Thursday, October 12, 2017

She-Wolf of London (1946)

Let's get this out in the open from the start: despite what the title would have you think, this is not a female take on Werewolf of London or The Wolf Man; in fact, it isn't a werewolf movie at all. It may be available as one of the movies in Universal's Wolf Man Legacy DVD set, along with other movies like the two I just named and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but at the end of the movie, you discover that there never was a werewolf prowling around, which is why I didn't label it as entry in my series of Werewolf Flicks. Instead, this is a Gothic mystery/thriller, and one that I'd never ever heard of until I bought that set. This movie is so obscure that, not only was it not talked about in any of the Crestwood House monster books or similar books that I read as a kid, but John Stanley didn't even review in his Creature Features book and there are a good number of movies that I first learned through that. Information on it is very obscure, as Wikipedia's page on it only features a plot synopsis and IMDB's trivia section has nothing substantial, save for the mention that actor Lloyd Corrigan was a last-minute replacement for Forrester Harvey, who'd appeared in The Invisible Man Returns and The Wolf Man but died before he could begin work on this film, and that filming was completed on Christmas Eve of 1945. Speaking of which, if you're familiar with the timeline of Universal's classic horror run, you'd know that this came very near the end, when Gothic horror was quickly going out of style, and, in fact, this was probably one of the last ones Universal did, as this was only two years before it all officially ended with Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Looking at the film, it's not hard to see why that was the case. It's one of those tricky subjects where it's not an unbearably bad movie but it's also certainly not an overlooked gem or even one that's so bad it's good. It's just a very average, serviceable movie that doesn't have much real entertainment value, which can the hardest of all to deal with. However, I'll try to do my best with this.

At the turn of the century, the people of London are on edge after a man is badly mauled in a local park. The victim claims that his attacker was a woman and rumors begin to spread that she also may have been a werewolf, which Scotland Yard detective Inspector Pierce writes off as nonsense. At the same time, lovely young Phyllis Allenby, who lives in her family's mansion with her Aunt Martha, cousin Carol, and housemaid Hannah, is engaged to be married to wealthy lawyer Barry Lanfield. However, Phyllis is disturbed when she overhears the police investigating the site of the murder while out for a morning horse-ride with Barry, as well as other strange incidents like one of the mansion's guard dogs acting vicious towards her and their constant howling at night. When she awakens the morning after such a night, she finds dried blood on her hands, mud on her shoes, and the hem of her dress wet. Carol then reads in the newspaper that a young boy was found mangled to death in the park, which is not far from the mansion, making Phyllis believe that she was the one who did it. Her aunt and cousin try to convince her that she did no such thing but Phyllis becomes more and more reclusive, especially when it comes to Barry, whom she refuses to see day after day, although he's undeterred and intends to find out what's going on. Following the murder of one of the main detectives, who claims that it was the "wolf-woman" before he dies, Phyllis is convinced that she's fallen under the fabled "Curse of the Allenbys," one that stems from legends that her family was ruled by wolves. When she tells him of this, Barry decides to figure out for himself whether Phyllis is becoming a blood-thirsty "she-wolf" or if there's something much more down to Earth going on.

She-Wolf of London was directed by Jean Yarbrough, a man who I just read was a graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which is literally down the road from my alma-mater of St. Andrews. He started out in the silent era, working his way up from prop man to assistant director, and began directing short subjects in 1936 before graduating to features with 1938's Rebellious Daughters. She-Wolf was not his first foray into the horror genre, as his second feature was 1940's The Devil Bat, with Bela Lugosi, and he followed that up with King of the Zombies in 1941 and House of Horrors, which he directed right before this film. He also did The Brute Man also in 1946 and The Creeper in 1948. His greatest success, though, came in comedy, as he did a number of movies with Abbot and Costello and two movies with the Bowery Boys. He also had little trouble in making the switch to television starting in the early 50's, directing shows like The Abbot and Costello Show, The Life of Riley, Gunsmoke, The Addams Family, McHale's Navy, My Favorite Martian, Bonanza, and Death Valley Days, just to name a few. His last theatrical film was a horror-comedy with an interesting name: 1967's Hillbillys in a Haunted House, which featured Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Basil Rathbone, which was the penultimate movie of the latter's career as he died the year it was released. The last credit on Yarbrough's IMDB filmography is a couple of episodes of Adam-12 and he died in 1975 at the age of 73.

