Lawrence Stewart Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his father's estate in Llanwelly, Wales after an absence of 18 years. He meets his father Sir John (Claude Rains), no mention is made of his mother, and his older brother John Jr. recently died in a hunting accident. Larry visits an antique shop and buys a cane with a silver wolf's head. The young saleslady Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) says the symbolism involves werewolves.
Throughout the film, characters recite poems such as: "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."
Gwen and her friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) accompany Larry to a gypsy fair where Jenny decides to have her fortune told by Bela (Bela Lugosi). The gypsy turns into a wolf and kills Jenny. Larry beats the animal to death with his cane, but is also bitten himself.
A barefoot Bela is found where the wolf was and Larry's wound has disappeared. Bela's mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) recites a prayer over her son's coffin: "The way you walk was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over, Bela my son. Now you will find peace."
Larry visits Gwen who has been criticized for not guarding Jenny. Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles), the Talbot's gamekeeper, is Gwen's fiance and accompanies Larry to the gypsy fair. Maleva gives Larry a pentagram necklace "the sign of the wolf", which is then given to Gwen for protection.
Maleva: "Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself."
Larry: "Ah, quit handing me that. You're just wasting your time."
Maleva: "The wolf bit you, didn't it?"
Larry: "Yeah. Yeah it did!"
Maleva: "You killed the wolf."
Larry: "Well, there's no crime in that is there?"
Maleva: "The wolf was Bela."
Larry: "You think I don't know the difference between a wolf and a man?"
Larry begins transforming into a two-legged wolf and kills Richardson (Tom Stevenson), the gravedigger. Colonel Montford (Ralph Bellamy) and Andrews set a trap for the Werewolf. Larry is trapped but Maleva releases him. Sir John thinks Maleva has filled his son's mind with nonsense and locks up Larry.
Sir John: "You can't run away."
Larry: "That's it! That's what she said."
Sir John: "Who?"
Larry: "The gypsy woman."
Sir John: "Gypsy woman? Now we're getting down to it. She's been filling your mind with this gibberish. This talk of werewolves and pentagrams. You're not a child Larry, you're a grown man and you believe in the superstitions of a Gypsy woman!"
Gwen runs into the woods and is attacked by the Wolfman. Sir John approaches and the wolfman attacks him instead. The Wolfman is bludgeoned to death by his father and transforms back to Larry Talbot.
THE WOLF MAN is Universal Studios third most popular monster creation, after Frankenstein and Dracula. Movie critics generally have a very high regard for this horror movie. It has a very good cast, great production values, recycled eerie atmosphere, but is grim and somewhat disappointing dramatically. The film is intelligent, literate, well-staged, engrossing, and has terrific makeup and special effects. This film has no wolves in it, only werewolves played by Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, but the wolf is explicitly evil incarnate. Gypsy Maleva says, "The pentagram is the sign of the wolf", and Sir John Talbot says, "In this case evil takes the shape of an animal." Although Bela Lugosi becomes what looks like a wolf, Lon Chaney with special effects slowly turns into a stylish monster resembling an ape more than a wolf. He walks upright, and has no snout and no tail.
Others in the cast include: Warren William (Dr. Lloyd), J. M. Kerrigan (Charles Conlife), Forrester Harvey (Twiddle), Harry Cording (Wykes), Leyland Hodgson (Kendall), Connie Leon (Mr. Wykes), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Williams), Ottola Nesmith (Mrs. Bally), Ernie Stanton (Phillips), Harry Stubbs (Rev. Norman), and many others. Curt Siodmak wrote the script. Music was composed by Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, and Frank Skinner. Jack P. Pierce was the makeup artist. George Waggner produced and directed.