The setting is London in the early 1900s where a young Scottish woman named Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing to wed her beau (Don Porter). The happy couple’s plans are interrupted when someone or something begins killing locals at a nearby park. Terrified Phyllis is certain an old Scottish curse that has plagued her family for centuries is turning her into a bloodthirsty werewolf while she sleeps but her domineering aunt Martha (Sara Haden ) and lovesick cousin Carol (Jan Wiley) seem to think otherwise.
Is Phyllis a werewolf? Is she going mad? Or is something else even more sinister stalking the nearby park under the cover of night? SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946) is often dismissed as one of the lesser entries in the Universal monster canon but while watching this briskly paced B-movie again recently after decades of reading numerous dismissals, I was swept up by the films moody atmosphere and shaken by its surprising brutality. The film may not satisfy viewers anticipating a typical monster movie but SHE-WOLF OF LONDON has plenty of things to recommend it and with Halloween quickly approaching it seemed like the perfect time to praise its sinister charms.
The film was directed by Jean Yarbrough who was responsible for a number of notable Poverty Row thrillers including THE DEVIL BAT (1940), KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941) and BRUTE MAN (1946) so it’s not surprising that Universal asked him to helm this supernatural mystery. Yarbrough’s direction here is competent although you can spot a boom mic in a few scenes and the budget constrains are noticeable. Problems aside, the director was able to create and maintain an eerie atmosphere at the apropos times.
What I really appreciate about this short 61-minute movie is its unique female protagonists as well as its low-key shocks that only register after you’ve had time to digest the film’s streamlined plot. The four most interesting characters in SHE-WOLF OF LONDON include the sympathetic Phyllis, her aunt Martha as well as her female cousin and the quietly lurking housekeeper Hannah (Eily Malyon). The men in the movie are merely romantic love interests, victims of the werewolf (the beast doesn’t kill any women), or hapless police investigators who do very little to move the plot along which must have puzzled some viewers at the time who were expecting the men to take control of the situation and save the day. And in most Universal monster movies that’s exactly what they’d typically do but this isn’t a typical monster movie.
SHE-WOLF OF LONDON is more aligned with period mysteries or melodramas with strong female characters set at the turn of the century when the suffragette movement was sweeping the world and women in Britain as well as America were fighting for the right to vote, own property, hold jobs and maintain their independence. This is probably why I find Phyllis Allenby’s apparent reluctance to get married particularly thought-provoking. At the beginning of the film Phyllis tries to delay her wedding but later claims it was just a ruse when she loses a bet with her fiancé. But when she begins to suspect that she might be the victim of a werewolf curse Phyllis immediately uses it as an excuse to end her relationship. It’s easy to assume that her hesitance or fear of getting married and unexpressed desire for independence might be the cause of her strange behavior.
Before reading any further please consider this a warning – I’m going to discuss what could be considered *spoilers* below so approach the rest of my post with caution!
The terror found in SHE-WOLF OF LONDON eventually comes in the form of Phyllis’ controlling aunt played to the hilt by Sara Haden. She’s a menacing matriarch reminiscent of other scary Grande Dames such as aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) or Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in REBECCA (1940) who is desperate to gain control of the family fortune while gaslighting poor Phyllis in the hopes that her niece will end up in a lunatic asylum. Haden’s character, an unrepentant psychopath, is the real werewolf in this film and she commits some particularly gruesome crimes. First, she brutally murders a child by “tearing him to pieces” and then she kills the Scotland Yard inspector investigating the case by ripping out his throat. Most of the violence takes place off-camera but both crimes are highly unusual and unsettling.
A woman violently murdering children in movies was an extremely rare occurrence in 1946 and law enforcement officials usually survived until a film’s final frame while being praised for saving the day. But if there is a hero to be found in SHE-WOLF OF LONDON it’s the elderly skeletal-like housekeeper played close to the bone (please excuse the bad pun!) by Eily Malyon who has been secretly watching the events unfold from the sidelines. As Phyllis’ aunt Martha sets out to kill her niece during the film’s final moments, Hannah finally intervenes leading to a brief chase that sends the knife-wielding Martha into a frenzied fall and she manages to impale herself in the process. Once aunt Martha is dead, Phyllis’ fiancé finally arrives with the police, and the men are left to clean up the bloody mess left by the ladies.
It’s worth pointing out that one of the film’s points of derision is its suspect title which leads viewers to expect they’ll see a human-to-wolf transformation with some exceptional makeup and special effects. But this low-budget B-movie put together in a just a few short weeks couldn’t have possibly managed that effectively even if was part of the plot. In England, the film was released with the much more appropriate title THE CURSE OF THE ALLENBYS, and in turn British audiences were more appreciative of the film and its outcome. And while I admire its brief running time, the film could have greatly benefited from having its backstory flushed out a bit more. Apparently, the original cut of the film contained a flashback scene where we get to see young Phyllis comforted by her nanny as the two discuss the family’s complicated history and the supposed werewolf curse. That scene only seems to exist in photographs now but I hope the lost footage is discovered one day and SHE-WOLF OF LONDON is eventually fully restored so we’ll have the opportunity to view the film as it was originally intended to be seen.
SHE-WOLF OF LONDON will never be ranked as one of Universal’s best monster movies but it’s sure a whole lot of fun and the spooky fog-shrouded park scenes where we see the murderous aunt Martha (resembling Gloria Holden in the superior DRACULA’S DAUGHTER ) slink through a maze of trees followed by her loyal dogs are especially memorable. Sara Haden is a truly ominous phantom-like presence that becomes more terrifying once the results as well as the intention of her crimes are revealed. She may not be a werewolf in the traditional sense but she is a memorable monster.