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WOLF BLOOD (1925)

[aka Wolfblood: A Tale Of The Forest]

"My God---this terrible thing is true---I am a beast! I am one of the pack!





  Director:
 
Bruce Mitchell and George Chesebro

  Starring: 
George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton, Ray Hanford, Roy Watson, Milburn Morante, Frank Clark, Jack Cosgrove

  Screenplay: 
Bennett Cohen, based upon a story by C. A. Hill

Synopsis:  Deep in the Canadian wilderness, tensions have developed between two rival outfits, the Ford Logging Company, overseen by Dick Bannister (George Chesebro), and the Consolidated Lumber Company, run by Jules Deveroux (Roy Watson). Deveroux is determined to ruin the Ford Company whatever it takes: he orders one of his men to take pot-shots at the Ford employees as they work. Meanwhile, a dismayed Bannister finds the elderly “Pop” Hadley (Frank Clark), the company’s watchman, asleep on the job from the effects of the bootleg liquor supplied by a local ne’er-do-well, Jacques Lebeq (Milburn Morante). Bannister gives a chagrined Pop one more chance. Out in the woods, a logger is shot in the leg; he is helped back to camp by his partner. Incidents such as these have become so frequent of late that Bannister has set up a permanent clinic. However, his own first aid skills are limited. Recognising that things cannot go on as they are, an angry Bannister sends for the company’s owner, who none of them have ever seen, and a doctor. In the city, Edith Ford (Marguerite Clayton) hosts a party for her friends. Her fiancé, Dr Eugene Horton (Ray Hanford), presses her for an early marriage, but she puts him off. Bannister’s phone-call is taken by Edith’s uncle (Jack Cosgrove), who is also her business manager. He reports the conversation to Edith, who agrees somewhat reluctantly that she will have to go; she brightens when Dr Horton agrees to accompany her and offer his medical services. Edith, her uncle and her fiancé travel to the logging camp by train. They are met at the depot by Bannister, who is immediately attracted to Edith. Pop drives the visitors to the camp in a horse-drawn carriage. On the way, they encounter a handful of loggers who are the worse for Lebeq’s bootleg liquor. When an angry Bannister confronts them, one of the men retorts that with their lives in danger they figure they’re entitled to a drink. Lebeq is still on the scene, and when Bannister turns on him, he draws a knife. Bannister easily disarms him and orders him out of camp, warning him what will happen if he catches him there again. As Bannister and Mr Ford talk to the loggers, Lebeq sees an opportunity for some immediate revenge, Nearby is a tree already sawn through and pegged: he swings the hammer at it, sending it toppling towards the gathered men. Bannister sees it in time and manages to thrust the loggers out of the way, but is himself caught beneath it. He is stunned, but not seriously injured. Over the following days, as Dr Horton assumes the responsibilities of the clinic, Bannister shows Edith around and explains to her the company’s operation. It is only after the two have spent many hours together that Bannister learns of Edith’s engagement. He is shattered, but tries to conceal his feelings. Edith, too, realises that she is now unsure of herself, but determines to devote herself to Dr Horton. Meanwhile, word of Deveroux’s activities draws Bannister into the forest. To his fury, he discovers that Deveroux has his men damming the river, so that the Ford Company will not be able to transport its logs. A confrontation between Bannister and Deveroux and one of his men quickly turns violent: Bannister is brutally struck down from behind and seriously injured. Deveroux and his companion throw him down a steep slope, to make it look as though he was injured in a fall. The unconscious Bannister is discovered by Dr Horton, who has been out on a call. The doctor carries him to a nearby cabin, which happens to belong to Lebeq. Horton realises that Bannister needs a blood transfusion to survive, but Lebeq refuses to cooperate. He does, however, offer Horton his half-tame pet wolf as a donor. Horton hesitates: he knows that successful animal-human blood transfusions have been carried out – but he also knows that they sometimes have strange side-effects...

Comments:  This silent film from 1925 is generally advertised as “the first werewolf movie” – see, for example, the extremely inappropriate header image I've been forced to employ - which is true as long as a rather liberal definition of the term “werewolf movie” is applied. Wolf Blood offers very little of what we might today view as standard werewolf lore, and finally goes in a direction that modern viewers may consider a cheat; but neither of those things is too surprising, given the era of the film’s production.

