Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection (DVD)

Released by Universal Home Video

With Universal’s release of Van Helsing fast approaching, they figured what better way to build the hype about a new movie with old monsters than to focus on the old monsters? The three Legacy Collection releases came out on April 27th, and are basically just repackagings of The Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein as they were in the Universal box set that came out a few years back, but with some additional features.

So even though it’s technically more of the same, this is still a set for the collector’s whose love for the classics overcomes any issues with “double dipping”.

The Wolf Man (1941): While obviously a classic horror tale, there’s always been something about Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performance that’s bothered me. He just comes off a bit whiny and wishy-washy, wish I guess is suited to his character, being the underprivileged offspring of a rich man who had to wait for his brother’s death to get noticed, but did he have to ham it up so much?

That little piece of criticism aside, you can’t deny the greatness of this movie for its time. It was one of the first movies to show a man becoming a beast, attempting to tear his victims to pieces. It touched on issues that hadn’t really been covered in film before, or had but not quite as blatantly, namely the conflict between man and his inner beast. I can imagine being a kid and seeing that for the first time, nothing could’ve stopped me from loving this movie.

On a side note, I had forgotten that the facial transformation actually did not occur in this until the end, and that was a bit of a let down. Sure it’s all done through dissolves, but the first time he turns all it focuses on is his feet! Just a strange way to introduce the monster, but that’s what George Waggner wanted, so that’s what George Waggner got.

And I would be remiss to not mention the excellent performance by Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy whose husband bites Larry Talbot before Talbot kills him. I really can’t think of a gypsy in any capacity without picturing her first, she’s always been the quintessential mysterious wandering woman. A credit to either her performance or the amount of times I’ve actually see this movie.

As far as the picture goes, you’re not going to find a better looking version of this movie. Universal did a great job in the clean up, and the full frame presentation shows minimal damage, which one would expect from a film as old as this.

The sound is a 2.0 mono track, also what you would expect, and despite the fact that they never really utilized any kind of ambient sounds when there was no dialogue, the scratches and hum that have been present before are virtually gone.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943): It didn’t take too much time for Universal to realize the had a hit on their hands with The Wolf Man, but instead of making a stand-alone sequel, they gave kids what they most secretly prayed for; a monster throw-down. Tons of atmosphere and a well-done plot make it a very entertaining follow-up to the original, even if the resurrection of Larry Talbot in the beginning was a tad hokey.

The picture and sound are pretty much the same as above, though I’m sure they didn’t do a new clean up with the audio or visual.

Werewolf of London (1935): Universal’s first werewolf movie, a full six years before The Wolf Man, in which Henry Hull portrays a scientist who is attacked by a strange animal while out a botanical expedition and turns into a werewolf. Though I personally thought the transformation in this one was handled a lot better than in The Wolf Man, that’s about all this film had going for it. Too much comedy and not enough menace holds it back when it gets close to being anything ground breaking, but it’s still a pretty entertaining piece of horror history.

Again, the film looks pretty damn good, though this print must’ve had some damage done to it here and there throughout the years. It’s definitely not as clean looking or sounding as The Wolf Man, but it’s acceptable. It really would’ve been nice if they could have given a little more love to the clean up on the supplemental movies, but that’s what you get for a rush job.

She-Wolf of London (1946): I really don’t understand why this was included in the set, unless they just ran out of Universal-produced werewolf films, but this was the first time I’d seen it so maybe I’m just too old and jaded now. Who knows? It was made towards the end of Universal’s horror heyday, and that shows through and through.

All that aside, the picture and audio are good, again presented full frame with a 2.0 mono mix. No complaints, other than that the movie was just plain dull.

On to the extras! We’ll get to what I thought was the least-needed feature out of the way first. Van Helsing director Stephen Sommers gets on camera to talk about his feelings on The Wolf Man and how it changed and influenced him, and a few minutes into it we start getting clips of Van Helsing‘s werewolf, which really doesn’t look all that great in terms of CGI creations. I do like what he’s doing with the transformation, making the beast come out of the man, but it was done in Company of Wolves long before this and it’s not cool for him to make it sound like he came up with the idea himself, which he essentially does. That clocks in at about 7 minutes, so it’s thankfully not overlong.

The most impressive feature is the “Monster by Moonlight” documentary, which was featured on the original Wolf Man DVD release, focusing on the history of werewolves in Hollywood, The Wolf Man in specific, and the whole man-as-beast concept. It’s hosted by John Landis and features some very cool interview segments with Rick Baker discussing Jack Pierce’s original makeup and why he was eventually the cause for his own firing from Universal. Funny thing, Landis and Baker on screen (not together, but still…) and not a single mention of the greatest werewolf movie of all time, An American Werewolf In London. Stranger still when you consider that’s a Universal movie, as well.

But the documentary is wonderfully well done and very informative, featuring clips from other werewolf movies and some interesting anecdotes about the making of The Wolf Man.

And since we’re on the subject of anecdotes, let’s go over the commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, shall we? You want to talk about a man that knows his movies…damn. From tales of how Chaney, Jr. and actress Evelyn Ankers really could not stand working with one another down to what the wolf’s head cane is really made out of (galvanized rubber, if you must know), this is about as informative a commentary as you’re going to get, even if it does come across as scripted and academic on occasion. Almost every time a new actor walks on screen Weaver has a tale to tell about them, and he’s very familiar with the history of The Wolf Man before it was a film, as well. If you can stand his somewhat annoying voice (and it got on my nerves more than once, I admit), it’s a great way to watch The Wolf Man in a whole new light.

Let me gripe here for a moment, if I may. The menus are something I really wish the DVD producers would’ve focused on more. It seems no attention is given to them, aside from just making them functional, and that’s a shame in this day and age when a DVD menu can be just as creative as the features, sometimes more so. You have the option for all four movies on both discs, but there are only two per disc, and the second disc is a flipper. I understand they did this to make sure the films had the best possible presentation without sacrificing the compression, but it just seemed almost cheap to me. A minor gripe.

Feature-wise, the rest is just trailers, which are fun to watch in their own right. I can’t help but feel like there was more that could’ve been done, maybe some more focus on makeup man Jack Pierce, but overall it’s a great packaging.

And speaking of packaging, you have to love the cover. The covers for all three of The Monster Legacy discs are fantastic, as it gives the film that show of respect, not flashing it with annoying poster arts or ugly graphics. Simple and elegant.

Overall I’d say this collection is worth the purchase simply because of the quality of the films on it. If you’re a huge fan of The Wolf Man and never got a chance to get it before in Universal’s box set, this is the perfect way to get it, plus you get three bonus movies for virtually the same price.

The technical presentation screams of “rush job”, however, and if Universal ever decides to do something like this again, I really hope they take their time with it in terms of presentation.

3 ½ out of 5

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Johnny Butane