The Wolf Man - Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 7, 2012 at 5:24 PM

  • Movies review


    The Wolf Man - Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £49.99


    There have been several DVD incarnations of The Wolf Man, with the Monster Legacy edition improved-upon with the transfer found in the leather-bound book-look Special Edition on R1 and, to a lesser degree, the R2 variant that came out almost alongside, but there is no question about this AVC hi-def transfer being the Alpha male of the home video pack. Being produced later than the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein and his Bride, The Mummy and The Invisible Man, Waggner’s film was never as flickery or as speckled, and not so prone to contrast wavering or print damage. It always looked far newer and cleaner. Thus, the improvements made over the Special Edition are not as immediately apparent unless you know the film well. However, this fantastic image represents a very worthy upgrade that irons out the greyscale so that there is more distinction in the murkier, more mysterious quarters of the picture, reinforces the shadows to give stronger, sturdier blacks, and provides the image with a sharper veneer that doesn’t lose any of the details in either the darker or the lighter portions of the frame.

    Grain is still in evidence, though not as thick, nor as noisy as it has previously appeared. Wear and tear, though not completely eradicated, is very far from peppering the 1.33:1 image – pops and flecks have been held in-check and whatever vertical lines, frame judders, contrast fluctuations or picture discolouring there is have been meticulously and gently eased-away so as not to mar what is a very pleasing, tightly defined picture. Very small and rare dots of white appear, but they are easily overlooked. There may be some instances of softer shots – Ankers was treated to a small amount of hazy, filtered photography – but there are only one or two moments when you notice this. One particular time comes when Bela’s Bela reacts to seeing the pentagram in Jenny’s palm, with the shot looking a little like something from a blurred vintage TV broadcast, and another occurs when Sir John is admiring his son’s handiwork at installing the telescope, but this is inherent to the original photography from Joseph A. Valentine (who would go on to lens for Hitchcock), and is present in all the previous versions.

    There is finer detail seen in the costumes, the weave of those heavy suits, the fanciful attire of the gypsies, the attention to Gwen’s earrings and the sculpting of the wolf’s head adorning the fateful cane. Our hairy hero has never looked so splendid. We can appreciate the snout, the ears and the paws and gnarly talons just that little bit more with the added clarity. But don't go expecting to see Pixar levels of separation in the tufty yak-fur adorning poor Chaney, though. Those candle-stands that I mentioned are also more apparent – which is why I noticed them this time around, I suppose – as are the shadows that they cast on the wall behind Sir John. The patterning in the fire-surround, the texture of the doors, tables, rugs and windowsills also now clearer than before. Yes, I detected some shimmering on these more regimented details as the camera moves about, but this could also be down to how my PS3 handled the image. Either way, it was not distracting and I was looking for such things, after all. The books in Sir John’s library appear quite distinct, as does the astronomical chart up in the observatory. You won’t be able to read many titles or name-check any constellations, but the image of such props as these is very definitely sharper than before.

    As mentioned, the contrast now enables brighter whites without running too hot or blooming, and far richer black levels. We can now see the interior and the objects for sale in the Conliffe’s antique shop a whole lot more clearly because of this, and there is also greater depth and dimensionality afforded this and many other scenes that boast interesting frame-filling details. The black levels are now terrifically strong. Just look at the scene in the church when Maleva comes to visit Bela’s body at rest and Larry looks on from the shadows – they are bolder and richer than ever before. The proof of the pudding comes when these two elements of light and dark are brought into play in the same shot – such as all those scenes in which the wonderfully glowing mist swirls around those enigmatically dark and foreboding trees, and characters move about this highly contrasted fantasy-realm. Separation is distinct and edges are tightly resolved. The wolfman’s eyes gleam more spectrally now, real slits of fiendish silver against the murk, and the illumination from the lanterns and torches do not lapse into fuzzy over-ampage. See also how the glow they give off has a better cast and authenticity than previously when shone upon nearby objects. Even the shine on characters’ leather shoes is keener now.

    Yes, I’ve looked to see if we can discern any actual wounds upon the victims during the inspections of the crime-scenes – this restored print almost makes you think that we will see some extra details in the shadows – but, sadly, we don’t, I’m afraid.