However, whatever its shortcomings as a genre production, Wolf Blood is quite a fascinating little film, granting that some of its interest lies in a modern interpretation that its makers could hardly have intended. That said, it is also a film that requires some patience from the viewer: as in The Naked Jungle (another putative, self-nominated “first”), a lengthy stretch of Wolf Blood is devoted to melodrama and romance; it takes a while to get to “the good bit”.

One of the immediate points of interest in Wolf Blood is that it is set in Canada, and that consequently it eventually references not the werewolf as such, but the French variant of the Loup-Garou.

(Of further note is that Wolf Blood’s only challenger for the title of “first”, a short from 1913 called simply The Werewolf, deals with Native American lore. The European myths were surprisingly late to the cinematic party.)

This film seems to have been the only production of an independent outfit called Ryan Brothers Productions, and was distributed by a New York-based outfit called the Lee-Bradford Corporation, which was active in the early 1920s but seems to have folded when the film world’s great shift to California occurred.

One of the genuine strengths of Wolf Blood may have been the result of this pedigree: it shows every sign of having been shot at least partially on location in a real logging camp somewhere in the north, which adds a great deal of atmosphere to the film. Although personally I could have done with fewer scenes of tree mutilation (still, they don’t call it a horror film for nothing, do they?), the well-integrated footage of trees being felled and logs being transported undoubtedly lends credibility to the story.

You can tell he's the hero, because he wears more makeup than the heroine.

The early stages of Wolf Blood are devoted to setting up the violent conflict between the two rival logging companies. Jules Deveroux and the men of Consolidated will stop at nothing to put the Ford Company out of action, and as a result that business has suffered a wave of “accidents”. The newly-appointed field boss, Dick Bannister, has done what he can to handle the situation, but when the latest shooting victim is brought into the clinic, he decides that he has to send for the owner, who he has never actually seen.

“His place is here, to fight his own battles!” Bannister announces angrily, via intertitle.

We then cut to The City (unnamed), where we are introduced to the head of the Ford Company, one “E. Ford” – better known to her friends as Edith. This looks – doesn’t it? – like the set-up for an absolutely textbook example of the “Why, you’re a GIRL!?” cute-meet; yet bizarrely, the film subsequently blows it, forgetting that Bannister ever spoke of “him” and making the surprise that Edith is young and attractive, rather than, “One hundred years old, with gout,” as Bannister had assumed from his correspondence with “E. Ford”.

We get an unnecessarily protracted party scene here, obviously meant as a blunt contrast with the bucolic splendours of the Canadian wilderness. (Jazz! Bootleg liquor! Women’s ankles! Decadence!) In a slightly disconcerting sequence, we meet Edith Ford and her fiancé, Dr Horton – who at first glance I took for father and daughter, until another intertitle explained that “since her father’s death”, Edith has “personally supervised the management of all the Ford properties and estates”. This slightly jarring moment is followed by another, as a series of unwary close-ups allows us to realise that Marguerite Clayton is at least ten years too old for the part she’s playing.

The face of a woman whose fiancé has just begged her to marry him right away.

An amusingly unexpected moment follows, in a brief exchange between Edith and Dr Horton, the latter of whom is a qualified surgeon but wealthy enough not to practise. Edith’s jazz parties are something of a regular event, it seems, and Horton complains that he never gets a quiet evening alone with her. Edith hits back smartly that, after all, she works a lot harder than he does, and that when she has the time, these parties are her preferred form of relaxation. We rather get the impression that a quiet evening alone with Dr Horton is not exactly Ediths idea of a good time.

Horton is pressing Edith to set a wedding-date when they are interrupted by her uncle and business manager (who is not given a name, so I’ll call him “Mr Ford”), who has taken the urgent phone-call from Bannister. Edith agrees that the situation sounds serious, and that she will have to go. She invites Horton to accompany her, to serve as the requested doctor; dangling, “We can get married when we return!” before him as an incentive.

One of Wolf Blood’s neatest touches follows. Edith, Horton and Mr Ford travel to the camp by logging train – that is, a train with the engine at the back and a series of flatbeds at the front for the logs to lie upon: the three visitors are seen standing outside in front of the engine, the train moving slowly enough to make this a safe mode of travel. Mr Ford points out the rival Consolidated Company’s headquarters, and shows Edith the borderline between the two companies’ operations.