Nearly everything about this movie is very, very average, to the point where virtually nothing about it sticks out, and that includes the cast. Nobody in this film is horrible but nobody stands out either; like the movie itself, they're merely serviceable, and that goes for the lead, Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart). She's very lovely to look at (her nice face gets a lot of close-ups) and she comes across as lovely on the inside as well, but she spends virtually the entire movie shut up inside her family's mansion, often in her bedroom, terrified at the prospect that she's becoming a werewolf at night and brutally killing people in the nearby local park, due to an ancient curse that is said to hang over her family. She's so sure that it's happening to her that she even tries to break off her engagement to Barry, for fear of dragging him down into it and spends most of the movie avoiding him, with her Aunt Martha helping her by often sending him away. However, that sums up her entire performance, as the only time we see her being anything other than terrified and gloomy is when we first see her when she's taking a morning horse-ride with Barry and at the end of the movie when the truth behind everything has been revealed and she realizes she's perfectly fine (those are the only times I think we ever see her smile, in fact).

Barry Lanfield (Don Porter), Phyllis' fiancé, is someone who, at first glance, you might think would be the archetypical handsome but bland leading man who, at the end of the movie, ends up saving the girl; not quite, though. Barry, even though he is kind of bland, comes across as a nice guy who's playful with Phyllis when the two of them are off riding at the beginning of the movie and who, being a lawyer, is determined to get to the bottom of what's going on with his fiancé when she begins refusing to see him and her aunt keeps her isolated at the mansion. At one point late in the movie, he reveals that he knows all about the Allenby Curse and that it's what she's worried about, given her fretting about the strange goings on like the dogs howling at night and such. As you might expect, he doesn't put any stock in it, to the point where he underestimates just how upset she is over it and recites a passage from Merchant of Venice pertaining to wolves that makes Phyllis absolutely hysterical. But, as intelligent as he is, he ends up getting things wrong when, upon following a cloaked figure that leaves the mansion and wanders into the park, he assumes that it's Phyllis' cousin, Carol, who's the "she-wolf" when she appears on the scene right after her boyfriend is attacked while waiting to meet up with her. He learns that he was wrong when he later talks to Carol about it and he also doesn't save Phyllis from the real killer, as he follows Carol to the police station before the climax and they both arrive back at the mansion after everything has been unraveled and is merely able to comfort Phyllis, letting her know that it's all over.

The most memorable character in the movie is Phyllis' aunt, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden). Right off the bat, you know that there's something not right about her, as she comes across as having an intimidating, unsettling presence and being very domineering towards her own daughter, Carol, often thwarting her attempts to meet up with her boyfriend, whom she sees as somebody below her station. She claims that she wants Carol to be happy and she probably does mean it in her own way, but is going about it in a questionable manner. She's sympathetic towards Phyllis and tries to ease her mind as she becomes more and more frightened, assuring her, at first, that there's nothing wrong with her, but she also keeps her secluded at the mansion, often sending Barry away whenever he drops by to try and see her per Phyllis' requests. But, after one of the detectives on the case is murdered in the park after stopping by the mansion and making inquiries, and more evidence that Phyllis had gone out is found in her room, Martha begins to feel that there is something wrong with her, although she refuses to let her go to the police, saying that she'll be put away. Martha's façade of appearing to care about Phyllis begins to crack near the end when she tells Carol that she won't marry Barry because she's insane and it all comes out once Phyllis sends Carol to the police station with evidence that seems to suggest she did commit the murders. Martha brings Phyllis a glass of warm milk, as she had before, and when she drinks it, Phyllis become very drowsy, as Martha then reveals the milk had been drugged and she plans to kill her. Carol mentioned that she actually thought Phyllis was the victim of a hoax and, not surprisingly, Martha turns out to be the one behind it: she committed the attacks in the park (one of which was on a little boy, showing how sick she is) and made Phyllis believe that it was her falling victim to the Allenby Curse. Her motive stems from a conversation she had with Carol in their first scene, when she revealed that the two of them aren't really related to Phyllis, that she was once romantically involved with Phyllis' father but they both ended up marrying other people, and that Mr. Allenby took them both in because of how desperately poor they were, allowing Martha to work as housekeeper for the mansion. If Phyllis marries Barry, the mansion goes to her since she's the sole heir, so Martha decided to convince her that she was insane and belonged in an asylum so that Carol could marry the wealthy Barry and they could remain living in the mansion (apparently, she didn't think Phyllis would simply allow them to continue to do so). However, her sending for the police has forced Martha's hand, as she knows that she'll be found completely sane if examined and decides to kill her and claim that it was suicide. While she's explaining her plan to the drugged Phyllis, which is really meant for the audience's benefit, you can see how truly insane she is from her crazed expressions and the mad way in which she speaks, but when she takes the time to do this, the mansion's current housekeeper, Hannah, who'd been suspicious of Martha anyway, overhears everything and goes for the police herself. Martha tries to stop her but dies in the process. You know how she dies? By tripping down the stairs while chasing Hannah and stabbing herself with the knife she was planning to kill Phyllis with. I don't know what's lamer: that or when Kharis did himself in by bring the walls of an ancient monastery crashing down on him at the end of The Mummy's Curse.

