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"Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself."—Maleva (Maria Ouspensskaya)
"Aw, quit handin' me that!"—Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.)
Come on—toss the Wolf Man a bone. He may seem like an underdog when compared to pillars of shock cinema like Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster, but werewolves are horror film fixtures that have remained relevant over the years through countless reinventions. Since his debut as a classic Universal monster, Wolfie has always had one distinct advantage over his ghoulish peers—he is by day a real person, the victim of a cruel circumstance that has left him aware of his curse but unable to control it. No one ever worried that they might suddenly turn into Frankenstein's Monster, but after leaving the theater on a night with a full moon, I'll bet more than one Wolf Man viewer checked the back of their hand for traces of bristly hair.
The Wolf Man, The Wolf Man Meets Frankenstein, She-Wolf of London, and Werewolf of London have all been available on DVD in the past, but Universal's The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection collects all four tales of classic lycanthropy in one attractive package, suitable for display on your bookcase or next to your beard trimmer.
Facts of the Case
In The Wolf Man, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains, The Invisible Man) welcomes his son Larry (Lon Chaney Jr., Of Mice and Men) back to the family mansion after a long absence. Wasting no time, Larry convinces local beauty Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers, The Mad Ghoul) to accompany him to a Gypsy caravan on the edge of town. While waiting on his turn for a palm reading by Bela (Bela Lugosi, Dracula), Larry witnesses a friend of Gwen's being attacked by a large wolf. He beats the creature to death with his silver-headed cane, but not before receiving a nasty bite on the chest. The next morning, the body of Bela is found beside the cane, and the townspeople begin to suspect Larry is simply crying wolf to cover a devious murder. That's the least of Larry's troubles though, as Bela's mother Maleva (Maria Ouspensskaya) confirms that not only has the bite infected him a werewolf, but his next target will most likely be Gwen.
A sequel to both The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man finds Larry Talbot back in the grip of the werewolf curse and desperate for the release of death. Larry returns to the Gypsy camp to seek the one person who understands his predicament, Maleva. Together they travel to Vasaria to solicit the help of a certain Dr. Frankenstein, a physician they have heard is knowledgeable in matters of life and death. When they discover he has died, Larry goes to his ruined castle and inadvertently reawakens fellow immortal, Frankenstein's Monster (Bela Lugosi). Helping him in his quest for a final exit are Frankenstein's daughter (Ilona Massey, Love Happy) and Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles, Mutiny), another physician who has been tracking Larry across Europe. With both monsters on the slab in Frankenstein's crumbling lab, Mannering grows mad with power. Instead of draining the life energies of each monster according to Larry's instructions, he reinvigorates each creature for the title bout.
The third film in this set, She-Wolf of London, isn't really related to the Chaney films. This one takes place in early 20th century England, and involves young heiress Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart, Lost in Space), who worries that she may be the unconscious perpetrator of a rash of murders in a nearby park. The police believe the deaths to be the work of a wild animal, a creature that survivors have dubbed the "She-Wolf." These facts jive with what Phyllis has heard about the "Allenby Curse," a hereditary strain of werewolfism that supposedly afflicted her parents. Under the advice of her guardian, Aunt Martha (Sara Haden, A Family Affair), a terrified Phyllis calls off her impending wedding with fiancé Barry Lanfield (Don Porter, The Candidate). Lanfield suspects these murders by moonlight are not as they seem, and attempts to solve the mystery himself.
Finally, we go back six years before Chaney's The Wolf Man for Universal's very first lycanthropic delight, Werewolf of London. Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull, High Sierra) is a botanist, a collector of rare plants. On a trip to Tibet to procure a sample of the obscure Mariphasa Lupina, Glendon is bitten by a large wolf. On returning to England, he is visited by the curious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland, Charlie Chan in Shanghai), a fellow scientist who knows all about the incident. Yogami further claims that the Mariphasa Lupina, which only blooms under moonlight, can temporarily stave off the effects of werewolfism. Sure enough, the first full moon causes coarse hair to appear on Glendon's arm, a transformation he stops by jabbing a Mariphasa Lupina flower into his arm. The next evening he isn't so lucky, and each night without a flower results in a murder, which have Scotland Yard baffled. Soon, Glendon starts to worry that Yogami's claims that "werewolves destroy the thing they love most" might result in the death of his increasingly estranged wife.
As the first successful "original" monster to come from Universal's stable of creature classics, the Wolf Man was a much more timely creation than his literary forefathers. Evolutionary theory remained a hot topic through the 1930s and '40s, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Hollywood. The Scopes trial was still fairly recent news, and Ernst Mayr and other scientists were actively integrating Gregor Mendel's work in heredity with Charles Darwin's concept of natural selection, creating a "modern synthesis" of evolutionary theory.