The three are met at the depot by Bannister and Pop Hadley. Bannister is immediately smitten by Edith, who (we gather) rather strangely chooses not to introduce Dr Horton as her fiancé. On their way to camp, they encounter a handful of loggers being plied with liquor by Jacques Lebeq – also known, unfortunately but probably inevitably, as “the half-breed”. (While Wolf Blood is certainly melodramatic, only Milburn Morante as Lebeq really overacts.) The frequent onsite “accidents” have rattled the loggers, who are trying to drown their fears. Bannister manhandles and threatens Lebeq, and he retaliates by toppling a tree at the unsteady-footed gathering. Bannister shoves his men to safety, but barely escapes being crushed himself.

Rising insurance premiums finally sent Ryan Brothers Productions out of business.

This incident sobers the men, and even finds Pop Hadley swearing off the hootch for good: a seeming good resolution that in fact leads to a newly bright and talkative Pop spending the rest of the film emitting an endless stream of unfunny “wife” jokes – or rather, wife “jokes”. Frankly, I much preferred him soused.

In the days that follow, Horton takes over the running of the clinic, while Bannister shows Edith around and explains the company’s operation to her.

(I’m rather sorry now that I don’t have a better quality print of Wolf Blood, because there’s some lovely photography in this sequence, and even more so during the film’s dramatic climax [see above]. I understand that a restored, tinted version is available through Grapevine Video.)

Edith and Bannister are obviously falling for each other, yet it is not until he very belatedly notices her engagement-ring that she thinks to mention that, oh yeah... Bannister withdraws, bitterly hurt, while Edith tries to convince herself that she still cares for Horton.

Meanwhile, Deveroux is up to still more no good, ordering his men to dam off the river that the Ford Company uses to transport its logs – “In defiance of the custom and the law!” announces an intertitle indignantly. Observing this, Bannister furiously confronts Deveroux. A fight rapidly develops, with one of Deveroux’s men running in to help. Bannister holds his own against the two, until Deveroux picks up a rock and strikes him down from behind. It is not immediately clear whether Bannister is alive or dead. Regardless, Deveroux and his accomplice carry him to a rough slope and drop him over the edge onto the rocks below, so that it looks like yet another “accident”.

Awww... Puppies!

But Bannister is not dead. In fact, he must be tough as old boots, as not only does he recover consciousness, but manages to drag himself to his feet and stagger a short distance from the scene of his fall. This remarkable act of exertion is prompted by Bannister’s dazed recognition that he is not alone, but lying only a short distance from---A VICIOUS WOLF PACK!!

Or at least four rather attractive beasties, who are gambolling and panting and wagging their tails in a perfectly unthreatening manner, and paying no attention to Bannister whatsoever. Bannister therefore has the chance to limp away, but gets only a few yards before he collapses again. Not to worry: at this point the wolves all have their backs turned.

Fortunately for Bannister (or maybe not, given subsequent events), Dr Horton is passing on horseback after making a call. He gathers up the injured man and carries him to a nearby cabin – “The only shelter for several miles!” – which just happens to belong to Lebeq, who isn’t home but shows up shortly afterwards. Lebeq is less than devastated to find Bannister’s life in imminent danger, and when Horton announces that Bannister has “a severed artery” (!!) and needs a transfusion, he refuses not only without hesitation, but with much gleeful rubbing of his hands.

On second thoughts, however, Lebeq offers a substitute donor: his semi-tame pet she-wolf.

Much to the startled amusement of the modern viewer, this turns out to be a viable alternative; or at least, so we gather from Dr Horton’s relieved smile. Or perhaps, like all good scientists, he’s just thrilled at having an opportunity to engage in some thoroughly unethical experimentation. But no: Horton summons up a memory of a passage in a book called simply Blood Transfusion, wherein (on page 123) we learn that a certain “Dr d’Ore” has in the past successfully transfused animal blood into human patients. However, this assertion does carry one tiny caveat:

The face of a man presented with the chance to conduct an unethical experiment.

The question remains, however, whether following such transfusion the character, nature and desire of the human subject may partake of the nature of the animal whose blood was used...

Well! – Dr Horton certainly isn’t about to let a minor consideration like that stop him. He has Lebeq prepare his wolf for the procedure, also swearing him to secrecy. Apparently the good doctor is naive as well as unethical.

The transfusion goes ahead, with Lebeq watching over his wolf. (The poor thing not only has its muzzle bound, but is tied hand and foot---uh, paw and paw. Given the look in its eye, I wouldn’t have cared to be the person with the job of releasing it.) Afterwards, Bannister remains in critical condition (yeah, you’d think!); he is transported back to the camp, where “his life hangs in the balance”.

