The Wolf Man - Special Edition DVD Review
Well, my hopes that this new US edition would sport an improved transfer over previous ones turned out not be in vain, after all. As Universal promised, this version has, indeed, been remastered. And while the improvements made over the earlier Monster Legacy edition are perhaps only minimal, when comparing it to the recent UK transfer (reviewed separately), this one appears significantly better.
Where the UK print looked a little more faded in the black levels and much too bright, overall, this image boasts stronger shadows, much improved contrast and definitely more of an assured degree of both depth and detail. But, even so, most of what I said about that original and even older transfer still applies here - so we may as well run pretty much with that, with only a few new observations.
Presented in full screen 1.33:1, The Wolf Man, as it is seen here, is still taken from that earlier restored print, but the transfer is both sharper and cleaner again. Although there are still many ticks, nicks, scratches and speckles on show, the image is very well-delineated and strong-looking, and it is clear that even more of the old damage has been treated. Grain is actually much more apparent than I've seen on Wolf Man prints before, but this is nowhere near as detrimental as it could have been - even making for a more filmic appearance, if you like - and the frames have barely a judder throughout the running time. Scene transitions hardly suffer from the wobbles, pops and contrast changes that often sabotage such vintage fare, and the grey-scale of the transfer is perfectly acceptable, marvellously anchoring those foggy sets. Blacks may not be pitch exactly but, as I remarked earlier, they have been richly emboldened and are robust enough to keep the mood sustained, as well as now offering deeper shadow-play and stricter low-lights in terms of detail and contrast. And speaking of that contrast, with a picture that is often composed of shadow and mist, this vital element does a fine job of maintaining the evocative look and dream-like texture of the film. Most of the occasions when the image once exhibited a narrow vertical line over on the extreme right hand side - notably in the seconds just after Larry has battled Bela's wolf - have been lessened, or removed altogether. Which is great, obviously, and makes for a remarkably crisp and competent transfer for a movie of such a vintage.
The moisture of the dark bark of the trees seems to glisten slightly more here, with perhaps even detail more readily apparent on the rest of the foliage as well. The Wolf Man's whiskerage has a tad more finite separation and the oddments found in Conliffe's antique shop and in Sir John's extensive halls and sitting rooms appear a little sharper than before. Image-depth during the misty moor sequences is greater, with foreground trees vivid and even the more far-away ones standing prouder than previously. And, as a perfect example of this great depth of field, just look at the shot when Sir John and Col. Montford sit discussing Larry's imposing size whilst, in the far background, Gwen, Maleva and the unfortunate werewolf-to-be, suddenly enter the great parlour-room. Close-ups also benefit - look at the faces and eyes of Lugosi and the gravedigger, Richardson, though the image belongs to Chaney, as both the glum-faced Larry and the nose-twitching Wolf Man. Even the silver wolf's head on the fateful cane, and the various tobacco pipes offer a little more, if you look.
What does go against this transfer, however, is the more significant level of edge enhancement, which now produces some occasionally thicker haloing around shoulders and branches. This may well bother some people ... but, personally, I had no major issue with it. So this image is definitely better looking than the versions played during the movie's many TV airings and, crucially, any other home video transfer that has gone before.
At the time of writing, I know of no plans to release The Wolf Man in hi-def, but I can see that time coming, especially as the lavish remake is sure to be Blu-ray dynamite. Universal released some terrific and freshly-restored (again) SD transfers of Dracula, Frankenstein (75th Anniversary issues, the pair - see separate reviews), as well as The Mummy, Psycho and Double Indemnity and the improvements were telling. So, it is a safe bet that The Wolf Man will see further restoration sometime in the future.
If the image gained further restoration, then I'm afraid there's no real difference in the audio department, to speak of. Mind you, I commented that the new UK release seemed slightly quieter on the whole than the earlier Monster Legacy edition. This US release, however, sounds much more akin to what we are used to, and I had no concerns over clarity or volume. So, once again, my report for the initial release still seems fairly accurate.