    Of course there has been DNR applied, but it has not robbed the image of texture or integrity. I would say that there are still a couple of occasions when edge enhancement has been brought in, but these are few and far between and only very slightly, and have been done to aid a couple of shots out in the mist. Aliasing? Well, yes, I spotted some evidence of it … mainly whenever we see Talbot’s hairier persona padding-about in the mist, although any movement seen against the mist seemed to leave a digital ghost. But, again, I was looking for it. So don’t go hunting for such digital bugbears and you should find that you have nothing much to complain about.

    Overall, George Waggner’s 1941 classic, The Wolf Man, looks excellent on Blu-ray!

    The Wolf Man - Monsters Essential Collection Picture


    I really didn’t expect there to be much difference on the audio front for The Wolf Man, but this DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is able to rustle up a few little surprises that it made it all the more worthwhile, and a definite step-up.

    For a kick-off, the fantastic score from Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter is given a lot more width and depth, and is now really able to project the aggressive brass and string main fanfare. Listen to the sound of the mischievous woodwinds, and the rumbling of the bass drums as Larry awakens after a beastly night out. The ominous and mournful refrain for Bela’s funeral – a long-time piece much admired by score-fans – now has greater presence and reverence. It is still downmixed in the sound-design, but that was done purposely by Waggner and his sound director, Bernard B. Brown, who ultimately cut out an eerier element of the sequence in which we view things from the dead Bela’s perspective in the coffin, thus truncating this cue even further. The change, however, is not noticeable in the visuals or in the audio track.

    I didn’t encounter any problems with the presentation of the dialogue. The full-moon mantra and the other grave soliloquies that Maleva dishes-out are clear and spine-tingling. Bela Lugosi’s throaty European brogue adds a lot of distinctive colour amongst the refinements of Rains, Bellamy, Knowles and William, and the screaming and snarling is beautifully rendered with old-school aplomb, without coming across as being either too shrill, or too tinny and thin. The transfer has absolutely no problems with any of this, and often sounds quite dynamic and charged.

    Effects-wise, the track is not found wanting, either. The sound of the pellets hitting the metal targets in the big shooting face-off that Larry and Frank Andrews have at the fair is marvellously crisp and sharp, with an authentically emphatic clang! as each effigy is blasted down. I think you can even hear the noise of those gas-lamps that the men are carrying – unless I am mistaking the hiss of the original soundtrack elements in one or two instances. There is more impact and clarity to the sound of the little stones that Larry tosses at Gwen’s bedroom window – we can hear them landing back on the cobbles from inside her room now. The out-of-shot sound of crashing woodwork and gunfire as Sir Talbot speaks with Maleva in the fog, signifying that Larry has broken free and is now out roaming the woods, is far clearer and embellished with a heartier bass wallop. This moment actually took me by surprise with its greater vigour … and I knew the precise second that it would happen!

    Background hiss - real background hiss, this time - can still be heard, but it is really low and not at all intrusive. There is no drop-out and no untoward volume alterations to contend with, either. This is a consistent and crisp vintage soundtrack that certainly gains added life and vitality from its lossless makeover. I sincerely doubt that The Wolf Man has ever sounded as good. He certainly howls with a new lease of life on Blu.

    Great stuff!

    The Wolf Man - Monsters Essential Collection Sound


    Previously spread luxuriously over two discs in Universal's leather-tome-look Special Edition, the supplements found here put more meat on the bones of the older stand-alone releases. Obviously shorn of the other movies - Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, which is a most assuredly wolf man film and not a Frankenstein one, despite the title, The Werewolf Of London and She-Wolf Of London - which means that true fans will not be ditching that marvellous Monster Legacy set just yet (although given the popularity of this collection, that second batch of hi-def releases can’t be too far away) - this edition contains all of the relevant features that earlier ones contained.

    Horror film historian Tom Weaver provides an excellent, anecdote-riddled commentary track that, for anyone already acquainted with these old school chillers, follows the familiar path of rapid-fire, fact-packed, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink chronicling. Weaver is good fun though, and very entertaining in his thousand-word-a-minute, scholarly manner. The style he adopts is affable but fast-paced and he likes to provide a huge amount of incidental detail for practically everyone seen on-screen ... and even those that may be related to them. Hardly a scene goes by without a handful of stories and quotations from, and about, the cast, but the track is extremely warm-hearted and detailed. I like the way that he brings in elements from the original script and uses them in an attempt to make sense of narrative shortcomings and plot-holes that may have resulted in such continuity errors in the finished version, things such as Bela's wolf being four-legged whilst Larry's is a bipedal beast. He also makes reference to scenes that were altered or dropped entirely, such as the original version having Larry battle a performing bear that the gypsies have in their entourage. And the fortunes of the silver wolf-headed cane prop after its services to the film get a mention, too.

