Watching 1935's Werewolf of London 80 years later is taking a peek into a history that never was. The first feature-length werewolf movie in English (and probably the first in all of sound cinema, though it does well to be a bit cagey with absolute pronouncements on the history of genre films) was one of Universal's more distinct misses during its 1930s heyday, and killed the first attempt at werewolves as a sustained movie monster in its crib. Six years later, the studio would start from scratch with The Wolf Man, doing a great deal in the process to solidify what we now think of as werewolf lore, and most subsequent movies about werewolves have started with some variation of that movie as their foundation. As such, Werewolf of London can't help but look like an evolutionary dead end. It's entirely different from both narrative and mythological standpoints, and the only one of its conceits to have meaningfully survived is makeup artist Jack Pierce's creature design. Though his first werewolf was far less complex and impressive than his second, it was in Werewolf of London that he hit upon the largely original idea of the werewolf as a human hybrid who more closely resembles a giant bipedal Pekingese than anything an objective third party might identify as lupine (classical folklore till that point almost entirely conceived of werewolves as all-humans turning into all-wolves). Elements of its story hung around the cultural subconscious - the 1994 Jack Nicholson vehicle Wolf resembles Werewolf of London much more than any of the better-known werewolf pictures in the intervening 59 years - but watching it now, the film is most noteworthy for how little it resembles any of the films descended from it.

In Tibet - do you see what I mean? Tibet. What werewolf movie starts in fucking Tibet? Do they even have werewolf lore in Tibet? Do they have any kind of wolves in Tibet? But in Tibet we are, alongside the brusque and peremptory Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), an English botanist hunting for the legendary mariphasa lumina lupina (dog Latin for "man-changing wolf light") a plant that blooms in the moonlight. And he finds it, too, though only after being attacked by a large hairy animal we barely catch a glimpse of, only being able to make out that it has rather more of a human shape than one would expect of a wild creature. Literally bloody but unbowed, Glendon still has his eyes on the precious mariphasa, which he takes back with him to England in the space of a cut.

And back in England, we get a much better sense of Glendon's interest and personality than we had before, and the short version is "arrogant dick". He's so obsessed with his discovery that he can barely feign niceness to his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) or pretend to be happy about the party being held in his house, for which he is either the guest of honor or the host, it's a little fuzzy. What matters is that one of the guests at that party, apparently uninvited, is a Japanese botanist, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland, a genuinely gifted actor whose talents are tough to appreciate in later days, given that almost his entire career was spent in yellowface), who confusingly claims to have met Glendon back in Tibet (hint, hint), and who quite unprompted goes on a little lecture about "lycanthrophobia", as the script laboriously terms it, and explains that the mariphasa is in fact an herbal retardant that staves off the transformation of a werewolf during the three days of the full moon. And would Glendon believe it, but Yogami happens to know of two men with the werewolf curse in London right that very minute (hint, hint).

Glendon first discovers the truth of Yogami's prattling when his synthetic full moon lamp, part of his experiment to force the mariphasa to bloom, turns his hand into a hairy, clawed monstrosity. And while he's able to use the single flower on the plant to return himself to normal, there are not other flowers at the ready, and the full moon is right around the corner. Thus begins the part of the film that actually resembles the subsequent development of the werewolf genre: Glendon's panicked attempt to cure himself or at least keep himself safely locked up, after he murders a woman the first night.

The single element of Werewolf of London that most likely killed it in 1935 happens to be the most interesting part of it now: Glendon is an unpleasant man, and Hull's performance makes it more so. The actor despised the role and the film, and his performance showcases that, but somehow it ends up working to the movie's overall benefit. The character is snappish and unsympathetic, but he also pops off the screen far more than most horror heroes of the '30s, and after so many years of sad, mopey sorts being terrified of themselves as they transform into beasts, it's bracing to encounter a character so direct and intelligent about dealing with this hideous curse. Particularly since wolf-Glendon is apparently more conscious and intelligent than the usual blunt force of animalistic nature. The very first thing he does is to go to find Lisa at a party hosted by her blustering Aunt Ettie (Spring Byington at her most enervating, and I say that as someone who's usually tickled to see Byington's name pop up in the credits), which she's attending in the company of her old flame Paul Ames (Lester Matthews). The film makes a point of clarifying that werewolves instinctively desire to destroy what they love most in human life, but there's enough meanness to Hull's Glendon that there's a little tension underlying his savagery, like he's almost eager, Hyde-style, to go do the wickedness that he can't as a moral man. And that, in turn, deepens his character arc throughout the slender but impressively dense 75-minute feature: the film tracks Glendon's commitment to besting his smug, nasty self, not just taming the animal within. Lon Chaney, Jr's Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man is the best part he ever played, but there just aren't as many layers there, even if he's infinitely more readily likable and pitiable than the prickly Glendon.

That makes for quite a lot to find fascinating in Werewolf of London, though not, perhaps, as much to love. And it is, in fairness, a bit difficult to respond to as a genre film, by '35 standards or our own. Individual moments work beautifully: the moment when Glendon's cat unexpectedly turns on him and leads him to the knowledge that something inside of him is broken, or one of those newspaper headline montages that turns into a bleak projection of what Glendon thinks might happen in the future, or above all, the film's utterly terrific transformation scene, with Glendon looking a bit shaggier every time he walks past one in a series of tall pillars, none of this "freeze frame and dissolve" nonsense. It's quite honestly the best werewolf transformation scene I can name prior to the watershed year of 1981, when The Howling and An American Werewolf in London both showed up.

In between those singularly great moments, though, the film's something of a drag: the exposition, however necessary to a 1935 audience with limited context for werewolves, is dumped in artlessly, and Oland can't ever find a path to make it feel sensible within a character who's already compromised by how transparently he's there for the eminently predictable twist ending. The whole matter of Lisa and Paul Ames's gentle flirtation is out-of-placed, stuffed in just to add a romantic lead, since Hull clearly can't be one. And the film is wretched with comic relief, above and beyond the standards of '30s horror - there's some business with two drunk old ladies that only takes up maybe five minutes, tops, but also manages to never, ever end.

If I had to sum it all up, it would be by saying that director Stuart Walker is no James Whale, and cinematographer Charles Stumar is no Karl Freund. The film has limited style and absolutely no successful management of tone: John Colton's screenplay mixes lightness and horror and pathos well enough, but the movie itself mashes them all into one unpersuasive flatness. It's a movie that feels cheap, even though by the onscreen evidence, that couldn't have been the case; but there's no atmosphere at all. The cast does what they can to keep the drama steady (absent the comic side characters), and the werewolf is different enough from anything we're familiar with, both visually and in his obvious intelligence, that he's always a bit unnerving and threatening. But for all that I honestly do admire the film's strengths, I will not pretend that it's one of Universal's strongest horror films of the '30s - it is average at best - nor does it offer more, really, than an intermittently captivating snapshot of the road not taken towards a more scientific and urbane werewolf genre than the one we ultimately got.

Body Count: 4, though only half of that number are innocent victims.