She-Wolf of London (1946) She-Wolf of London (1946) **

     She-Wolf of London was among the last straggling crop of Universal Studios horror movies to reflect the firm’s wartime sensibility as a mass-production factory for cheap genre programmers, despite being released well after the end of World War II. Unsurprisingly, it fully reflects the conceptual exhaustion that almost always sets in toward the ends of creative cycles, and I can recommend it only to the most undiscriminating fans or the most dedicated scholars of 1940’s B-pictures. She-Wolf of London deserved to be better, however, for although it was made from 100% recycled ideas, it sometimes rivals The Devil’s Commandment in finding unexpected uses for all those reclaimed elements of older, more famous, and generally better films.

     A scene-setting title card informs us that the legend of the Allerby Curse was mostly forgotten at the turn of the 20th century, when certain terrible events in London suddenly gave it renewed currency. It does not, however, say anything about what the Allerby Curse is supposed to be. We can probably guess the general contours, though, given not only that we’re watching a movie called She-Wolf of London, but also that a short, rotund, buffoonish Scotland Yard detective by the name of Latham (Lloyd Corrigan, from Captive Wild Woman and The Ghost Breakers) is convinced that a werewolf is responsible for a rash of crimes in one particular London park, and will remain so convinced until the night when he himself becomes one of the victims. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our introduction to Latham comes as he annoys the hell out of his boss, the lean, aristocratic, and thoroughly dignified Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey, of Phantom Ship and The Wandering Jew), by insisting that the inspector come out to look over the spot where a man was attacked the night before. Pierce, incidentally, comes off as considerably more irrational than Latham, for all the latter’s yammering about werewolves, because he’s convinced that the man in question had a run-in with a feral dog, despite the victim’s own testimony that his assailant was a woman who slashed his face while making animalistic growling noises.

     Also in the park that morning are nearlyweds Barry Lanfield (Dan Porter, from The Legend of Lizzie Borden and The Norliss Tapes) and Phyllis Allerby (June Lockhart, of Deadly Games and Strange Invaders)— and yes, that’s Allerby as in the Allerby Curse. The curse is much on Phyllis’s mind of late, because the strange goings on in the neighborhood remind her of the bad, lycanthropically-flavored dreams that she’s had on the regular ever since her parents were killed in some unexplained accident some unspecified number of years ago. Still, she’s in good spirits when we first meet her and her fiancé, as they race their horses against each other on a bet to decide which one of them gets to set the date for their forthcoming wedding. Phyllis’s mood changes as soon as they ride past the Scotland Yard men, but she’s ineptly evasive when Barry asks what’s come over her all of a sudden.

     Meanwhile, Cupid has apparently been shooting whole volleys of arrows onto the grounds of the Allerby estate, because Phyllis’s cousin, Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley, from The Living Ghost and The Strange Case of Dr. Rx), has a romance of her own going with an artist by the name of Dwight Severn (who’ll be played by Martin Kosleck, of The Mad Doctor and The Frozen Ghost, when we finally meet him in person almost three quarters of the way through the film). Carol’s mother, Martha (Mad Love’s Sara Haden), is not a bit happy with that state of affairs, because Severn, as can usually be expected of artists, is flat broke. Now you might ask why a girl who belongs to even a distaff branch of a grand family like the Allerbys ought to give a shit whether or not her suitor can afford to support her; Carol certainly does. But as Martha now grudgingly reveals, she and her daughter aren’t any sort of Allerby at all. Years and years ago, before Phyllis’s father married into the clan whose name he took, he had paid court to Martha, who ultimately decided to drop him in favor of someone richer, just as Martha wants Carol to do with Dwight. That fellow died not long after Carol was born, however, and although Martha’s ex had by that point gotten over her and made himself the master of Allerby Manor, he still harbored feelings enough for her to take her on as his housekeeper. He even made her trustee of the estate in his will, so that when he and his wife had their fatal accident, Martha was left in full legal control of the Allerby house, lands, and fortune until Phyllis grew to adulthood. Under the circumstances, she figured it would do no harm to pose as an actual member of the family, and thus arose the fiction that she and her deceased mistress had been sisters all along. But now that Phyllis is on the verge of marrying Barry, the whole arrangement is in danger of blowing sky high. Barry means to have Phyllis come to live with him at his place, and who knows what will become of Allerby Manor then? So you see, it actually matters a great deal that Dwight Severn can just about afford a pot to piss in. Not that Carol intends to heed her mother’s edict against seeing the guy, you understand…

     In fact, Carol sneaks out of the house that very night to meet up with Dwight in secret. In the park. In that park. And when Pierce and Latham are called out to it again in the morning, the scene that confronts them is lupine indeed— a ten-year-old boy has been straight up disassembled. Only it isn’t Carol who awakens to find her slippers muddy, her housecoat wet with nighttime dew, and her hands stained with blood, but rather Phyllis. She has no memory of leaving the house, of course, and although she did have her usual nightmares, the very fact that they’re usual at this point should indicate that that doesn’t mean much in and of itself. But when Carol reads the London Leader’s front-page story on the murder aloud over breakfast, Phyllis goes absolutely to pieces. She withdraws to her bed, starts downing sedative potions like water, and refuses to see Barry when he comes by to visit. And as each successive night brings a new murder, and each successive dawn new horrible evidence that she’s the culprit, Phyllis withdraws further and further from everyone but Aunt Martha, who discovered her secret that first morning, and has been covering for her ever since.

