“The werewolf is neither man nor wolf but a satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.”
This movie represents the first attempt by Hollywood to bring werewolf mythology to the big screen. Mannered and stylized — one of the first horror films produced entirely under the restrictions of the Hays Code — it contains some intriguing ideas about the nature of hybridization, and along with a very simian werewolf. It’s most significant for the way in which it connects the Jekyll and Hyde mythology to the idea of transforming into an animal, rather than a corrupted form of human being.
The moonlit prologue is set in Tibet, where botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon is searching for a rare plant, the mariphasa lumina lupina, a rare plant (“the phosphorescent wolf flower”) that blooms only under moonlight. He discovers a specimen, but is bitten by a strange creature in the process of retrieving it.
The main action takes place in the London of the chattering classes. They’re all busily flocking to a botanical exhibit, the ‘Madagascar Plant’, a carnivorous, tentacled, hairy creation that chews up mice and frogs (and bears no physical resemblance to the real pitcher plants of that island).
“Evolution was in a strange mood when that creation came along. It makes one wonder just where the plant world leaves off and the animal world begins.” —Dr. Yogami
Dr. Yogami accosts Glendon in the crowds beside the plant, and claims to remember him from a brief encounter in Tibet. He shares Glendon’s interest in the mariphasa and is desperate to examine his colleague’s specimens. His urgency seems most rude and unscientific until he lets slip that the mariphasa is the only known antidote to ‘werewolfery’, and that there are no less than two cases of lycanthrophobia [sic] known to him in London at that present moment. He tells a skeptical Wilfred that “these men are doomed, but for this flower”.
Back home in his laboratory, Glendon tests Yogami’s tip about moonlight and manages to get the mariphasa to bloom under an artificial moon simulation lamp. Unfortunately, a flower isn’t the only new growth stimulated by the light as a fine coating of hair also sprouts on the back of Glendon’s hand. He manages to make it disappear by applying mariphasa juice but warning bells are ringing in his ears, along with Yogami’s warnings that the antidote is only temporary.
Glendon’s slide into lycanthropy is all the more painful because he knows exactly how he is afflicted, and that there is worse to come. The initial symptoms are mild (aversion to bright light, hostility from the family cat) but a series of clever cuts (as he passes from room to room in his mansion) show his transformation into a hirsute, snaggle-toothed figure reminiscent of the “something troglodytic” Edward Hyde. When he discovers that Yogami has stolen his precious mariphasa blooms and there is no remedy for his condition, he runs off into the moonlight, snarling.
“…the werewolf must kill at least one human being each night or become permanently afflicted.”
The headlines the following morning scream brutal murder (“Unidentified girl horribly mangled”), and Glendon is forced to confront the awful truth. This uptight, emotionally repressive, rigidly-mannered English gentleman has to acknowledge that he has an uncontrollable animal side and must take steps to restrain it. He also has to confront the truth about his crumbling marriage, as his wife takes increasingly defiant pleasure in gallivanting about London with an old flame, Paul Ames, and even in his wolf form, he is powerless to prevent this. He’s doomed – all he can hope for is to die along with his infection, before he hurts anyone he loves.
Werewolf of London is very much about identity crisis, perhaps reflecting wider political concerns that the world was once again moving towards war, and that the old social order, based on rigid class and gender distinctions, was lost forever. Glendon begins the narrative as an impervious Englishman, serenely ordering his Tibetan lackeys around and operating under the assumption that he is entitled to wander in the demon-filled valley of the mariphasa, contrary to a number of warnings. Then, with one bite from a shadowy creature, his identity changes forever. His arrogance will be punished, fatally, and his view of himself and his place in the world transformed along with his hairline. He has some hard lessons to learn during his fall and he dies a humble penitent, begging forgiveness from his wife for his neglect.