    Overall, this is a very good track and well worth listening to.

    Monster By Moonlightis a 32-minute, clip-heavy retrospective look at the film and its legacy, hosted by John Landis and featuring contributions from Rick Baker and the film's screenwriter, Curt Siodmak, as well as Hollywood horror historians and writers. Fun, affectionate and quite comprehensive with regards to anecdote, impact and influences, and the audacious work of both Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney Jnr. We hear about the genesis of the script, as well as the effects and the performances and how Siodmak created much of the now-established folklore. Composers John Morgan and William T. Stromberg who, together, reconstructed the classic score and released it to great acclaim, discuss the impact the music had on audiences and how influential it became to movie-music in general. The further adventures of Universal's Wolf Man get a brief mention too. This is a great little documentary that, personally speaking, is over too quickly.

    The Wolf Man Archivesplays us a great 6-minute montage of posters, lobby cards, production stills and archive publicity photographs beneath the film's fantastic score.

    We also get a Trailer Gallery that presents us with those dynamic old theatrical trailers for this film, the immediate follow-up of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, The Werewolf Of London and She-Wolf Of London, and the rather messy mash-ups of The House of Dracula and The House of Frankenstein.

    The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to ModernMyth may be only ten minutes long, perhaps, but this is a fine enough little extra for this expanded package. The devout wolf man fans amongst you will learn nothing new, but it remains cool to hear from the likes of Landis and Dante, Baker and the various Hollywood historians and writers (again) and even the always welcome Brit couplet of Kim Newman and Stephen Jones as they discuss the heritage and legacy of Curt Siodmak's reinterpretation of the legend. The filmic lore that Siodmak created - silver bullets, a bite transmitting the curse, the full moon etc - is hammered home, reinforcing the new myth that has forever overshadowed the genuine folkloric one that bestowed the werewolf to us. Copious clips from the Universal run of Wolf Man exploits, and even a little snippet from Hammer's Curse Of The Werewolf illustrate their points. Although brief, this actually felt longer and better than I expected.

    Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney Jnr- this 36-minute chronicle of the star is both extremely welcome and thoroughly entertaining. While it may shy away from commenting on some of his notorious on-set antics and the weird relationships that he had with some of his co-stars, this is highly recommended for fans of this vintage era. Lon, or rather Creighton, Chaney Jnr lived forever in the shadow of his father, yet his accomplishments go much further than mere “monster man”, he delivered several terrific performances - most notably as Lenny in Of Mice And Men, but also providing excellent character support in the likes of High Noon and Only The Valiant - and never once forgot to give each role, no matter how typecast or lowly it may have appeared, one hundred and ten percent. The underdog - quite literally - of Universal's top terror trio, Chaney made the Wolf Man his own and will forever be the definitive tragic lycanthrope. This documentary, with able contributions from Greg Mank, Steve Haberman and others, is a great little testament to his innate likeability and steadfast determination to better himself and step out from his father's shadow. They mention some of his disdain for the whole makeup applying procedure, and showcase the famous photograph of Chaney in full Wolf Man hair and snout making a fist at Jack Pierce, citing this as an example of his growing anger with the makeup supremo ... but I genuinely doubt this being a trait of the performer. He had a massive hand in the creation of the character and would surely have embraced any torment to get the visual aspect of the beast just right. Great stuff, otherwise.