Martha's daughter, Carol (Jan Wiley), is, unknowingly, a part of her mother's scheme to have Phyllis committed, in that she intends for her to marry Barry once her "cousin" is put away and she's often trying to get the two of them together. In reality, though, Carol loves Dwight Severn, an artist whose poor standing doesn't sit well with Martha, who often prevents her daughter from meeting or communicating with him in any way, not wanting her to end up in poverty the way she did when she married Carol's father. Despite her mother's meddling, though, Carol is undeterred and continues seeing Severn in secret, eventually telling her mother once it's exposed that she's not going to stop and that she might as well forget about trying to hook her up with Barry. She's certainly much more noble than her mother, not only because of her devotion to someone she truly loves and her simply seeing Barry as a friendly acquaintance but also because she acts like a sister towards Phyllis, allowing her to tell her anything, and Phyllis trusts her to go to the police with evidence that she's probably the killer at the end of the movie. Little does she know that by doing so and saying that she thinks Phyllis is the victim of a cruel hoax, she prompts Martha to change her scheme and attempt to kill Phyllis while claiming it was suicide, a plan which is ultimately stopped, as you read up above.

The one resident at the Allenby mansion who's not fooled by Martha's façade is the housekeeper, Hannah (Eily Malyon). While she is subservient to Martha, you can tell from early on that she doesn't agree with all of her decisions and is quite suspicious of her actions when she keeps Phyllis isolated and spies her walking to a cupboard in the middle of the night in order to get Phyllis a glass of warm milk. She attempts to tell other people of her suspicions, telling Barry that she thinks Martha is peculiar and attempting to tell Det. Latham of the strange goings on with the howling dogs, asking him to take them away, but is stopped when Martha shows up. Above everything else, she tries to help those around her in any way she can, attempting to deliver a letter from Carol to Dwight Severn, although she's thwarted by Martha, and allows Barry to see Phyllis in the garden, despite her being supposedly ill. Most significantly, though, she overhears Martha's telling Phyllis everything after following her up the stairs, carrying the glass of milk, upon becoming suspicious of a drug she found hidden in the cupboard, and stops her from killing her, saying that she intends to tell the police. Martha chases after her down the stairs when she attempts to go to the police, which is what causes her to trip and impale herself with the knife, and when Barry and Carol come back with them, she's quick to let them know that Martha was the she-wolf.

