Ranking “The Wolf Man” Franchise
Even a Flickcharter who is pure of heart and ranks every night may become wolf if you don’t read this article and the moon is bright. Welcome to the eighth annual Halloween horror ranking! This year marks the beginning of an expansive multiyear horror franchise ranking, as we tackle the entire Universal monster franchise! With so many movies, one year alone is not enough. Therefore, Flickchart will highlight each of the sub-franchises one year at a time until the final year, where the grand ranking will be unveiled. We hope you join us for each year!
As you may have guessed by now, we are starting with The Wolf Man franchise. The Wolf Man is cinema’s most iconic werewolf franchise, though it battles for most iconic werewolf film with An American Werewolf in London. Certainly, this franchise represents the most classic interpretation of the werewolf.
This is a unique part of the Universal world, as The Wolf Man is the only entry without a direct solo sequel. The first follow-up was the first Universal cross-over film, meaning that most of Larry Talbot’s appearances are about interacting with other monsters. The Wolf Man is also unique in being one of three monsters not based upon any specific preexisting literature, and for having the same actor play him in every appearance. In that way, The Wolf Man is the character that most uniquely belongs to Universal.
This ranking will cover all of the classic Universal entries in the franchise, as well as the remake, since it was made as a direct response to the original film. Other werewolf or monster films that may feature The Wolf Man, either by name or reference, are considered outside the franchise proper. Without further ado, howl with us as we dive in!
There are no weird, late prequels to take up the last spot in this franchise. Instead, it is the first big cross-over film; basically, Universal’s The Avengers. While the initial meeting between Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster happened in an earlier film, this is the movie that brought all of the heavy hitters together. Unfortunately, it just isn’t very good. Perhaps that is due to a garbled production wherein it started out as a different film, Chamber of Horrors, that was going to incorporate a far larger roster of monsters and star all of the big actors including Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, and more. That film never made it off the ground, and instead it was retrofitted into a semi-sequel and with only Lon Chaney Jr. reprising his character, Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man.
It isn’t a particularly strong film. While promising a mashup of the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s Monster, the film’s storytelling is highly partioned and features little actual crossover. The basic plot is a silly premise: a mad scientist and hunchbacked assistant escape from prison with the vague goal of pursuing further scientific progress and making the hunchback a new body. Somehow, the first step of this is stealing a coffin with Dracula in it. The whole first third are the hijinks with John Carradine‘s Dracula. Carradine is decent enough, though he doesn’t quite capture the mystique of Bela’s iconic performance. Karloff, meanwhile, plays the mad scientist and is fun enough, but the overall writing lets everything down and Dracula is disposed of before we even get a sniff of the other monsters.
The film then proceeds with the scientist and his assistant heading to Castle Frankenstein to find the frozen bodies of The Wolf Man and Frankenstein, who presumably wound up that way due to the end of the prior film. Larry is thawed first, and Lon Chaney Jr. resumes the role he ends up repeating over and over in this franchise: the haunted man who wants to die and is reluctantly pulled into others’ affairs. The last third of this film features a weird love triangle between a gypsy woman, the hunchback, and Talbot, and it ends with quite a degree of finality for a film that has sequels.
Unfortunately, most of this was just ill-conceived. There are some decent effects here and there, and Chaney is a good enough actor that Talbot remains a sympathetic figure. But director Erie Kenton brings little intrigue. The film isn’t really that scary, and even with the same makeup artist, the Frankenstein’s Monster already looks like a parody of itself. Despite this film starring Karloff, he refused to reprise his role as the monster, feeling it had already been trivialized. Glenn Strange fills in and does what he can, but the monster is more zombie than the conflicted figure of the original film. The sloppy storytelling really leaves this whole film feeling like a half-baked attempt at whatever it was trying to be. It can easily be skipped, given that the next film largely ignores the events of this one. Both contemporary and later critics seem to agree. It can be described as Karloff later did: a “monster clambake.”
- Global Ranking: #4,141
- 5/11 on Flickchart’s Wolf Man filter
- Wins 40% of its matchups
- 7 users have it in their top 20
5. The Wolfman (2010)
Next on the list is the remake, which typically sits at about this spot in most franchises. This remake had several good things going for it. It came from a place of passion for actor Benicio del Toro, who had loved the character his entire life and really wanted to make a good, strong version of it. The original director, Mark Romanek, had neat ideas, as did screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker. But then came a story as old as time. The studio balked at some of the choices and Romanek left over creative differences. A new director wasn’t cast until four weeks before filming. While Joe Johnston wasn’t a bad choice, it was impossible for him to keep production on track. The film underwent multiple reshoots, was delayed, and had many re-edits during post-production. They even commissioned an entirely new score to replace Danny Elfman’s, before switching back. Ingredients for success, right?
Well, no, but you can still see the bones of intriguing ideas on the surface. While largely following many of the same plot points as the original film, this one has some twists. Much more time is spent exploring the growing insanity and unhinged manner of Larry Talbot as he contends with the curse he has. Del Toro is more than up to the challenge of playing a sympathetic man on the edge of sanity, realizing the monster he’s become. It’s just a shame that either the edit or rewritten script carves this character arc down into something shallow and comical. Much of the film’s storytelling breaks the vital rule of “show, don’t tell” by overexplaining things and not giving arcs and relationships room to breathe. Emily Blunt playing a woman in love with Larry had plenty of potential, but her screentime is so limited that little can be done with it.
