepreneurship.

Morris’s murder meanwhile leads to a police investigation which brings in the dunderhead duo of abrasive barker Lt. Barry Lane (Barton McClane from that year’s The Mummy’s Ghost) who at least supplies welcome energy, and unsubtle comic relief cudgel Mac (John Tyrrell) who doesn’t. They are as mystified in seeking the murderous owner of fingerprints left on the inside of a secret door as we are in identifying how this film was classified as a horror when it raises the pulse no more than an episode of Little House on the Prairie.

Arguably, the missing masculine bite in Cry of the Werewolf isn’t entirely a bad thing. When Foch decides to get her paws into Bob the sap seductively speaking, she uses on him a cunning feline rather than vulpine vibe. This may have been a deliberate homage to Lewton and Tourneur’s recent influential 1942 hit Cat People (see my review). Unfortunately, like any enticing element it is wasted in low-budget pursuit of the slight running time of sixty-three minutes.

One oddball moment to savour for fans of eccentric horror performers comes courtesy of Milton Parsons as sinister funeral director Adamson. This balding purveyor of the dark side (in the Dick Tracy movie series for example) regularly played cadaverous undertaker types and here he gives a memorably nutty spin to describing the ‘se-cree-tive’ nature of the La Tour family’s dealings.

If only more of such curios could have been in evidence. Instead we get a plodding crime drama terminated (purposeful word choice) by what should have been a climactic battle between Bob and Celeste over the brainwashed soul of Elsa. Since the studio still weren’t springing for any effects, the epic struggle of man versus monster is reduced to  'postman attacked by German Shepherd'. The police put us and Celeste out of our mutual misery by shooting her. This gives rise to a belated dissolve shot changing Celeste from wolf to dead human form on the floor, an ending handled as clumsily as the rest of the film.

Overall Cry of the Werewolf is really a plaintive pooch’s sorrowful whimper.

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