Meanwhile, Deveroux is having an unexpected crisis of conscience. Furthermore, none of the Ford men believe that this latest “accident” was an accident either, and should Bannister die... As the crowning touch to Deveroux’s worries, Lebeq takes the first opportunity to inform him that Bannister is now “half beast”, and that he’d better watch out for him. Deveroux shrugs this information off. The loggers, however, do not...

And it is at this point that Wolf Blood takes on a whole new significance for the modern viewer, as it becomes harder and harder not to read into it an allegory of, say, medically-acquired HIV. Even the cruel and ugly treatment sometimes meted out to people in that situation is subsequently mirrored in the behaviour of the loggers, once word of Bannister’s transfusion spreads from Consolidated to the Ford camp. Bannister does eventually recover from his injuries under Edith’s careful nursing, but when he is ready to return to work, he finds that his entire world has changed in the interim. His former friends avoid him whenever they can, and treat him coldly and distantly when they cannot. They whisper together in groups, and cast wary glances at him. Not one of them will look him in the face.

"Get a job in the movies," they said. "It will be glamorous," they said.

It turns out that Dr Horton hasn’t told Bannister just how he saved his life, so when in the early stages of the rumour-spreading his assistant informs Bannister that Lebeq is telling a strange story about him being “half wolf”, he is amused rather than anything else.

However, both Horton and Edith overhear this conversation. A guilt-stricken Horton clears the room, but instead of ’fessing up as we expect, he advises Bannister not to let “idle gossip” bother him, but just concentrate on getting better.

Bannister tries, but the to-him inexplicable behaviour of the men is profoundly hurtful. After one sideways-glancing huddle too many, he finally confronts a small group of them and demands an explanation. They tell him to ask Lebeq...

Meanwhile, Edith has accepted that she has to break things off with Horton. She goes to his cabin to talk to him, not knowing that Bannister is already there, waiting to talk to Horton himself in the wake of Lebeq’s startling claims. Bannister is ensconced in an armchair before the fire, where he has found a book resting on one arm of the chair. Why, if it isn’t that well-known best-seller, Blood Transfusion! – and where should it be lying open but page 123...?

Horton arrives. In the very poorly blocked scene that follows, we’re supposed to accept that neither Edith nor Horton realises that Bannister is in the room too; although as a gentleman, Bannister should have announced his presence at once, to avoid overhearing a private conversation. But perhaps something he read in Blood Transfusion has discombobulated him somewhat...

"I do care for you, Gene - but Dick has such animal magnetism!"

Certainly Bannister displays no shame at overhearing the first part of the conversation, wherein a remorseful Edith tells Horton that she cannot marry him, because she has fallen in love with Bannister. He is, on the contrary, openly delighted---at least until a hurt, furious Horton retorts that Edith cannot marry Bannister, because he has---

Well. Insert the disease of your choice, really.

As Edith – and Bannister – listen in horror, Horton reveals what’s in store for him, thanks to the wolf blood in his veins...

And at this rather awkward juncture, Horton and Edith discover that they have company... As for the newly-informed Bannister---his first act is to go for Horton’s throat...

Edith manages to pull Bannister away from Horton and tries to convince him that she doesn’t care what has happened, that she loves him anyway. He pushes her away, however, and retreats to his own cabin, where he obsesses over his situation.

He is overcome with self-loathing – and worse, with belief. He sits alone, brooding, contemplating the local stories of the Loup-Garou; waiting for his contaminated blood to take him over and turn him into a monster; waiting to hear the call of the wolf pack, his new brothers and sisters; and these things subsequently do happen, because he believes that they will.

 

Well, Dick, you know what they say about eavesdroppers hearing no good of themselves...

While it may be a disappointment to some viewers, it is a fact that all the werewolfery in Wolf Blood occurs entirely in Dick Bannister’s mind. There are no transformation scenes here, no full moon, no family curse; just a case of profound psychological disturbance. However, given that lycanthropy may actually be an extreme form of mental illness, I don’t see that this choice disqualifies Wolf Blood from being classified as a werewolf film proper. It certainly does nothing to lessen the horror of Bannister’s immediate situation. Wolf Blood also sits comfortably within the werewolf mythos inasmuch as what happens to Bannister is not his fault.

