If I could point to a single horror film which has left an indelible mark on how I approach horror, then the subject would be Universal's The Wolf Man, another film which my parents were gracious enough to let me watch on late night television, little thinking how long it would remain potent in my imagination.
From that first viewing I can still recall the hero beating a wolf with his silver-tipped cane; his transformation, with fur gradually appearing on his legs; the pentagram mysteriously appearing on him; his death at the hands of his own cane; and this memorable poem:
Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.
The poem encapsulates the injustice of the hero's dilemma; he is both hero and villain of the film, cursed to become a monster as repayment for having slain a monster. The only way the hero can triumph is for the hero to die; pretty heady material for an impressionable young viewer!
I noted yesterday how the Universal Monster films didn't contain imagery which was - on the face of it - inappropriate for children. These films relied mainly upon atmospheric horror - sensations of menace and dread. It's quite effective on a child and for that reason, I wish I had seen more of them as an impressionable youngster. When I saw films such as House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein or Dracula's Daughter as an adult I would remark to myself: "Nice sets; good costumes; effective makeup; excellent casting" or, in the case of the latter film, "oh, they're right, there is a lesbian subtext." In other words, I have intellectualized the movies.
The Universal Monsters were not meant to be intellectualized. They were fashioned to be crowd-pleasers, seat-warmers, scare-givers and spook shows. My childhood fear of The Wolf Man grants that picture strength even now when I attempt to relive my original sensations. I would agree with anyone that the creature effects in An American Werewolf in London, the Howling or even Dog Soldiers are much more impressive, but I saw those films as an adult - they can never match The Wolf Man's primal experience.
My terror at the transformation scene where Chaney, Jr.'s legs became progressively hairy was easily the most traumatic moment of the picture for me. Because my father had very hairy legs, it actually left me with a fear of my own father (at least during the summer). Further, the transformation of human being into a werewolf in The Wolf Man was my introduction to a type of terror which the internet calls "body horror." I've since learned (and future entries of this series will bear out) that nothing in horror gets under my skin quite like a scene where a person mutates into something else.
On the other hand, I'm no longer afraid when my father wears shorts.