Wealthy and world-renowned botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) heads to Tibet in search of the rare Marifasa Lupina Lumina, an ultra-rare flower than only blooms by moonlight, and ends up on the wrong end of an attack by a werewolf. Surviving the mauling and returning to London, Glendon attempts to cultivate specimens of the plant and in the process neglects his wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), who has recently been reunited with a close male childhood friend (Lester Matthews) who clearly still loves her. But things take a turn for the weirder when another famed botanist, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), arrives and shows an odd interest in the Marifasa. Dropping mysterious hints at having met Glendon before, "in Tibet...in the dark," it soon becomes apparent that Yogami is the werewolf that attacked Glendon and that he was in Tibet in search of the flower, which happens to be the only known cure for the curse of lycanthropy. As the marital tension escalates and Yogami's lust for the flower intensifies, the full moon arrives and the unbelieving Glendon transforms into a slavering (though well-dressed) monster. Murders ensue, Glendon and Yogami have a final encounter, and it all culminates in the sort of tragedy one expects in a werewolf tale.
An often forgotten entry in the Universal monster cycle, THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON was the first major studio film about a werewolf and differs quite a bit from the lycanthropic tropes that would be codified six years later in THE WOLF MAN. For one thing, the werewolf appears to be able to think rationally, though admittedly with an accent of animalistic savagery, and he even takes the time to dress himself with an overcoat, scarf, and hat before embarking on his lethal nocturnal excursions. The film's London setting also distances it from the more "old country" feel of most werewolf yarns, and that populating of the story with characters seemingly lifted from the broad British comedies of the era creates a jarring tonal dissonance in relation to what's ostensibly a horror narrative. Upper crust stereotypes collide with Una O'Connor-style over-the-top lower-class biddies, and both archetypes feel like they'd be more at home in a musical hall comedy sketch.
But the aspect that most separates THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON from other lycanthropy stories and especially from films of its era is its in-your-face homosexual subtext. Written by gay playwright and screenwriter John Colton, the script uses the lycanthropy angle as an expressive metaphor for then-forbidden homosexuality within stereotypically stuffy British society. Glendon and Yogami are bonded by their shared "affliction" and they share many exchanges that resemble secrets being shared between lovers who must stay out of the societal spotlight. Glendon's disintegrating marriage also serves to represent the misery of a gay man stuck in an "acceptable" but visibly-uncomfortable relationship, while his wife seeks happiness with a man with whom she has a concrete and fulfilling emotional (and therefore sexual) bond.
Yogami meets his well-deserved fate.
Reportedly a box office flop when it came out, possibly due to its marked similarities to DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931), THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON is worth a look for its historical significance and its position as a homosexual allegory. It's not as great or as seminal as most of the other films in the classic Universal horror cycle and it lacks the dark fairy tale atmosphere of its brethren, but it works well enough as a simple and entertaining monster story. That said, the werewolf genre would have to wait until THE WOLF MAN for its defining myth, but we'll get to that soon enough...