Over the years, controversial and emotionally charged topics have always made excellent fodder for horror films, and the spate of werewolf pictures that appeared during this era certainly played off a fear that humans may have come from dark, beastly origins. In the case of Larry Talbot and his hirsute pals, these films suggested that only a thin line kept us from reverting to a state of animalistic savagery. Anthropomorphic brutes made for some of the most visible movie monsters in horror films in the 1930s and '40s, appearing in classics like Island of Lost Souls and the Val Lewton-produced shocker, Cat People. Universal's Captive Wild Woman is the first in a trilogy of grade-D films about a scientist's obsessive quest to forcibly evolve an ape into a beautiful young girl—with disastrous results. The werewolf may have been a monster recognized through legends and stories, but Universal made him relevant by playing off contemporary fears and desires.
This comes across most clearly in Universal's first werewolf film, Werewolf of London, which contains direct references to evolutionary theory. Shortly after being infected on his Tibetan trip, Dr. Glendon has a garden party to show off some of his rarest specimens. The sight of a large (obviously phony) plant that can eat and digest small reptiles causes Dr. Yogami to remark, "Evolution was in a strange mood when that creation came along!"
In this case, the "strange moods of nature" make for a pleasant, if flawed, movie. Werewolf of London may be initially problematic for modern audiences, as it plays around with the customary werewolf mythology. It was several years until The Wolf Man would set the rules in stone, and as a result this is certainly the weaker of the two interpretations. As opposed to its successor, this film contains very little palpable suspense; this werewolf tends to pick random victims as yet unknown to the audience, since it can't get at Dr. Glendon's wife. The wolf make-up, while probably acceptable at the time, pales in comparison to Jack Pierce's later design—Hull looks less like a wolf than a boar with hair plugs. Moreover, Glendon's obsessive need to jam Mariphasa Lupina pollen into his veins seems to exist only as an allegory for opium addiction, and doesn't really fit in with the rest of the plot.
Most of what does work in the film is attributable to Henry Hull's performance. As the stodgy man of science afraid he may lose control, Hull is completely believable. His effort to control himself and keep his wife alive between Mariphasa Lupina blooms by locking himself away is poignant and bittersweet. Warner Oland is also quite good as Dr. Yogami, and the two characters, especially when they appear on screen together, are able to carry the picture past its obvious faults. Not a great film by any stretch, Werewolf of London remains an entertaining tale of flower-sniffing lycanthropes out for a night on the town.
In The Wolf Man, director George Waggner completely rewrote the rules and crafted a film that has become the benchmark for all werewolf films. The 70 minutes in which Larry Talbot's tragic story is told are fast-paced and creepy, combining a tight script, excellent cast, and moody atmosphere into a memorable film that is still potent today.
Although evolutionary undertones are still present, The Wolf Man downplays some of the allusions that Werewolf of London flaunted so proudly. This version takes the character back to its mythic roots by prefacing the film with a shot of a book explaining the history of the werewolf with the word "LEGEND" highlighted boldly. The Wolf Man goes to great lengths to steep the werewolf in a documented history of superstition, constantly referring to it as an "ancient" curse and emphasizing the fact that it is carried into Wales by an archaic culture—the Gypsies.
The look of The Wolf Man is what really sets it apart as the best werewolf film ever made. Superior set design is evident in the foggy forests and distinguished castles, locations that infuse the film with a gothic quality sorely lacking in Werewolf of London. Jack Pierce's wolf make-up is also clearly a groundbreaking achievement. Although not fully revealed until well into the film, the level of detail and craftsmanship that went into molding Chaney into a werewolf is nothing short of amazing.
A distinguished cast, led by Claude Rains, is another high point. Already showing signs of fading fast, Lugosi isn't given very much to do, but he still manages to make the best of it. Surprisingly enough, the most stilted performance in the film comes from Chaney himself. Although successful at pulling off a bland everyman the audience can relate to, he's just not believable as the supposedly "upper crust" Larry Talbot. Chaney's imposing physical presence is also a problem. While there was a notable and dramatic difference between Henry Hull's stuffy botanist and his snarling alter-ego, Chaney usually appears more menacing in a three-piece suit than he does his monster make-up, which actually has the effect of diminishing his stature.
Appearing two years later, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was Universal's first monster match-up, a gimmick to give the waning creature features a new life. In scripting the sequel, screenwriter Curt Siodmak neatly updates the themes from the first film into something equally satisfying, questioning the nature of the monster's immortality.
