Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Wolf Man: Classic Monster Collection (1941)
Studio Line: Universal Studios

The original horror classic that introduced one of the screen's most infamous monsters! Lon Chaney, Jr. portrays Larry Talbot, who returns to his father's castle in Wales and meets a beautiful woman. One fateful night, Talbot escorts her to a local carnival where Jenny's fate is revealed by a mysterious gypsy fortune teller. The dreamlike atmospheres and elaborate settings combined with a chilling musical score make The Wolf Man a masterpiece not only of the genre, but for all time!

Director: George Waggner
Cast: Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated NR; 70 min.; $29.98; street date 11/2/99.
Supplements: "Monster by Moonlight" Original Documentary; Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver; The Wolf Man Archives; Production Notes; Cast and Filmmakers Bios; Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/C+/B+

Although I've never been a big fan of monster movies, I recently tried the DVDs of both Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein and enjoyed them very much. I followed up with Dracula and found it compelling as well. As such, I thought I'd push my luck by rounding out my collection with the another title in the Universal Studios "Classic Monsters" collection: 1941's The Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man prompted a bit of excitement, but it doesn't approach the heights of some of the earlier horror flicks. This is the only one of the few "monster" movies that doesn't really attempt a kind of elegantly creepy atmosphere; The Wolf Man seems broader and more traditional than most of the others. Even though I didn't much like 1932's The Mummy or the Tod Browning edition of Dracula (the Spanish version is vastly superior), I did at least appreciate their eeriness and I miss that in The Wolf Man.

Compared to those films, however, The Wolf Man does offer more overt excitement, and it moves the plot along at a better pace. It just seems more pedestrian and workman-like than it needed to be. Overall, the film features a very strong cast, with the notable exception being Lon Chaney Jr. as our title character. He does well in his brief scenes as the monster but he has much more difficulty pulling off his "human" segments. Even ignoring the fact he's supposed to be British - which Chaney most definitely is not - the role of Larry Talbot really calls for a more dashing leading man sort; Chaney seems so dopey and goofy that I just couldn't accept him in the part.

Overall, I liked The Wolf Man a bit more than The Mummy or the Browning Dracula, but all remain largely on a par for me. I'll ultimately try them again at some point, but I have a feeling they'll stay on a level far below that of the two James Whale Frankenstein movies and the Spanish Dracula.

(As an aside, what's the deal with the extremely abrupt endings we find in these films? They all just kind of stop as soon as they hit their climaxes. It's like monster's dead - BAM! End credits! Did anyone teach these folks about the denouement in high school? I find these conclusions to be rather jarring.)

The DVD:

The Wolf Man appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; as such, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Of the first five DVDs in the "Universal Monsters" collection, this one easily looks the best. That may seem natural since it's also the newest film, but when you consider that it's not that much more modern than the other four movies, the large difference in quality is more glaring.

Sharpness appeared consistently quite good, with images that regularly looked crisp and well-defined. At times - especially during the foggy marsh scenes - the picture could seem somewhat murky and hazy, but this problem was not terrible. Moiré effects and jagged edges were not detected.

Print flaws were definitely the worst part of this DVD, although they seemed especially problematic during the first half of the film. For that period of the movie, white spots and speckles were a near-constant intrusion, and I also saw lots of grain, scratches, marks and other faults. While some of the grain remained in the second half, and I also discerned intermittent speckling, these problems were not nearly as severe; for that time, the image seemed much more pristine.

Black levels looked consistently deep and dark. Shadow detail also appeared quite clean and smooth; on occasion, it could seem a bit too heavy - also mainly during the foggy scenes - but for the most part, it was appropriately dense. Overall, the film has some problems, but it looked very good for such an old movie, especially in comparison with its stablemates.

The Wolf Man offered pretty decent monaural audio. The track presented some background hiss and clicks and pops, but these seemed fairly mild and didn't affect the sound to any significant degree. Dialogue sounded relatively natural and clear and always seems intelligible.

The score appeared a bit shrill but remained neatly defined and fairly smooth, and effects were clean and realistic for the most part, even if they did tend to lack much low end (as is typical of soundtracks from this era). Distortion was almost never a problem. It's not great audio and it seems pretty average for the period, but it's still quite listenable.

The Wolf Man was the final of the first five "Universal Monsters" DVDs that I watched, and since they all follow a similar format, I was pretty well-prepared for what I'd get on this DVD. Nonetheless, the 32-minute documentary - called "Monster By Moonlight" - surprised me a bit. For one, we actually hear from a member of the original production. Due to the age of these films, the vast majority of the participants are no longer with us, but Curt Siodmak, The Wolf Man's screenwriter, is still kicking, so we hear a few comments from him. The remainder of the interviews come from the usual crew of film historians and also make-up artist Rick Baker, and they provide a nice explanation of issues related to the movie.

One other surprise about the John Landis-hosted documentary is that it showed more willingness to criticize aspects of the production. No, there isn't any out-and-out slamming of the movie, but these kinds of programs - especially when they concern older "classic" films - tend to be relentlessly positive about the product and you hear little that could be regarded otherwise. During "Monster By Moonlight", however, we learn juicy tidbits like Lon Chaney's apparent dislike of make-up wizard Jack Pierce and Siodmak notes his less-than-positive feelings about the casting of Chaney in the title role. It's not exactly National Enquirer material, but it seems more honest than the usual comments, and it made the documentary more enjoyable for me.

Film historian Tom Weaver provides a terrific audio commentary for The Wolf Man. This track follows in the spirit of the documentary with its glib and revealing tone. During the commentaries for the other four films, the participants seemed overly somber and serious about the movies; Weaver, on the other hand, manages a light and occasionally sarcastic tone about The Wolf Man. He's more than happy to mention the film's flaws and this semi-critical tone makes his comments all the more compelling. He packs a ton of information into this track; some of the others drag at times but Weaver barely stops for air since there's so much for him to say and so little time in which to say it. Weaver's commentary is possibly the best of the series.

The remainder of the DVD features supplements similar to those found on the other "Monster" DVDs, for that matter. The Wolf Man archive offers a filmed mixture of posters, lobby cards and production photos accompanied by the soundtrack to the movie, and it runs for nearly seven minutes. In addition, we get good biographies for eight actors and director George Waggner, some interesting text production notes plus what actually appears to be the film's original trailer (all the others say "re-release" in their fine print, but this one doesn't). Some of the material's a bit redundant - the excellent documentary and the terrific audio commentary covered so much about the film there's little left to say - but it's still worth a look.

When I reviewed the first three DVDs in the "Universal Monsters" series, I recommended them without hesitation. I don't feel nearly as strongly about The Wolf Man but I do feel it's worth your purchase. The movie isn't as good as its predecessors but I think it's somewhat interesting. The Wolf Man provides a relatively strong presentation in both picture and sound, and it features some excellent supplements;. the high quality of its audio commentary and documentary are worth the price of admission alone. The Wolf Man isn't a great film, but I think the DVD merits your attention.

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