You've probably by this point noticed that, aside from Barry, this story is mainly all about women, which is often commented on in regards to the residents of the Allenby mansion, and none of the other male characters have much to do. That's especially true of Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey), who's introduced as a complete skeptic who writes the werewolf rumors off as complete nonsense and who you expect to be an ever-present naysayer throughout the movie but, instead, disappears after the beginning and isn't seen again until almost 3/4 of the way in when he's organizing another search of the park. He's the one who Barry and Carol bring back to the mansion in order to talk to Phyllis, where he's then told what's been going on. Det. Latham (Lloyd Corrigan) has a little more to do in how he becomes the lead investigator on the case, believing 100% that there is a werewolf prowling the park, and he's also not the bumbling, comic relief character that you might think he'd be when you first see him, coming across as quite competent. However, his investigation and his inquiries at the Allenby mansion cost him his life when Martha jumps him and tears his throat out in the park later that night. Finally, there's Dwight Severn (Martin Kosleck), Carol's beau who's significant in his relationship with her and how Martha almost kills him as well, although he's able to fight her off (he was too busy defending himself to get a good look at her face). He follows after Barry when he follows Carol to the police station and returns with them to the mansion with Inspector Pierce.




It's a shame that this film is ultimately revealed to have been a cheat at the end because it tantalizes you with two potential mysteries: whether or not Phyllis is a werewolf and the possibility that someone else in the house might be. There are scenes where you see a hooded, feminine figure leave and arrive at the Allenby mansion, as well as prowling around the park and stalking people, and you never see the face, letting your imagination picture what could possibly underneath the hood. And whenever the "she-wolf" attacks somebody, you hear her snarling viciously and rapidly, which would make you believe that it is indeed an animal person, be it a creature that's almost entirely wolf-like or one that's mostly human with animalistic features, like a lot of hair, sharp teeth, a snout, and such. In addition, there's the suggestion that this is the latest form of an ancient curse that's haunted the Allenby family for centuries, with Phyllis saying that she's often dreamt of being a wolf, making it akin to the curse that the character of Irena Dubrovna fears she is afflicted with in Cat People rather than the typical scenario of someone being bitten by a werewolf. That would have made for an interesting and different type of creature, one that apparently doesn't transform as a result of the full moon, since it's never mentioned or seen at all, but rather at complete random during some nights. Plus, if the filmmakers wanted to throw a curveball at the audience, one idea would be to have Martha Winthrop really be a werewolf, either because she lied to Carol in order to protect her from the truth and that the both of them are related to the Allenby family or because it's her family that has the ancient curse and she told Phyllis that it was the Allenbys after the death of her parents so she could have a scapegoat of some type should the curse ever hit her. You could have even gone with the plot-point of Martha planting evidence to make Phyllis think it was her and had it really be the aftermath of her nightly activities that she was trying to force onto her. Her motivation in the actual film of wanting to ensure that she and Carol are able to remain living at the mansion could remain the same, as she's trying to pass Phyllis off as a woman who's potentially insane not only to get her committed but also to keep Carol from learning that her own mother is a bloodthirsty werewolf who's killed innocent people. It may have made the movie more complicated but I think it would have also been nice to throw the viewer a bone and give them what the title promises.


When you think back on the movie upon learning that the truth, there are a number of things that don't make sense. First, when Martha is giving her long-winded explanation of her plot to Phyllis at the end of the movie, she says that her first victim was the young boy who was found murdered in the park... but when the film begins, there's already been an attack and the man claims that it was an animal-like woman who did it. Phyllis' hearing about this and her reaction to other strange things like one of the mansion's guard dogs acting aggressive towards her and the constant howling of the others at night seems to be what inspired Martha to come up with her plan. So, what attacked that guy at the beginning? Was he actually attacked by a vicious dog, as Inspector Pierce believes, and was either so drunk or otherwise somehow imagined it to have been a wolf-woman, which then sparked the rumors of a werewolf being the culprit? Second, the dogs. Why was that one dog acting so vicious towards Phyllis? At first, it's meant to make you think that there's something sinister about her that the dog can sense, like there was Dr. Glendon's cat hissed at him when he was starting to change in Werewolf of London or when Frank Andrews' dog barked at Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, but when that's revealed to have not been the case, I can only assume that maybe Martha trained the dog to act like that to further Phyllis' paranoia. But then, Martha says that dog has always been like that towards Phyllis, so maybe he just has a bad attitude, meaning it was a mere coincidence, as Phyllis' strange, wolf-like dreams apparently were(how anticlimactic). Plus, why were the dogs constantly howling and barking at night? Again, did Martha train them to do that to keep Phyllis on edge or did they just know that there was somebody doing bad things who was lurking around? And why were those dogs following that one cloaked figure around? I assumed originally that Martha had them follow her and she would maybe let them attack the victims to make it look more like the work of an animal of some sort but since we see her attack people herself, I'm guessing that it was Carol sneaking off to meet Dwight Severn and the dogs were just following her. And third, think of how impractical and potentially unsafe Martha's methods were. She's going around the park and attacking people, using only a hood, the dark, and fog to keep her face hidden. She's really lucky that the one person who survived, Dwight Severn, was so preoccupied with defending himself that he didn't get a good look at her face. What if she didn't kill someone who did see her face? She would've been screwed then... or maybe not, since Det. Latham called her the "wolf-woman" when he talked to the other officers before he succumbed to the neck wound she inflicted upon him, and Severn said she howled, which she didn't, and commented that she was quite strong for a woman. And if she really is tearing people's throats out with her teeth, how is she able to cause the type of damage and severance that's making everyone believe it's the work of an animal? She either must be even more crazy than I originally thought or it's just more newspaper hype (probably a combination of the two).