The same can be said for Hugo Weaving as a police investigator and Anthony Hopkins as Larry’s father. Both of these characters and their relationships with Larry are ripe for exploration, especially given the quality of the performances, but they are sadly wasted. Hopkins really shines in his scenes and gets to flex his acting muscles. The way the film uses Larry’s father is a nice twist on the first film but is still one of many undeveloped ideas. Too much time is devoted to longer “action” scenes than working with horror and characters.
It’s all the more a shame because Johnston does a decent job of establishing the Victorian setting. He’s always demonstrated skill as a director of period films, capturing what makes them tick, and he also has a decent sense of dramatic momentum. The makeup work in this movie is really strong, too, with famed makeup designer Rick Baker winning an Oscar for his work here (he comically noted that turning the already hairy Benicio into a Wolf Man wasn’t hard). The hastiness of the production resulted in some cheap CGI in the transformation sequences, which takes away from the strength of the makeup work.
Ultimately, The Wolfman seems to be a classic victim of studio interference. The result is an unsatisfactory work that is all the more disappointing for the potential it squandered. The president of Universal at the time called it the worst film they had ever released, which seems a slight overstatement. But there is a reason this one is little spoken of just a decade later.
- Global Ranking: #10,218
- 7/11 on Flickchart’s Wolf Man filter
- Wins 29% of its matchups
- 43 users have it in their top 20
The Abbott and Costello Meet series is a sub-franchise within a franchise. By the late 40s, Universal started mashing together all of its IP and actors to try to drum up interest, and it resulted in some of the more iconic horror-comedies of the era. Iconic is not the same thing as high-quality, though. While the application of Abbott and Costello’s schtick to the world of monsters isn’t without its high points, this initial foray is an uneven journey.
It goes without saying that the plotting is silly. The titular duo play baggage clerks who end up shipping a series of crates containing various monsters. They are warned by Chaney’s Talbot, once again inexplicably alive and sporting a mustache, to be careful with the boxes, but he “comically” turns into a werewolf on the phone and can’t finish his warning. This sets the tone for the comedy to come. If one enjoys this particular brand of dumb, silly comedy, then much of this will be funnier for you. But their jokes can be inconsistent in quality, especially in a film like this where certain bits get played out fairly quickly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Abbott and Costello did not want to make this film and apparently were very resistant throughout filming, according to director Charles Barton.
This film does have the highlight of Bela Lugosi’s final appearance in the role of Dracula (not counting Plan 9 from Outer Space, which is a separate issue). Lugosi, even when forced into broad comedic strokes, does bring some of his old mystique. Chaney’s continued reprisal of the Wolf Man also continues to work, with the actor’s effortless charisma helping that character even as he threatens to fade into the background of the film. He’s always playing the straight man, albeit with a tortured psyche, so in these films he is always the “good guy” in comparison to other monsters.
For those who do enjoy crossovers, this one has plenty of that. The Wolf Man fights Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster is made into a servant of Dracula, and the comedic pair do their best to avoid being killed by any of them. With the comedic tone, there’s no real horror or scares, and it’s all barely a step above farce. To director Charles Barton’s credit, there are some neat sequences and effects, with Dracula’s hypnotism and transformations being communicated in some unique ways. The use of a cartoon bat to show him flying from one place to another is admittedly amusing. But as far as actual character or anything to attach yourself to, you’re out of luck. Critics were split, with local L.A. critics highly complementary and New York critics largely deriding it. It made plenty of money, though, and the series continued. This did spell an end to classic Universal horror, unfortunately, as these movies were no longer trying to be scary films.
- Global Ranking: #1,338
- 2/11 on Flickchart’s Wolf Man filter
- Wins 46% of its matchups
- 41 users have it in their top 20
3. House of Dracula (1945)
House of Dracula is almost a pretty good film. While a sort-of sequel to House of Frankenstein, it pretty much ignores everything that happened in that film, including the deaths of all of the monsters, though it does make one small reference to the prior film to suggest that it is only semi-canon. It also reuses many props, music, and footage from prior Universal horror films. This repeated instance of rehash would seem to make it a contender for the worst film, but instead it almost sort of works.
This is due in large part to the direction of Erie C. Kenton. While a director for-hire, he doesn’t settle. Intent on really playing up the horror angle, he aims to make this a more stylish film. The story is yet another plot with mad scientists, as Dracula and Larry both come to the doctor seeking cures for their conditions. This sets up an interesting angle for the monsters, but matters start to go wrong when Dracula begins to manipulate the situation to make more vampiric slaves, eventually using Frankenstein’s Monster as well. While somewhat silly, there is subtlety to the plotting that makes it an interesting watch.
