November 14, 2011

Wolf Blood (1925)

Shapeshifting, the ability of certain people to transform into an animal has been present in the traditions of almost every culture in the history of humanity. The figure of the werewolf is perhaps the best known example of this fascination, as the mythological lycanthrope has been deeply ingrained in modern popular culture thanks to horror cinema. While vampires, ghosts and witches were well-known figures in Gothic literature before their transition to film, werewolves didn't had more background other than the many different folktales, loosely related between them. This lack of a solid bases resulted in a great freedom to experiment for the writers dealing with the myth of the werewolf, and it would be Curt Siodmak who would define the Werewolf in his seminal script for Universal's classic "The Wolf Man" in 1942. However, that wasn't the first werewolf film, as several movies before tried to make a film about shapeshifters. 1925's "Wolf Blood" is one of the them, an early attempt to bring shapeshifting to film.

In "Wolf Blood" (also known as "Wolfblood: A Tale of the Forest"), George Chesebro plays Dick Bannister, the new field boss of the Ford Logging Company, a lumber camp in the Canadian wilderness trying to compete with the powerful Consolidated Lumber Company. Their rivalry isn't really healthy competition, as Consolidated Lumber Company's aggressive tactics have grown more violent towards the employees of Ford Logging Company, who have even been shot. Bannister requires now the presence of his boss and a medical surgeon to treat his men, but his new boss turns out to be the young Edith Ford (Marguerite Clayton), who arrives with her fiancé, Dr. Gene Horton (Ray Hanford). Bannister falls in love with Miss Ford, but that's probably the least of his problems as he is attacked by rival loggers and left for dead in the woods. Fortunately, he is saved by a transfusion of wolf blood, though this fact begins the rumour that Dick is now a werewolf. Something that he begins to believe, as their rival loggers begin to appear dead. Killed by a savage beast.

Based on a story by Cliff Hill and adapted by prolific scriptwriter Bennett Cohen, the story in "Wolf Blood" has less in common with horror films of the same period and is actually closer to the westerns and adventure films that Cohen was churning out in the 1920s. In fact, other than the novel werewolf theme (which is actually introduced later in the film), the story is basically focused on Bannister's fight against Consolidated Lumber Company, and of course, the love triangle that's established between him, Ford and Dr. Horton. And taken in that way, "Wolf Blood" actually works despite its typical structure and obviously derivative nature. The werewolf aspect of the story, while certainly unexplored, makes for the memorable element of "Wolf Blood": when Dick too begins to believe he's actually a werewolf, the story enters a decidedly darker and more interesting tone. Unfortunately, this is merely a glimpse of what the story could had been if Cohen had been a tad more adventurous in his screenplay, though the ideas are there.

And it's in fact this glimpse what makes for the most remarkable sequence in the film, a visually attractive sequence that begins as soon as Dick begins to hallucinate about his new lupine nature. While the story is the usual fare of adventure and romance, directors Bruce M. Mitchell and George Chesebro at least had a less than typical idea for the film's visual look. With a pretty strong work of cinematography by Lesley Selander (whom later preferred the job of assistant director), "Wolf Blood" captures in a quite vivid manner the world of lumberjacks, in a series of pretty good shots of natural landscapes. And of course, the afore mentioned hallucinatory vision of the ghostly pack of wolves running through the woods is also a pretty remarkable achievement. Given their backgrounds, it's safe to believe that Mitchell was in charge of the visual look, while actor Chesebro handled the actors. Unfortunately, neither Mitchell nor Chesebro manage to take "Wolf Blood" beyond the usual B-movie fare, as the film has a pretty dated narrative style (even for its time).

Given that he was one of the film's directors, it's not surprising that the film's weight is entirely over George Chesebro and his performance as Dick Bannister. Unfortunately, the seasoned veteran of film industry (famous for his roles in Roy Rogers films for Republic) fails to deliver his best work, and is a tad hammy in his performance. Not to say that he is downright bad, but his work is certainly of a pretty average quality. Perhaps the handling of directorial duties was too much for him, as he never directed again and focused on his acting career. A lot better is Marguerite Clayton, who plays Bannister's love interest Edith Ford. As the young socialité, Clayton is actually believable in her role, and as stereotypical as her character is, at least she manages to give her a defined personality. As Dr. Horton, Ray Hanford isn't really amazing, though he does his job competently, albeit it could had been interesting if his character had been better developed.

Despite its clearly supernatural theme, there's little in "Wolf Blood" that would make it qualify as a horror film, as it is heavily grounded in the romance adventure kind of stories that were common in B-movies. Ultimately, this sadly undermines the originality of the film's novel premise, as while the themes are there, it all just feels unexplored, as if the filmmakers had opted to just play safe and go with the proved formula. Which is understandable, given that "Wolf Blood" was by all accounts an independently produced film; however, this doesn't justify the sloppy narrative style that Mitchell and Chesebro employ in the film, as even when compared to the movies done in 1925, "Wolf Blood" can't help but feeling a bit archaic. Granted, it has a couple of remarkably done sequences, but overall the result isn't entirely satisfying, and all in all the film can't help but feeling like a great idea that was left unexploited. Nevertheless, for an early shot at building a story out of werewolves, it probably could had been worse.

While not the first werewolf film (an unfortunately lost film from 1913, Henry MacRae's "The Werewolf" holds that honor), "Wolf Blood" is an interesting early werewolf film that has enough historical importance to be worth a watch. Certainly, it can be a disappointment if one expects a full-fledged horror film, but taken as what it is, a romance adventure with supernatural undertones, it's actually not that bad. A bit mediocre perhaps, but not exactly bad. Overall, "Wolf Blood" makes for an interesting watch if only to witness a quite different take on the werewolf myth, one done before the full moon, before the silver bullet, before Siodmak's classic "The Wolf Man" left its immortal mark in horror history.



Albert Dubin said...

I don't know too much about this one, but great review (as always)! I have always been fascinated by the silent era of film myself. It was so mysterious and a privilege to spectate then. I really like the sound quality of this movie, as well as the picture; both of which are in very good shape. I'm really inspired to review earlier movies like this, and it is always a treat to find a copy on youtube. Speaking of which it's fantastic that your adding the movie at the end of your review! Nice touch!

J Luis Rivera said...

The silent era is fascinating, if you haven't , check out both versions of "The Student of Prague". Pretty cool stuff.