The one major compliment that I can give the movie is that is well-made on the technical side. The production design of the large Allenby mansion looks pretty good, although I don't think it was built for this movie, which had a small budget, but was instead a standing set on the Universal lot they reused (according to IMDB, this set had been used before in the studio's low budget westerns). Either way, it looks good and is a little bit eerie when the outside is photographed at night. Speaking of which, the best moments of art direction are in the exterior nighttime scenes, where you have long stretches of streets lit by gas-lights and shrouded in thick fog, which completely covers the park when the she-wolf attack scenes occur, and you have the bobbies patrolling the place, making it akin to a film on Jack the Ripper (I'm surprised they didn't make mention of that, since the film takes place around that same time). It brings to mind the fog-covered forests in The Wolf Man, although not quite as memorable or atmospheric, and is kind of sad in retrospect since this is one of the last times, if not the last, where you would see such images from Universal. I also like the touches of the image of Phyllis hanging a lantern outside her window to ward off evil spirits and the sounds of the howling and barking dogs, which does add another touch to it, although I still wouldn't call it eerie. And finally, during the last part of the movie when Martha gives Phyllis the drugged warm milk in order to murder her, Jean Yarbrough shoots the scene at a tilted angle from the beginning, letting you know that something isn't right, and also puts in some blurry, fuzzy optical effects for Phyllis' point of view when the drug begins to take effect. (This whole scene, right down to the shot of Martha walking up the stairs with the glass of milk, is akin to the similar situation with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion.) But, like I said, that's about the only standout aspects of the movie that I can name.

Much like The Return of the Vampire, I don't have much to say about the movie's score, which is another composed by future cartoon composer, William Lava. As with the movie itself, the music is serviceable but hardly special and there are few parts of it that stand out. I remember the main title theme being okay but I couldn't tell you what it sounded like other than it was generic; however, I can recall a low, kind of eerie-sounding sustained chord that plays whenever someone is about to be attacked by the "she-wolf." In all honesty, the one piece of the music that I can't stop thinking about is this very inappropriate, saccharine-sounding bit that plays when Carol is walking to the police station after Phyllis tells her to and we see that both Barry and Dwight Severn are following her. I don't know what compelled Lava to score this bit in that way but, then again, as I said when I talked about him before, I've never been the biggest fan of his music anyway.

Ultimately, there's a reason why She-Wolf of London has remained so obscure, despite its now being available on DVD: it's much ado about nothing. Other than some good art direction, fair use of fog and other atmospheric touches, and some serviceable performances from the actors, with Sara Haden giving the most memorable, there's little that makes it stand out. The characters are all standard, with the supporting male ones having very little to do, nothing substantial happens during the movie's very short running time (61 minutes), the music score is just there, and, most disappointingly, the title, as well as its inclusion as part of the Wolf Man Legacy DVD set, is revealed to have been a complete lie at the end when it had the potential to create a very different type of werewolf. I'd recommend it only if you're a Universal completionist or if you're just so into classic horror that you have to see every single one that you can; otherwise, it's best to avoid it because you won't be satisfied with the outcome.

1 comment:

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