Saturday, June 30, 2012

The First Werewolf Movie?

Wolf Blood: A Tale Of The Forest(1925)
Director: George Chesebro and Bruce Mitchell
Cast: George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton, Raymond Hanford

Most film historians declare that Universal Studios created the first official werewolf film with the release of 1935's Werewolf of London, part of the initial horror phase started by Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Seven years later the studio would add immeasurably to the myth with the most influential werewolf film, The Wolf Man, which also made Lon Chaney Jr. a horror star.
However, research shows that there were earlier takes on the werewolf on film. This is not surprising considering the age of the legend, which goes back to recorded time, though the argument can be made that it's not so peculiar, when one realizes the lack of classic werewolf literature.
The first werewolf film was entitled simply, The Werewolf(1913), which was based on Native American legend. Unfortunately, it's also considered a lost film and no stills exist, sadly.
One film that does survive and may show the earliest link to the legend is an obscure(and bizarre) 1925 drama with the title, Wolf Blood. This film contains several elements that would turn up in later genre pictures, while also remaining unique and fairly original, especially in it's depiction of a more psychological horror, a term I dislike, since all good horror springs from within the conscious and subconscious, but the view is taken primarily from that of mental derangement and illness, which actually is more akin to real life lycanthropy and remains a rather bold concept.

The film tells the story of rival logging companies, the Ford Logging Company and the Consolidated Lumber Company, which have waged war on each other. Consolidated even resorting to sending men out to shoot and maim the competition, so to keep them out of work. This becomes too much to handle, especially since they are cut off from civilization and the field hospital is filling up with wounded. Dick Bannister(George Chesebro) is the new field boss of the Ford company and is trying to keep the peace, but to no avail. He sends for the boss, Miss Edith Ford(Marguerite Clayton) who arrives with her fiance surgeon, Eugene(Raymond Hanford) and as soon as they arrive, Bannister is severely injured in a fight and thrown off a cliff. He has a severed artery, so the surgeon must operate quickly. Desperate to find a blood transfusion, he substitutes a wolf and everything seems alright for awhile, until reports of grisly murders are reported and Bannister gets ideas that he may be infected with the blood, after all. Portions of the Indian legend are inserted and Bannister believes himself to be part of the "phantom pack" a ghostly group of wolves that roam the forest and soon he runs off into the night, howling at the moon. Edith has fallen for him and Eugene feels guilty, trying to explain that the wolf blood is harmless, however Bannister has gone mad and is blamed for the murder of chief rival, Roy Watson, who was killed by wolves. Running to the side of a mountain, Bannister is ready to leap to his death, but is stopped by Edith and taken to safety. Later, it is discovered that Watson was indeed murdered by wolves after falling from a cliff. What a way to go.

Wolf Blood is obviously not a werewolf movie, but it has enough elements to warrant attention. For one thing, it's use of the protagonist and the psychological edge would later turn up in future werewolf movies including The Wolf Man. The difference is that Bannister suffers from an actual psychological malady and never shows any physical characteristics of the wolf, which is curious, considering that was screenwriter Curt Siodmak's approach when first writing The Wolf Man. This reminds me of several proto-horror films of the period, like Rex Ingram's The Monster(1925), which influenced several later Frankenstein films, without actually containing a monster. In many ways, Wolf Blood is a similar experience.
It's an odd film for sure, playing more like a melodrama than a true horror film, a trait befalling many wannabe genre films of the period. The 20s saw the release of some of the most oddball plots ever seen, I mean, look at some of those Lon Chaney films, and Wolf Blood is no different. Yet, the inclusion of a slightly supernatural edge keeps it ahead of the pack, if you permit the pun.
The direction is typically stilted, as many were at the time, but benefits from beautiful natural locations, especially towards the end and the use of atmospherics, clearly inspired by the Germans, are really, very good. The image of the spectral wolves gliding through the forest are really eerie and I suspect had this film been more well known, could easily have become a classic horror image.
Most of the acting is average, another reason for the film's obscurity. None of the performers are as adept as later interpretations of the story would be and Chesebro has none of the pathos to make his plight work entirely. Still, the film is interesting, despite all this and manages to survive today.
Wolf Blood is not a great film, but as a curio-piece, it's a must-see for the horror historian and especially werewolf fans who plan on doing a little genealogy, trying to piece together what brought us our favorite creatures of the night. It's nothing to howl about, but it's a decent look into early American horror.

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