    Then we get the fabulous piece entitled He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce. Running for a rewarding 25-minutes, this is a moving tribute to the man who single-handedly took Lon Chaney Snr.'s concept of makeup effects to trailblazing new dimensions. Karloff cited him as being the reason that he found success. Lugosi was so egotistical that he was actually envious of Pierce's talents and was frequently found applying his own little extras. Chaney Jnr. was only too pleased that his own clumsy hands - not at all like his father's - could relax whilst the yak-hair specialist transformed him into his all-time favourite role of the Wolf Man time and time again. There are plenty of stills of the great man at work and a few little home movies on the set of Son Of Frankenstein and contributions from an array of today's makeup artists - Baker, again, going over old ground, Tom Savini, Tom Burman, Nick Dudman and others - and the whole piece is very movingly brought to a close when we discover the poverty and anonymity of Jack Pierce's final days, forgotten and reclusive. I was brought up on these movies and view them as my formal education in films in general, and of the genre in particular, and Jack P. Pierce was one of the foremost at steering my imagination into these wild and iconic waters - and I find it so sad that such an influential artist and veritable genius can only be celebrated like this long after his death. Look at the reunion of Karloff and Pierce in archive footage and just feel the honest pride and respect that Karloff pays his old friend. Understated and not at all saccharine-tainted, this is a little documentary that should bring a tear to the eye to all horror fans.

    What we lose, however, on this disc is the familiar feature-length documentary, Universal Horror, which is a very entertaining look at the history of the famous studio, paying particular attention to its Golden Era of chillers. This was previously found on all of the previous releases on the movies in this set, but is now to be seen on the Dracula disc. I will discuss it in the appropriate review. But we do get to see the little studio fawn-fest of 100 Years of Universal: The Lot, which is part of a series of features across the set of discs taking a look at different aspects at what made the studio tick during its chiller heydays.

    The full boxset also comes with Art Cards and a fun, illustrated book (albeit with a few little mistakes!) and comes in either a standard cardboard case or a great limited edition “coffin”. Naturally, I opted for the coffin-set, myself!

    A great selection of material, folks, that pays its respects and offers a treasure-trove of anecdote and production trivia.

    The Wolf Man - Monsters Essential Collection Extras


    The Wolf Man howls his way on to hairy hi-def!

    Despite the likes of Joe Johnston's take on the creature and the fact the studio is determined to conduct another furry makeover, The Wolf Man is still very much the black-sheep - ironically enough - of the Universal Horror pantheon, yet it remains extremely worthwhile and an expert example of an atmospheric, classy production. It served to give Lon Chaney Jnr a bankable persona and brought many of the supernatural elements of the filmic version of the legend, things that we now take for granted, like silver bullets, to the genre. Watching it now still sends the odd shiver down the spine, but the movie definitely takes a softer approach to the material than many may expect. Even so, those mist-shrouded woods look powerfully evocative and it is wonderful to see Chaney making the role utterly his own with such conviction and vigour. The sequels were of a much lesser quality, although I do have a soft spot for the immediate follow-on, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, which, at least, gave Larry's hairier side much more to do. And no matter how inferior these follow-ons were, Chaney, himself, always gave the role everything he had.

    Proof, if it were needed, that the originals can’t be bettered, came with delicious fact that the lavish, big budget remake that finally surfaced made a slapdash and confused frenzy of what was simple, poetic material. Benicio Del Toro, Academy-lauded actor that he may be, is not a patch on Lon Chaney Jnr., who is a figure still too often sidelined and dismissed. There can be no argument that he is the Wolf Man ... Del Toro just sported the fur and fangs to play the part.

    This long-awaited hi-def presentation of The Wolf Man totally trounces all those versions that have come before. We get a much improved image that really does the film justice, provides fabulous contrast and deep blacks, and offers-up lots more detail than we have previously been privy to. We find the same extras as before, but they are as welcome now as they have always been, rounding-out the package very nicely and undoubtedly pleasing those who cherish the movie. Comprehensive, affectionate and leaving virtually no stone unturned, this selection is as much a nostalgic glimpse into the Golden Era of genre film-making as it is a fond tribute to one of Horror's most enduring icons. Full-on, lycanthropic moon-goons would be well advised to plump for this far cheaper UK set of the Essential Monster Collection than its much more expensive US cousin. Even if you have the original Monster Legacy Edition which has served us well over the last few years, or the evocative book-bound Special Edition, I would not hesitate for one second in recommending adding this edition to your collection as well.

    Of course, now we need Volume II of the Universal Monsters, don’t we?

    A fantastic film, fur-fans, and a fantastic release! Sink your fangs into it now!

    The Wolf Man - Monsters Essential Collection Verdict

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £49.99

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