The story, an elaborate excuse to get the title monsters in battle royale mode, turns out to be surprisingly plausible. In fact, the first half of the film is quite enjoyable and well-paced, as Larry arrives in Europe to seek help for his assisted suicide. Larry struggles with the knowledge that although death may be the only way to overcome the werewolf curse, it has also given him immortality. A sense of desperation permeates these early scenes, with Larry coming to terms with the fact that he is stuck in an endless nightmare of murder and horror. Despite stealing first billing from his hairy comrade, the introduction of Frankenstein is where the problems begin. Lugosi's performance is off and he is physically wrong as the Monster. Not helping matters, a prologue spoken by Lugosi, meant to explain that the monster is blind, was removed after audiences laughed at his accent. Lugosi's strange behavior aside, once the plot focuses all its energy on getting the monsters to brawl, the mortality issues are dropped, and there's nothing to do but sit back and wait for the climax.
Taking over directing duties is Roy William Neill, and while the film still has some expressionistic elements, including a spooky graveyard scene in the very beginning, the sequel suffers in comparison to Waggner's original film as well as James Whale's breathtaking Frankenstein. It's about on par with Werewolf of London, but this sequel probably has a slight edge due to Pierce's superior make-up expertise and an improved performance by Chaney.
After Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Chaney reprised Larry Talbot for two more monster sequels, House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein. Since those films appeared on the other Legacy Collections, Universal has scoured the vaults for a fourth film appropriate enough to include here. They must have dug pretty deep indeed to come up with the monster-less She-Wolf of London, a barely related film with little connection to the werewolves in the rest of the set.
Running just 61 minutes, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that this film was conceived as the latter half of a double feature so that The Wolf Man could be re-released. This is easily the weakest entry of the four, a murder mystery that all but gives away the solution just minutes into the film. Further dragging She-Wolf of London down is a detective who announces that the culprit is a werewolf on the flimsiest of evidence, and June Lockhart's implausible gullibility masquerading as doe-eyed innocence. This film has none of the suspense or subtleties of the earlier films, and even as an example of the tried and true "am I mad or being driven mad?" plot, this film is nothing new and a distinct disappointment.
While completely forgettable as an addition to the set, it's worth mentioning that She-Wolf of London slightly adapts the werewolf mythology to coincide with the current direction of evolutionary theory. In She-Wolf of London, werewolfism is not transferred from wolf bites, but passed down from one generation to the next as a hereditary trait.
Picture and sound quality on each film in this extensive set is good, but not great. Although the transfers are well-defined, with deep blacks and vibrant whites, source artifacts are visible in each case. Werewolf of London fares the worst, most likely because it is the oldest film presented here. The Dolby mono soundtracks are also decent, delivering dialogue and music clearly and with solid tone. As these films are sixty to seventy years old, there's very little to complain about, and the minor occurrences of dirt and scratches are not enough to prevent me from recommending this set.
Most of the extras included on The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection have been recycled from the original DVD release of The Wolf Man. First up is an audio commentary by expert Tom Weaver. Weaver must have brought extensive notes when he recorded his scene-specific track for The Wolf Man, but his wealth of information is delivered in a relaxed and engaging style. This is a textbook example of a great commentary, and is not to be missed.
Included on the second disc is "Monster by Moonlight," a featurette on the cinematic history of Wolf Man hosted by An American Werewolf in London director John Landis. This is a nicely assembled piece, which gives a whirlwind history of the Universal werewolf films from Werewolf of London through to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Make-up artist Rick Baker offers revealing comments about Pierce's handiwork in creating the memorable visage of the monster, and Siodmak also proves a fascinating subject. I was truly surprised at how good this documentary was, and wished it could have been longer.
The sole new bonus feature is "Stephen Sommers on Universal's Classic Monsters: The Wolf Man," a five-minute advertisement for Sommers's Van Helsing, in which he demonstrates his misunderstanding of the nature of the character. Also making an appearance are the four original theatrical trailers. Not carried over from the original releases are still galleries, production notes, and cast biographies—no big loss there.
Universal's Legacy Collections of Dracula and Frankenstein are must-haves for any DVD library, but don't forget about Larry Talbot and his shaggy split personality. The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection is another monstrous box set definitely worth owning, bringing together four films and a paw-full of extras for a fantastic price. Hopefully, Universal will see fit to give the rest of their stable of movie monsters the same treatment in the future.
Who's a good DVD release? Yes, you are! You're a good DVD! All parties are innocent and free to go, except for She-Wolf of London, which is to have its nose rubbed in the mess it made in my chambers.
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Scales of Justice, Werewolf Of London
Perp Profile, Werewolf Of London
Distinguishing Marks, Werewolf Of London
• "Monster by Moonlight" Documentary
Scales of Justice, The Wolf Man
Perp Profile, The Wolf Man
Distinguishing Marks, The Wolf Man
• Commentary by Film Historian Tom Weaver
Scales of Justice, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man
Perp Profile, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man
Distinguishing Marks, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, She-Wolf Of London
Perp Profile, She-Wolf Of London
Distinguishing Marks, She-Wolf Of London
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.