There is also plenty of visual flair. The sequences of Dracula using his hypnotism powers are kind of trippy, taking on a dreamlike quality due to the blur effects and music used. Lon Chaney continues to bring lots of empathy to his character, conveying the desperation of a man who just wants to escape his life of being controlled by a murderous darker half. The sequence where the doctor falls under the sway of Dracula is a particular highlight. While Strange and Carradine continue to be more competent than amazing as Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, they feel settled into the roles, and Dracula manipulating the rise of Frankenstein’s Monster is a neat climax. Once again, the actual crossover between the monsters is fairly limited, and this one ends with the curious choice of Larry actually being cured, which seems to suggest a higher degree of finality.
And indeed, this was the last true horror crossover. All of the later films were comedies. This one got a slightly better critical reception than House of Frankenstein, though it was still derided somewhat for its stale plotting. But the excellent directing choices, with striking use of shadow, a gothic atmosphere, and notable sequences such as the Count seducing a woman playing piano, make this feel more like a real movie. With a little script work, it could have been truly excellent. As it is, it does enough to justify giving it a watch.
- Global Ranking: #3,852
- 4/11 on Flickchart’s Wolf Man filter
- Wins 40% of its matchups
- 1 user has it in their top 20
While this one doesn’t bring in all of the monsters, and indeed barely qualifies as a crossover, this film is technically the first official meeting of the monsters. It mostly plays out as a direct Wolf Man sequel, with most of the story revolving around Larry being returned to life by accident and once again seeking a means to die. This would have been a grand vehicle for Lon Chaney Jr., who was originally slated to play both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. It was later decided that would be too much to put on him, and Bela Lugosi was pulled in for his sole appearance as Frankenstein’s Monster.
While it doesn’t quite have the same standout sequences as House of Dracula, it is a better-written film. As in the first Wolf Man, Chaney is easy to empathize with. His performance as Larry Talbot is perhaps one of the best parts of the Universal horror franchise. This film continues the focus on the horror of his curse and his desire to be freed from it by any means possible. Seeing him contend with authorities that don’t believe he is a man returned from death, and seeing him continue his interactions with the gypsies from the first film give this a lot of continuity. Director Roy William Neill doesn’t quite have the visual eye that Kenton had, but he keeps his film moving at an enjoyable pace.
The film does slow down a bit when the actual Frankenstein’s Monster is released, and it feels like a movie walking in place before the audience gets what it wants: the showdown between Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. That doesn’t happen till the very end, meaning the actual crossover is confined to just a few short minutes of the film. But this final battle is undoubtedly the best monster-on-monster fight in any of the crossover films. The directors understood how to make their movements and fighting styles distinct and make this short scene exhilarating. That the fight happens due to the fear of villagers and ends in tragedy keeps intact the themes of The Wolf Man and Frankenstein. While the reception for this was only mildly positive, it paved the way for the multitude of crossover films to come. Getting to see the makeup work of Jack Pierce is one of the continuing highlights of these films and a special treat here. It’s good that it was worth it, since Lugosi actually collapsed on set due to the weight of wearing 35 pounds of makeup! Still, this film highlights the potential of the crossovers that was so rarely lived up to.
- Global Ranking: #2,863
- 3/11 on Flickchart’s Wolf Man filter
- Wins 46% of its matchups
- 7 users have it in their top 20
1. The Wolf Man (1941)
As always, the original film is usually the best. This franchise is no different. The original The Wolf Man arrived at a period of peak creativity for Universal, as their monster films were experiencing much success and proving a unique niche for the studio. Years earlier, Universal had made the first notable, if not first ever, werewolf film with Werewolf of London. That film didn’t do so well, though, and so Universal was determined to try again. Second time’s a charm in this instance.
The Wolf Man is one of Universal’s best films. Even pushing aside all the underlying symbolism about repressed sexuality, puberty, uncontrolled aggression, or whatever you read the werewolf to represent, it’s just excellent filmmaking. Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup earns its accolades. The design and detail of The Wolf Man is a signature look, instantly recognizable, and still holds up today, at least in the shadowy black and white of Joseph Valentine’s cinematography. Director George Waggner takes full advantage of the story’s lurking concerns to exploit fear in the audience.
As has been mentioned throughout this article, Lon Chaney Jr. is simply marvelous in this. He’s responsible for making Larry Talbot such an emphatic character. You enjoy his good-natured attempts to woo a local girl, and feel for him as he is mauled by a wolf and finds himself bound to its captive curse. The intricate foggy sets and on-point scripting all sell that it’s an ancient legend and a real place you are observing, despite much of the legend being invented purely for the film. Notably, the transformation of the Wolf Man isn’t even tied to the full moon yet, which is an addition of the sequels. Plus, there are other A-list talents like Ralph Bellamy and Claude Rains filling out the cast and classing up the film.
With stately direction and storytelling, The Wolf Man is a standout film in the Universal repertoire. Chaney maybe passes up Lugosi and Karloff as far as the depth of character he brings to his monster. With almost noir-like techniques, the direction creates a horror film for the ages and demonstrates that Universal didn’t have to rely on classic texts to generate horror gold.
- Global Ranking: #909
- 1/11 on Flickchart’s Wolf Man filter
- Wins 49% of its matchups
- 44 users have it in their top 20