Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales to bury his brother and reconcile with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). He falls for Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who runs an antique shop. Trying to chat her up, he buys a walking stick with a silver wolf’s head. She says it is a werewolf—a man who becomes a wolf at intervals throughout the year and kills whoever has a pentagram on his palm.
She refuses to date him, but they meet that night and are joined by Gwen’s friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) to have their fortunes told in the gypsy camp outside the town. The Romani fortune teller, Bela (Bela Lugosi), sees a pentagram on Jenny’s palm and sends her away. Larry and Gwen take a walk and Gwen informs him that she is betrothed. They hear Jenny scream and Larry rushes to help her as she is attacked by a wolf. He kills it with his silver-headed walking-stick but he is bitten.
The police investigate and find Jenny’s throat torn out and Bela beaten to death by what is clearly Larry’s cane. He explains about the wolf, but the next day his wounds are healed and gone. Both Larry and Gwen are under suspicion because, as a betrothed woman, she was not supposed to be alone with him. Gwen’s fiancé Frank Andrews (Patrick Knowles) believes in their innocence, but Larry and Gwen become pariahs.
Bela’s mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the Gypsy sorceress, tells Larry that Bela was a werewolf and now so is he. The following night, in an iconic scene, he transforms into a werewolf and kills a villager. The next morning, he remembers nothing. The authorities set out wolf-traps and organize hunting parties. The next night, as a wolf, he is caught in a trap, but Maleva casts a spell to transfer him to a man again and he escapes.
Now convinced, he decides to leave town. When he says goodbye to Gwen, he sees a pentagram on her palm. He confesses all to his father, who thinks he is delusional and ties him to a chair. When the moon rises, Larry transforms, breaks free, and attacks Gwen. Not recognizing him, Sir John bludgeons him with Larry’s own silver-headed cane. Sir John watches in horror as the wolf transforms back into Larry’s human corpse. The police assumption: Gwen was attacked by a wolf and Larry was killed defending her.
The film was written by Curt Siodmak, produced and directed by George Waggner. Lon Chaney Jr., despite dying here, starred as the Wolf Man in four sequels, always tragic and tortured, bordering on suicidal, searching for help from anyone, including Frankenstein in the next film of the series. The makeup took six hours to be applied. Jack Pierce had designed it for Werewolf of London (1935), but it was not used. Apocryphal claims about the makeup ordeal spread widely, but it was not that bad, and for later films, Bud Westmore designed a more efficient system.
The wolf that Larry Talbot fights was played by Lon Chaney’s own German Shepherd. Boris Karloff was originally supposed to play the Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi wanted to, but he was given Bela to play instead. The famous quote--Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright--is often claimed to be an ancient Gypsy saying, but Curt Siodmak made it up. Much of the werewolf lore, in fact, was invented for this film, other parts for Werewolf of London (1935), and other bits to ensure sequel after sequel.
There was conflict between Lon Chaney and Evelyn Ankers, because he had gotten drunk and vandalized studio property and she was given his nice dressing room. He played practical jokes on her and liked to creep up on her as the Wolf Man and scare her. She also fainted in a stage fog and was not found for some time, and one time she was treed by a bear, and the animal was not kept in the film. Curt Siodmak’s werewolf was inspired by his own experiences with the Nazis. The movie appeared two days after Pearl Harbor and it was feared the public would not respond, but they loved it.