Wednesday, June 8, 2016
SHE WOLF OF LONDON (1946)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
Anyone who actually reads my notation on the film's phenomenality shouldn't need a spoiler-warning, for to say that the film is "uncanny" is the same as stating outright that there are no "marvelous" phenomena in it-- and therefore, no real werewolves, as in the one whose title is being ripped-off, 1935's WEREWOLF OF LONDON.
SHE-WOLF OF LONDON is often disparaged for this bit of petty larceny, but I for one liked the film better than any dozen of routine Universal mysteries. Michelangelo supposedly said that he didn't sculpt an angel from a piece of rock, but that the angel was already there and he merely brought it forth. SHE-WOLF feels like a half-sculpted rock, from which its sculptors didn't quite manage to bring out the full image. Yet the potential is still there, nonetheless.
The most interesting thing about SHE-WOLF-- another collaboration between director Jean Yarbrough and writers Bricker and Babcock, seen to good effect in the same year's HOUSE OF HORRORS-- is that it seems to be one of the few times Universal did a prototypical "woman's horror film." I don't think for a moment that the creators intended to do anything ambitious, but apparently the idea of werewolves and women sparked some unusual thoughts.
True, at the film's start, we see that the main character, wealthy Phyllis Allenby, plans to enter into marriage with her fiancee Barry, who's similarly wealthy. They're first seen arguing amiably about their wedding-date during a horse-ride. Barry wants to marry within the month, while Phyllis wants to wait until winter-- so, they settle the matter with a race. Barry wins, and tells Phyllis that she should have accepted the handicap he offered. Phyllis then claims that she really hoped he would win, suggesting that she was just putting on a show of maidenly resistance.
But then one sees that Phyllis lives in an all-female household: a small mansion which Phyllis shares with her aunt Martha, Martha's grown daughter Carol, and a female servant, Hannah. Carol too is dating a young man, but Martha doesn't approve because he's just a starving artist, not at all like the prosperous marriage Phyllis is about to make.
On top of that, Scotland Yard has begun to investigate strange attacks in a park neighboring the Allenby estate. It's not clear whether anyone's been hurt in the attacks, but victims report having seen a weird, wolf-like woman. Phyllis hears about the rumors, just about the same time that the dogs on her estate start barking at her. She also has a weird episode when she wakes in her bed with blood on her hands, shortly after one of the "werewolf" attacks.
Martha, in the midst of dressing down Carol about her boyfriend, reveals a Big Secret: neither of them is really related to Phyllis. In truth, Martha once dated Reginald, late father of Phyllis, but threw him over for someone else-- making a bad marriage with a poor man, just as Carol seems close to doing. Martha came to work for the Allenbys-- it's not clear when Phyllis' father and mother passed-- and somehow perpetuated the idea that she was a poor relation, rather than a housekeeper.
For even half-decent sleuths, this little speech probably gives the game away. Not only is Phyllis never seen performing any werewolf-stunts, no one else is given a reason to create a phony monster except good old "Aunt" Martha. Actual killings do take place, and Phyllis gets more distraught, remembering how she used to fantasize about the legendary "Allenby curse" as a child, and how she now dreams of "taking part in pagan rites." The reference to paganism comes out of nowhere, and makes me wonder if Bricker and Babcock had been reading up on such festivals as the Lupercalia.
Barry is the logical male who thinks it's all "a case of nerves," and at one point he barges into the mansion, talking about the necessity of "overruling a woman." Yet, when the plot of the phantasmal figuration is exposed, he has nothing to do with it. Martha confesses all to Phyllis while nerving herself to kill the younger woman. Martha hopes that once Phyllis is gone, Carol will marry rich Barry, and acquire financial security for the family. Maid Hannah interrupts, Martha makes a run for it, and accidentally kills herself. Both Phyllis and Carol are now free to marry as they choose, without the shadow of a maternal "she-wolf" looming over them.
The mystery is far from perfect, for the writers never disclose what sort of disguise Martha uses to sell her werewolf legend, or how she made the dogs bark at Phyllis. The conclusion has a "finish up quickly" tone to it, and perhaps that's just as well, for most viewers probably didn't really care about the fine points: only about seeing Phyllis subjected to torment, perhaps due to her ambivalence about her approaching nuptials.
I doubt that Yarbrough, Bricker and Babcock could have made all that much with the themes they toyed with, given more time. But even a partial sculpture may hold its own fascinations.