     Or at any rate, that’s what Martha wants Phyllis to believe she’s doing. In fact, though, as you’ll quickly suspect, the whole werewolf-murder situation is her handiwork in the first place. Every night, Martha gives Phyllis a nightcap of warm milk drugged with a stronger dose of the same sedative that keeps her on an even keel during the day, then goes out wearing the girl’s robe and slippers to commit crimes of ever-escalating brutality. By convincing Phyllis that she’s a werewolf, or at least a multiple-personality murderer, Martha hopes to break up her relationship with Barry so that her own daughter can take up with him instead while Phyllis packs herself off to a lunatic asylum. It’ll take a lot of work and a long time, naturally, but Martha is both patient and industrious. Meanwhile, Carol inadvertently helps the scheme along by allowing herself to be seen sneaking into the park to meet with Dwight, accompanied by one of the family’s several huge German shepherds. One hooded young girl looks much the same as another in the dark, and the dog neatly resolves the apparent contradiction between the animalistic savagery implied by the slain victims’ wounds and the early, surviving ones’ reports of being attack by a woman. (Martha herself uses a hand rake to simulate the effects of a wild beast’s claws and fangs.) There are two factors that Martha hasn’t reckoned on, however. First, Phyllis possesses much greater moral courage than she realized, and must constantly be restrained from turning herself in before she’s far enough gone to be certified as mad. And secondly, Martha’s housekeeper, Hannah (Eily Maylon, to whom She-Wolf of London must have seemed awfully familiar after both The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Undying Monster), has heard more than enough to bust her by the time Phyllis’s own actions force an altogether more aggressive revision of the original plan.

     So for those of you who haven’t been keeping score, this is the one where Mrs. Danvers leverages a variation on the Baskerville Curse to gaslight Laura Fairlie into believing she’s Larry Talbot for reasons straight out of an Anne Radcliffe novel. Oh— and it also includes instantly recognizable analogues for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (although they don’t accomplish very much), and I think Martha’s hand rake may be literally the same prop that was used for the murder weapon behind a similar series of faked-up curse-monster attacks in The Scarlet Claw. She-Wolf of London hasn’t an original idea to its name, but I can’t help but admire the Frankensteinian moxie with which it arranges and assembles all the pilfered pieces. Also, I confess that I enjoyed it immensely when Lloyd Corrigan’s knockoff of Nigel Bruce’s Watson got killed. We should have been so lucky somewhere back around Sherlock Holmes Faces Death or The Spider Woman!

     There’s a weird side effect to She-Wolf of London’s open thievery, however. Writers George Bricker and Dwight V. Babcock, together with director Jean Yarborough, obviously expected everyone watching to be familiar with all their mixed-and-matched source material, because they frequently offloaded the burden of exposition and character development onto that assumed familiarity. Most conspicuously, the precise nature and background of the Allerby Curse is never explained at all— because we’ve all seen The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Wolf Man, right? Pierce and Latham (not that they even matter in the end) are just barely shown doing any criminal investigation— but that’s okay, right, because surely we’ve all noticed that Dennis Hoey and Lloyd Corrigan are both looking and acting like store-brand copies of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce? The strangest elision, though, is the extremely tardy introduction of Dwight Severn, because he’s one of the few figures in the film who lacks any specific antecedent. But I guess once we’ve seen one starving bohemian artist romancing a girl whom he couldn’t possibly afford to support, we’ve pretty much seen them all. Of course, it happens that in my case, Bricker, Babcock, and Yarborough gambled correctly. I did indeed know the movies, books, and whatnot that they were riffing on, and I was indeed able to fill in all the blanks they’d left as a consequence. But I can’t help but wonder what I’d have made of She-Wolf of London if I’d seen it, say, 25 or 30 years ago.

     Even for the adequately initiated, this movie’s reliance on audience savvy leaves it feeling strangely empty and attenuated. What ought to be important things keep happening offscreen. Plot threads keep being introduced without proper setup, only to peter out without paying off. Even at the climax, She-Wolf of London seems to begrudge the need to do its own narrative work, sidelining all of its potential heroes and heroines to resolve the central conflict with an accidental fall down a staircase onto the point of a knife. You’ll never believe, when “The End” appears on the screen at last, that you’ve spent less than 62 minutes watching this film. June Lockhart proves unexpectedly adept at Victorian hysterics, Jan Wiley makes a strong showing as the girl you’ll wish the movie were about instead, and the last dying embers of the once justly vaunted Universal horror visual style do manage the occasional brief flareup, but all in all, there just isn’t much here.



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