“Not his fault” up to a point, anyway: Bannister certainly buys into the thought of his inevitable transformation with surprising alacrity. The screenplay, which blames the loggers’ belief upon their being superstitious and credulous by nature, blames Bannister’s upon his weakened condition and the debilitating nature of his injuries.

Still, the willingness of this “civilised” man to believe the worst does tend to suggest some deep-rooted personal issues. He might not be the man-beast of his fears, but Edith may still be getting a bit more than she bargained for.

Speaking of which, the first manifestation of Bannister’s new “beastly” nature takes a rather unexpected form. Ignoring Horton’s warnings, Edith follows Bannister to his cabin---and finds herself in his arms, having some rather violent kisses forced upon her. Involuntarily, she recoils; and Bannister, in dark pursuit of his self-fulfilling prophecy, takes this as a sign that she senses the change in him. He pushes her away with a bitter laugh that soon becomes hysterical, and staggers off into the woods – where he belongs...

"How dare you suggest that I'm transforming into an insane violent monster!"

...and from out of the woods comes a horrifying story: Deveroux has been found dead, his throat torn out...

This story is told to Edith and Horton while they are standing near Bannister’s cabin, along with the detail that none of the loggers are in any doubt of who’s responsible – and Bannister, huddled inside, hears every word. We learn that he has been having blackouts, and does not know for certain whether he is responsible for Deveroux’s gruesome death or not. He has no trouble believing that he is, however. In fact, he can see himself doing it – attacking Deveroux – wrestling him to the ground – reaching for his throat...

At this point, Bannister begins to hear the call of the wolf pack: a phantom pack that exists only in his own mind. He plunges into the forest in pursuit of his “family”, following them even when they lead him towards a perilous cliff-top known as Wolf’s Head Rock...

(The phantom wolf pack is realised through the simple expedient of superimposition, and while it is not executed particularly well in a purely technical sense, in context it works beautifully, since it emphasises the delusional nature of Bannister’s affliction.)

Edith sees Bannister run into the woods and runs after him, becoming frantic as she realises he is heading straight for the cliff. In Bannister’s mind the phantom wolves do plunge over the edge. He is about to follow them when Edith catches up with him, trying to drag him back and bring him to his senses. He struggles against her, freeing himself from her desperate grasp and heading for the edge---but there he stops, crumpling to the ground. When he comes to, he is clasped in Edith’s still-loving arms – and his mind clears...

"Lassie! Come back!"

(This entire, rather dangerous sequence seems also to have been shot on location. I don’t know whether that is George Chesebro and Marguerite Clayton who are perched on a cliff-edge for this scene, or whether it’s their stand-ins, but yikes – !)

Convalescing once more, Bannister learns the truth of Deveroux’s death. It turns out that there was a fight between the two men, as Bannister muzzily remembered, but that was all. On his way home, Deveroux fell and broke his ankle, and so was helpless when the wolves found him. Lebeq was a witness, and belatedly brought the true story back to town. (The “savage” wolf in this flashback sequence is somewhat less than convincing. I’m also fairly sure it’s the blood donor, drawing a second paycheque [I hope].)

What’s more, a shamefaced Horton confesses to Bannister that he didn’t mean a word of the horrors he threw at Edith, and certainly didn’t mean Bannister to hear them: in his hurt at her breaking of the engagement, he simply wanted to throw a spanner in the works of their relationship. Edith and Bannister both forgive him on the spot, and why not? I mean, who could have possibly anticipated that unethical experimentation would lead to madness and attempted suicide!?

As soon as Bannister is up and around again, Horton heads back to the city. Edith, however, stays behind...

Wolf Blood may be a minor entry in the history of the werewolf movie, but it is certainly not a film without intrinsic merit – even aside from the accidental overtones bestowed upon it by recent events. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that, although it is certainly an example of explained-away horror, it still plays its story straight, with little of the noxious comedy relief that plagued American film-making in the early days of the horror cinema.

"Rah! I'm a monsta!"

Although there is no actual man-beast on show here, Dick Bannister’s psychological disintegration is quite convincing, and even rather moving. Nor, as the story is developed, does the viewer know for certain that the delusional Bannister has not murdered Deveroux; although we are not particularly surprised when he is exonerated. Add a smattering of mad science to the mix, and we what we have here is an entertaining little film with some interesting things to say about the nature of the beast in man.

Footnote:  Apropos---

 
 
----posted 10/02/2013