Thursday, October 1, 2015

Wolf Blood (1925) : The Earliest Surviving Werewolf Film

Wolf Blood is arguably the second werewolf film ever made, yet it’s often inaccurately listed as the first. Countless books and articles cite it as the first werewolf film, thanks to the fact that lost films are often treated as if they never existed at all. Regular Film Dirt readers know that the first film werewolf was, in fact, a woman, appearing in The Werewolf a full twelve years before Wolf Blood hit the theaters. Wolf Blood is still pretty important, though. It’s the first film to feature a male werewolf, and, as luck would have it, the oldest werewolf film to actually survive. 

Title card for Wolf Blood.

It’s worth noting that both Wolf Blood and The Werewolf take place in the Canadian woods. That means that the werewolf lore they draw from is French, and the creature in question is based on folk tales of the loup-garou, influenced by Native American tales of the half-beast creature known as the Wendigo. 1935’s Werewolf of London is often said to have established “the rules” of werewolf films—transformations taking place under a full moon, werewolves walking upright on two legs, being vulnerable to silver bullets, etc.—but I often wonder how they might have been different if these early, non-Hollywood werewolf films had gained more foothold.

Wolf Blood was the only film released by independent outfit Ryan Brothers Productions, and marks the only time actor George Chesebro (pronounced “cheese-bro”) took the director’s reins during a career that included around 400 films. Chesebro was known best for playing brutes and baddies in B-westerns and serials, but here he not only directs, but also plays the leading romantic role. Marguerite Clayton, nearing the end of her career, plays the female lead. Contemporary newspaper and magazine reviews praised the strong acting, and they agreed on something else, too: the strangeness of the subject matter. 

Marguerite Clayton in a rare lobby card for Wolf Blood.

“Probably one of the strangest stories ever filmed,” wrote a UK newspaper after the film’s release, and nearly every other review uses words like “startling” and “unique.” That’s perhaps not surprising given how novel the werewolf storyline would have been at the time, and how unusual a plot twist it is for a movie that is otherwise a fairly tepid romance story set in the midst of a lumber company.

Yes, it needs to be said: Wolf Blood is not the kind of film that will make new silent film fans out of folks who have not seen them before. In fact, it would be a real snoozer if not for the odd plot element that the press remarked on. After the film reaches past the halfway point, it’s dying so fast that you’ll likely be thinking the only thing that could possibly save it would be a blood transfusion. Luckily, that transfusion arrives in the form of wolf’s blood, and not a moment too soon.

Exhibitors Herald announcement for the completion of Wolf Blood.

Wolf Blood begins in the Canadian woods with a sequence of logging scenes in a lumberjack camp. It’s not bad as location photography goes, and it might be nice to see on a large screen, but the repeated shots of falling trees and axes chopping led at least one modern critic to title his review “Travelogue for the Lumber Industry of 1925.” (If you’re impatient, you might even wonder if this film is the origin of “sawing logs” as a synonym for sleep.)

George Chesebro plays Dick Bannister (probably one the manliest character names imaginable), the Ford Logging Company’s new field boss. The company’s rival is the Consolidated Lumber Company, who might as well be a gang. Employees of the Consolidated have resorted to thuggish tactics to put Ford out of business, including sniping at unsuspecting loggers with rifles to put them out of work. When one of the Ford men is wounded, Bannister calls on the big-city boss to send a real surgeon to the camp. That boss turns out to be Miss Edith Ford (Clayton), who is more accustomed to hosting depraved flapper parties with lots of bootleg booze.

Miss Ford arrives at the camp with her fiance, a doctor, in tow, and immediately catches the eye of Bannister. A flirtation ensues, despite her engagement. Not long after her arrival, Bannister confronts the rival loggers, who have now built a dam across a river needed for log transport. A lengthy fistfight ensues (even a dog gets involved at one point), and Bannister is ultimately beaten down and left for dead. Dr. Horton (Miss Ford’s fiance) takes Bannister to a nearby cabin and attempts to save his life, but knows a transfusion is needed. He glances through a handy book he happens to have which tells him all about using animal blood for transfusions. It’s safe enough, it seems, though there’s an awfully worrisome caveat: the recipient of the transfusion may take on characteristics of the animal whose blood has been used.

Bannister receiving his transfusion.

Horton doesn’t hesitate, motivated in part by the fact the he knows Bannister is a rival for Miss Ford’s affections. It’s here, post-transfusion, that the film gets interesting, though there’s not much left of it. Of course we know, as modern film-goers, that Bannister is probably not really a werewolf now, it doesn’t matter. Rumors go around the camp about his transfusion, and suddenly none of the loggers will have anything to do with him. He’s become untouchable. Other. It’s difficult not to compare Bannister’s purported lycanthropism with the fear of AIDS, or even the recent ebola scare. With his former friends treating him as less than human, it’s easy for Bannister to believe that he is, in fact, a monster. When Jules Deveroux, boss of the rival camp, turns up with his throat mauled by wolves, it confirms his—and the rest of the camp’s beliefs.

Bannister begins to go mad with the idea that he has become a monster, and he actually starts hearing the call of the wolves. Ghostly images of wolves appear as he is compelled to follow the pack. There’s a touch of Frankenstein here, as Bannister wrestles with what he has become. And while he may not actually have become anything, when others decide you are a monster, is it really any different than being one? 

Wolf Blood is available as a double feature on DVD with Murnau’s The Haunted Castle, or can be streamed on the net from various sources (the film is in the public domain). 

Be sure and subscribe to read about the 30 other silent horror films that will be featured as part of the 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event this October.  


  1. Happily adding reading these entries to my list of daily October rituals! “Travelogue for the Lumber Industry of 1925" - I'm still laughing.

  2. '
    “Probably one of the strangest stories ever filmed,” wrote a UK newspaper after the film’s release, and nearly every other review uses words like “startling” and “unique.” That’s perhaps not surprising given how novel the werewolf storyline would have been at the time, '

    Strange, because though there hadn't been any book to define and set the rules for the werewolf the way Dracula did for the vampire, there'd been quite a few books featuring werewolves and lycanthropy so it shouldn't have been a surprise.

    1. Perhaps I didn't explain it well, but the surprise would have been the fact that what is otherwise a very predictable romance story has a wolf's-blood transfusion as a plot twist. It's an odd element for this kind of film to have, even by today's standards.

    2. Was the original film a standard romance so boring that even the makers noticed and decided it needed livening up a bit, perhaps? It also seems odd that the first two films featuring werewolves had American settings - the tradition goes back even further than the vampire in Europe and the German and Slavonic traditions were more influential than the French.

    3. >Was the original film a standard romance so boring that even the makers noticed and decided it needed livening up a bit, perhaps?

      It was apparently part of the original plan. The scenario was written by Cliff Hall. I agree that it's surprising we didn't see werewolf movies coming out of Eastern Europe before we saw them in North America. I wonder if it's because Native American superstition and wolves were already staples of so many films westerns that it was a logical jump to the loup-garou? 1913's THE WEREWOLF was made by Bison, who typically made westerns, and Chesebro was a veteran of westerns.

  3. Terrific review Kelly - and so unexpected. Never even heard of this one but so glad it is available to view.

    1. Thanks! I'll be covering a few better-known silent horror films, but I hope to turn people on to some of the curiosities.