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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/19/99

The Wolf Man
Classic Monster Collection - 1941 (1999) - Universal Studios

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

The Wolf Man: Classic Monster Collection Film Ratings: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/B-

Specs and Features

70 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (movie on one layer, and extras on the other), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary track with film historian Tom Weaver, documentary Monster By Moonlight: The Immortal Saga Of The Wolf Man (hosted by John Landis, written, directed and produced by David J. Skal), poster and stills gallery, production notes, cast and crew bios, theatrical trailer, weblinks, film-themed menu screens with animation and music, scene access (18 chapters), language: English (DD mono), subtitles: English & French, Close Captioned

"Even a man who's pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."

When I was a kid, I fantasized that when I turned 16, I would turn into a werewolf. I talked myself into believing that whatever it was that make werewolves was in my family genes, and that at age 16, a mysterious man would come to me and teach me about harnessing my powers for the good of mankind. I would be able to battle evil, and look pretty darn cool doing it. Just in case it happened, I studied everything "werewolf" I could get my hands on -- books, movies, even toys dedicated to The Wolf Man. I watched The Wolf Man so many times, that by age of 9, I knew the "Even a man" poem from the film by heart. I would play in the woods, and try and hone my smelling skills and my climbing skills, so that I would be that much better when the powers came. The powers never came, of course, and now I look like a little freak. I probably shouldn't share my childhood excursions into madness here, and I normally wouldn't, except that I like talking about my favorite Universal Monster, Larry Talbot. As I sit here writing this, his munchkin self stares down at me in many different forms -- a Little Big Head, a doll, a model, and one of those cool CVS beanies. I may not have turned into a werewolf, but I still never stopped wishing I could.

The Wolf Man is different from most of the other "nine" Universal Monster standards (those being The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon). He's different because he's a monster, but not by choice. Sure, Frankenstein didn't ask to be reanimated and The Bride of Frankenstein is hardly a monster, considering she never really monstered out. But good ol' Larry Talbot is a monster, and he doesn't even know he's doing anything. He just wakes up with dirt on his feet, and cuts and bruises all over his body, with an "Oh, my God, what have I done?" look on his face. That must be a bitch. For Larry, life is a nightmare, and all he wants to do is die. It makes him a sad monster, one that deserves our pity.

The Wolf Man begins with Larry Talbot coming home to see his father somewhere in Europe (it's unspecified, with English Lords, gypsies, modern day cars and German castles). Larry is the new heir apparent to his father's lordship, after his older brother was killed in a hunting accident. Larry has spent so much time away in America, that everything about him is Americanized now, causing him to be an outsider in a world he was once a part of. Lon Chaney, Jr. plays Larry as a lumbering child-man, who doesn't understand anything he can't put his hands on. He chases girls, he seems shy around authority figures, and the first thing we see him do is build a nice telescope for his father's enjoyment. Legendary actor Claude Rains plays Larry's father, and try as they might, the two look nothing like a father and a son. It's kind of funny, but it also adds a sort of sadness to the relationship they share. Larry seems out of place in every aspect of this world, and what might first be perceived as a casting mistake, takes on an importance. Lon Chaney/Larry Talbot just doesn't belong in this world, and when everything happens to him, it just makes it that much more sad.

Out of the telescope, Larry spies the beautiful Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) in her apartment above an antique shop, and immediately high-tails it right over to her. In a bit of uncomfortable "stalker" dialogue, Larry asks her out, and ends up buying a silver cane with a wolf's head on top (anyone who knows where I might score a reproduction of this bad boy, drop me a line -- I want one, like today). They make plans to go see a travelling gypsy clan, to get their fortune's read, and everything is downhill for Larry from that point. You see, that night, by the light of the moon, Larry is bitten by a werewolf and soon becomes one himself. Forever cursed to hunt the night for victims, Larry does everything he possibly can to prevent the inevitable, while everyone he loves thinks that he's slowly going crazy, and everyone that hates his outsider status hunts him down.

The Wolf Man works on many different levels, despite some of the flaws in the story, logic and production. It has a huge symbolic underpinning, that writer Curt Siodmak surgically tied into the film. Freudian study, political commentary and human nature are all written into this film. Countless essays, books and theories have poured over the meanings that this film has, and they're all fun to read if you get your hands on some. Production-wise, if you don't care to be critical and look at the movie as a movie, The Wolf Man is fun to watch, with some exciting and scary moments. Though, when all is said and done, the story is so utterly sad. If you can't help it, and look at it with a critical eye, you'll see a handful of production gaffs, as well as an illogical approach to the title character. For instance, why is the werewolf that bites Larry a "wolf", but Larry is a wolf man? No one knows. Gaffe-wise, you'll also see more reused shots of the stalking wolf man than there are shots of the moon (which isn't too hard actually, because there are NO shots of the moon). Still, The Wolf Man is my favorite Universal film because I loved it most as a kid. It scared me, it thrilled me, and it ultimately made me want to study film and filmmakers -- so I have a lot to thank for it.

Maybe my studying of the film, its history, and the people behind it, is why I'm not too happy with this special edition DVD. The transfer is remarkably well done, so don't get me wrong there. The video quality is super clean, with only a few moments of the damaged source print shining through. The sound is nice as well. The mono track is full, with nice dialogue and music. Both are clean representations, and are the best I've ever experienced for this film. My problems aren't with the DVD's quality, but rather more with the special stuff put on it. For people that know nothing about this film, the extras here are okay. But based on everything else the Universal team (lead by David J. Skal) has done for the Universal Monster films on DVD, this one is lacking.

The documentary is a little more than 30 minutes, but it focuses on werewolves in movies in general, and this film's make-up and script. Those are good points, and they're well covered here, but there's more to this movie that should have been discussed. I don't care about other "creature" movies in the Universal library -- I want to know more about this film. With Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein, the special edition material was layered with history about the people who made the film, the alternate drafts of the screenplays, and how the films influenced cinema. Those points are barely mentioned here, and are never explored, and I felt like there was a lot more that wasn't being told. And I was upset by this. The commentary track by historian Tom Weaver goes into more detail, but again, he spends most of the time talking about the make-up and the legend of Jack Pierce. I do like the commentary by Weaver -- at first, I didn't think I was going to like it one bit, because it sounds read, but suddenly Weaver starts to make cracks about the film, and talk like a buddy who's over watching the film for the 100th time. It's a very good track that deserves a listen, because it goes more in-depth into what should have been done for the documentary. Ultimately, I feel that this is a bit of a lazy effort -- it does its job, but doesn't do anymore than that. I feel like a teacher sometimes, dealing with students that I know can offer more, but just don't want to. This is a "B-" effort in my eyes, because it could have been a "A" if they took the time to make it so.

The other extras include production notes, and a cast and crew section that sadly is nothing but regurgitated information from the commentary track. There's also the "archive" of stills and poster art (set to The Wolf Man theme music), and a badly preserved trailer. It's all the same stuff that's on the other DVDs, but here, it just seems so lacking. So much more could have been done, and it's a shame. Heck -- you can tell just by the menu screens, which seem half of quality of those put out for previous Classic Monster DVDs.

I love this movie, and I'm proud to own it on DVD. I just wanted something more, and not just as a fan of The Wolf Man. I wanted more as a fan of DVD, and a fan of these wonderful Universal Classic Monster films. I think most will be very happy with this disc (especially with the disc's quality). But for a select few out there, this will be a disappointment -- and one I hope doesn't continue as these films come out. We are relying on Universal to present these films as definitive DVDs. So far, they have made us very happy. I just hope this one was a minor bump in the road, and that the others in the series will be even better.

Todd Doogan

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