We get the same old Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track as before, which had been nicely cleaned up and offered no massively niggly drop-outs, pops or any overt hiss to distract. Obviously, there isn't a lot to expect from such an old track but it still provides plenty of that all-important atmosphere. Dialogue remains consistently clear and discernible, even the shouting in the village when the wolf's howling is heard. Evelyn Ankers' screaming comes across well, as do the metallic impacts of the pellets that Larry and Andrews fire at the pop-up targets, and the playful hubbub of the gypsy camp sounds active enough for something as old as this and as unconcerned with the intricacies of audio detail. Growling and snarling have a little teensy bit of aggression - certainly effective enough for most of us - and I have to confess that I still like the emphatic little pat that Larry slaps on his chauffeur's shoulder when they finally get a glimpse of Talbot Castle near the start ... even here you get the impression of Chaney's clumsy, brutish strength.
As with a lot of vintage movies, the score can sound quite harsh and overbearing - sudden percussive passages can barrage the track and the high ends can struggle a bit. But, to be fair, there is little to the track that is off-putting, making The Wolf Man sound as vigorous as atmospheric and as vigorous as it ever did.
Now spread luxuriously over two discs, Universal's leather-tome-look Special Edition - not an Anniversary Edition, like Dracula and Frankenstein, you should note - puts more meat on the bones of the older stand-alone release. 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, this edition contains all of the relevant features that the earlier one contained, but brings in a few new exclusives. It should be mentioned that, whilst the last one shovelled in a poor bit of EPK from Stephen Sommers to help promote his own Van Helsing mess for Universal, this assortment elbows him and Joe Johnston's remake aside - there is virtually no word on the Benicio Del Toro/Anthony Hopkins version at all.
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 Moonlight is 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 Archives plays 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, She-Wolf Of London and even one for Joe Johnston's remake, with the wrong release date, an appalling rock track playing over it and a coulpe of whipcrack images that didn't make the final theatrical cut, including that allegedly awesome ballroom sequence!!!
The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth 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 that also appeared on the great 75th Anniversary Edition of The Mummy (reviewed separately). 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.
And, beyond this, we are once again treated to the now-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. Running for a very satisfying 95 mins, the documentary is narrated by Kenneth Brannagh - no stranger to Frankenstein, himself - and contains many wonderful interviews from the likes of film historian and author David J. Skal, Rudy Behlmer, Karloff's daughter Sara, author Ray Bradbury and actors James Karen and Gloria Stuart, who was so gorgeous when she starred opposite Karloff in Whale's The Old Dark House (reviewed separately). With an amazing amount of clips from their own movies and those that inspired their directors - The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu prominently - we are also treated to many stills from behind the scenes and a vast assortment of anecdotes. Universal's key producers and studio heads are covered in detail and the influence of their classic output during this period is discussed with respect and high regard by all concerned. It is nice the way that the participants convey their memories of first seeing these films and the profound effect the experiences had upon them. An excellent documentary that only comes undone with the fact that it has no archived interviews with the big hitters themselves, people like James Whale, Karloff and that other Titan Of Terror, Bela Lugosi - although they are quoted often.
Mention must also go to the lavish packaging design for this release. The distinctive book-style jacket is a lovely, antiquated brown, with wonderful imagery of Karloff's Monster, front and back. Inside is another wide still from one of the dungeon scenes. I liked the ghoulish green look of the Monster Legacy artwork, but this feels, somehow, more atmospheric. Well done.
An excellent package. All we need now is the 75th Anniversary Edition of Bride Of Frankenstein. Hmm ... still a few years to wait for that one.
Despite the likes of Joe Johnson's take on the creature, 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 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.
But what makes this original version all more delicious now that the remake has finally surfaced is that fact that Benicio Del Toro, Academy-lauded actor that he may be, is not a patch on Lon Chaney Jnr - a figure too often sidelined and dismissed. There can be no argument - he is the Wolf Man ... Del Toro just sports the fur and fangs to play the part.
As a DVD presentation, this new US Special Edition of The Wolf Man totally trounces the simultaneous UK version, and certainly betters any other previous release. We get a much improved image that really does the film justice, as well as some great new extras that round-out the package very nicely and will undoubtedly please 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 superior R1 Legacy double-discer over the claw-clipped UK version. Even if you have the original Monster Legacy Edition which has served us well over the last few years, I would not hesitate for one second in recommending adding this edition to your collection as well.
Fantastic film, fur-fans, and a fantastic release! Sink your fangs into it now!
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