Just about every modern horror movie archetype has roots that can be traced back to the silent film era. Nosferatu the vampire chilled audiences a full decade before Bela Lugosi made Dracula into a household word. Frankenstein hit the silent screens in 1910, twenty years before Boris Karloff’s iconic performance. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the blueprint for the modern day slasher film. And in 1925, fifteen years before Universal’s The Wolf Man, audiences were terrified by the original werewolf movie, a film called Wolf Blood.
Wolf Blood stars George Chesebro (“The Lone Ranger”) as Dick Bannister, the new foreman for the Ford Logging Company’s camp. The leader of the rival Consolidated Lumber Company, Jules Deveroux (The House of Terror’s Roy Watson), instructs his men to sabotage the operation of Ford Logging. When several of the Ford workers are hurt, Bannister sends for a surgeon. The owner of the company, Edith Ford (Marguerite Clayton from Inspiration), travels to the camp with her fiancé, a doctor named Eugene Horton (Ray Hanford from Sir Lumberjack), in tow. While Dr. Horton and Edith settle the loggers, Bannister goes to confront Deveroux about his ruthless tactics. The men get into a fight and Bannister is seriously wounded. Bannister is badly in need of a blood transfusion, but Dr. Horton does not have a donor. To save Bannister’s life, he uses blood from a wolf for the procedure. Bannister recovers fully, yet has dreams of running with the wolf packs around the camp. Bannister begins to wonder if the blood in his veins is turning him into a wolf, or if it’s all in his head.
Although Wolf Blood claims to be the first werewolf movie ever made, a two-reel short called “The Werewolf” was produced in 1910. However, since all prints of “The Werewolf” have been lost or destroyed, Wolf Blood can be called the oldest surviving werewolf movie. The script was adapted by Bennett Cohen (Ghost Valley Raiders) from a story by C.A. Hill (The Human Tornado). Although leading man George Chesebro was a star in hundreds of films, Wolf Blood is the only film that he directed, sharing the credit with the more experienced Bruce Mitchell (The Rawhide Terror). There isn’t much to be horrified about in Wolf Blood, but it’s a compelling story and, considering the time period, could raise a few goosebumps in the right atmosphere.
As an experienced thespian, Chesebro directed the actors while Mitchell, the technician, handled the filmmaking. Both the performances and the camerawork are typical of the silent film era. The actors are melodramatic and theatrical, their movements big and exaggerated for the camera. Mitchell’s setups are mainly long, full shots with only the sparsest of close-ups and inserts. The combination of the two men’s direction adds up to some great filmmaking, with the blood transfusion scene being the most effective scene in the film. The camera both captures and creates the tension that is being experienced by Dr. Horton while he struggles to save Bannister’s life. The photography, editing, and acting all come together to create one of the most suspenseful scenes from the silent movie era. Throw in the clever double exposure technique that is used by Mitchell and cinematographer R. Leslie Selander (who would go on to direct episodes of “Lassie” and “Laramie”) to show Bannister running with the phantom wolves sporadically throughout the movie, and Wolf Blood turns out to be a pretty effective piece of filmmaking.
Like most other werewolf movies, the werewolf in Wolf Blood is shown as a sympathetic character. Bannister is in no way presented as the antagonist in the film; on the contrary, he is the hero who has met with an unfortunate circumstance that has transformed him into a beast. The character is both charismatic and likeable, and the audience roots for him in his battles with the true antagonist of the film, the dastardly Deveroux. Bannister falls into the category of misunderstood monster.
Wolf Blood either predates or ignores modern myths about lycanthropy. Bannister is not transformed into a wolf by being bitten by another, and he doesn’t change during a full moon. He is not powerless against silver objects. Bannister is never shown in a wolf form; he runs with the wolves in his dreams as a human. In these ways, Wolf Blood subverts the typical werewolf tropes, but still falls under the category of a werewolf movie.
In an effort to attract a diverse audience, the early days of horror films would emphasize a love story within the carnage to try and draw women into theaters as well as men, and the tactic worked well in films like King Kong and The Phantom of the Opera. Wolf Blood does this as well, tossing in a romantic subplot between Bannister and Edith that creates a love triangle between them and Edith’s fiancé, Dr. Horton. The love story adds an additional dimension to the tale, particularly when Bannister’s life is in Dr. Horton’s hands and the doctor struggles with the ethical decision; does he follow his Hippocratic Oath and save the man with whom his fiancé is falling in love, or go against his medicinal training and let his romantic rival die? The love triangle subplot adds a dramatic dimension to Wolf Blood that makes the film more than just a simple monster movie.
Since the early days of cinema, the werewolf has been one of the staple monsters in the horror movie canon. Because it is the oldest surviving werewolf movie, Wolf Blood is both culturally and historically important – and it’s pretty fun to watch, too.