Judge Jim Thomas is pure of heart and says his prayers by night. We'll not mention his hairy palms.
Even a man who is pure in heart
An early script for The Wolf Man was written for Boris Karloff, but his schedule never opened up, and the story got passed along to another production team. Screenwriter Curt Siodmack took all of the information he could find on the lycanthrope legend and then added some stuff of his own. For the doomed lead, Universal chose Lon Chaney Jr., poised to break out of his father's shadow with his acclaimed performance as Lennie in 1939's Of Mice and Men. Supporting Chaney was an exceptionally strong cast led by Oscar nominees Claude Rains (Casablanca) and Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth), Universal was delighted when the film grossed over a million dollars, and the Wolf Man became the fourth crown jewel in the Universal horror crown. Universal has released the movie singly and as part of the Wolfman Legacy Collection (also containing Werewolf of London, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and She-Wolf of London). Now, with a remake poised to spring into the moonlight, Universal brings us The Wolf Man: Special Edition. Is it best in show, or just another howler?
Facts of the Case
Following the death of his older brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his ancestral home in Wales, reconciling with his father (Claude Rains). Larry strikes up a relationship with pretty shopkeeper Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers, The Ghost of Frankenstein), from whom he buys a walking cane with a striking silver handle. One evening, Larry and Gwen, together with Gwen's friend Jenny, visit a nearby Gypsy camp, where Jenny has her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi), who is horrified when a pentacle appears in Jenny's palm. Spooked by his reaction, Jenny runs into the woods, where she is attacked and killed by a wolf. Larry kills the wolf with his walking stick, but gets bitten in the process. When Jenny's body is found, though, there is no dead wolf nearby, only Bela. Larry later visits the gypsy camp, where Bela's mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) informs Larry that Bela's curse has been passed on to him.
Look, we know the plot, we know the makeup. The thing that has always struck me is the woods. Director George Waggner and the twisted, tortured look of the trees (achieved by spray painting the trees black and coating them with oil to get that damp, glossy look) combine with the unrelenting fog to create a dense, foreboding atmosphere. It's a classic two place structure: The forest represents the supernatural just as the village represents civilization and safety. You leave civilization at your peril: In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom falls asleep in the woods and wakes up with the head of an ass. Everything turns out all right for Bottom, but not everyone who enters the woods is so lucky. Jenny enters the woods and is slaughtered.
Larry Talbot enters the woods, and…(It's no coincidence that in An American Werewolf in London, David and Jack are warned to stay on the road and beware of the moor.) That sense of Otherness has to be played up because there is no bad guy to root against, just a good guy whom fate shoves in front of a bus.
The supporting cast is quite amazing. Both Ouspenskaya and Claude Rains had a couple of Oscar nominations under their belt. They serve to anchor, respectively, the supernatural and the natural worlds. Evelyn Ankers is natural and lovely; her on-screen chemistry with Chaney belies the reality that they didn't really like each other.
The release sports a remastered transfer which looks pretty good for a seventy-year-old film. Grain is evident, but it's not distracting. Some minor scratches and blemishes remain, but overall the picture is in good shape—predictably, the picture quality drops off dramatically in the foggy depths of the woods. Sound is good, but part of me wished that someone would master a surround mix for the scenes in the woods.
The main disc has some recycled extras from previous releases. The commentary track with film historian Tom Weaver is engaging and informative. "Monster by Moonlight," hosted by John Landis, offers a quick overview of the Universal lycanthropes.
The second disc has new supplements, but they're a bit of a letdown. There's a 10-minute overview of lycanthropy that doesn't offer any information that isn't included in "Monster by Moonlight." A 30-minute biography of Chaney is a puff piece that works too hard to paint Chaney in the best possible light. An overview of makeup master Jack Pierce, who designed the makeup for all of the Universal monsters, fares better. Trivia: Pierce originally designed the Wolf Man's makeup for the 1935 Werewolf of London, but star Henry Hull balked at the long hours required for the application, so Pierce went with a more minimal design for that movie. The final extra is the 1998 documentary, Universal Horror. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, the 90-minute feature provides a basic history of Universal Studios from its humble beginnings through The Wolf Man. While it has some interesting interviews and a strong selection of clips, the film lacks a strong narrative. It's more about Universal in general than the horror movies, and stopping the history with The Wolf Man seems incredibly arbitrary, particularly since it omits key periods, such as the descent into self-parody that culminated in the Abbott & Costello horror comedies and the momentary rebirth with The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The documentary was first broadcast by Turner Classic Movies; this disc marks its first DVD release.
Yet more trivia: The full moon is not part of the werewolf lore in this movie; in fact, the moon is never even shown. The full moon was first introduced as a trigger in the sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Given that it was the role which defined him, it's ironic that Chaney is the weakest link in the cast. To be fair, though, that's more of a compliment to the rest of the cast than a knock on Chaney. A secondary problem for a modern audience is the stalker-esque manner in which Larry meets Gwen—looking at her through his telescope, and then using what he sees to try to impress her when they meet in person. It might have worked then, but if a guy tried that today he'd likely find himself twitching in the gutter clawing his eyes out after catching a faceful of pepper spray.
While Chaney and Ankers had great screen chemistry, their budding romance is awkwardly written, including a rival suitor.
The remastered picture looks pretty good, but not great; moreover, none of the extras are overly compelling. If you've got one of the earlier releases and are fine with the picture, there's no real reason to upgrade. If you don't yet own the movie, you should at least consider getting the Legacy Collection instead, as having the additional movies is a much stronger selling point than any of the new extras.
The way you walk is thorny through no fault of your own.
The Wolf Man is acquitted with the court's sympathy, but Universal is chided for producing a weak triple dip.
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