Title: THE WOLF-MAN LEGACY COLLECTION
Year of Release—Film: Various
Year of Release—DVD: 2004
DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
When Universal released the first Legacy collections in 2004, fans hailed the sets as a concrete expression of the studio finally giving the beloved Monsters their just due. Little did we realize that these would be the first raindrops of what would prove to be a torrential downpour from the storied Universal vaults.
One of that first series of releases was the WOLF-MAN Legacy Collection, four films that made Universal’s stable of lycanthropic lunatics, particularly Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Larry Talbot, some of it’s most popular properties. Comprised of WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935); THE WOLF-MAN (1941); FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN (1943); and SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946), the set is beautifully produced and nicely packaged, though not as nicely as the recent Anniversary editions have been. Though the quality of the storytelling varies widely from one film to the next, all have some very important characteristics in common.
The first thing one notices whenever viewing the classic Universal Horrors is how beautifully designed and filmed they were. These films are better preserved than the studio’s older Horrors, most notably DRACULA. Consequently, we can fully appreciate the work of those who brought the Universal style and look to the screen. People such as the cinematographer Joseph Valentine, who photographed THE WOLF-MAN, or R. A. Gausman, responsible for the design of virtually every Universal Horror from DRACULA to THE LEECH WOMAN, are seldom noticed, even by fans of the movies. However, their contributions are invaluable, and when one remarks on how Universal established the concept of the Horror Film that remained fixed in American consciousness for the next twenty years, it must be remembered that it was primarily due to their work.
WEREWOLF OF LONDON
Widely believed to be one of the first werewolf movies, 1935’s WEREWOLF OF LONDON is a smart, literate film. While not quite the classic that its Universal stablemates are, it’s still a very entertaining and enjoyable movie.
John Colton’s script (from a story by Robert Harris) has few plot holes and the characters are as well drawn and realistic as you can reasonably expect in a film of the ‘30’s. Skillfully directed by Stuart Walker, the cast performs capably, though apart from Warner Oland (of CHARLIE CHAN fame) there are no standouts. Henry Hull’s performance as Dr. Wilfred Glendon, the botanist cursed by the bite of a Tibetan Werewolf, is melodramatic and overly theatrical; he seems to be trying to project his dialogue to the back row. In addition, Valerie Hobson is far too young (only 18 at the time) to be convincing as the sophisticated wife of a middle-aged scientist; she comes across more as a whining child.
The photography, by Charles Stumar, is very attractive; it is also unique in comparison to other films from Universal. The production design is also atypical for Universal, but it does create a convincing atmosphere for the film. The effects are primarily limited to Hull’s make-up, which in truth has more in common with Fredric March’s look in 1932’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, than with Lon Chaney’s in THE WOLF-MAN. The look is decent, as you’d expect from Jack Pierce’s shop, but not satisfying to those of us who prefer our lycanthropes a bit more hirsute.
While this isn’t my first choice in a werewolf movie, it is enjoyable, and a worthwhile addition to anyone’s collection, something everyone should see. Put it on the Must-See list for dedicated Werewolf or Universal fans.
One of Universal’s most enduring classics, as well as starring one of it’s most beloved Monsters, this film came as the Universal Horror Films transitioned from the landmark classics of the 1930’s to the assembly-line productions of the 1940’s.
While not as fine an example of great filmmaking as James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, George Waggner’s able direction transformed Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the tortured Larry Talbot into one of the most sympathetic Monsters of the genre, perhaps second only to King Kong. The rest of the cast (including Bela Lugosi in a brief, but important, role) performs well above expectations, particularly Claude Rains (as Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot) and the beautiful Evelyn Ankers.
As always, the Special Effects in films of this period consist mainly of blank cartridges in the guns; but they really aren’t missed, especially with the incredible Make-Up Effects, once again provided by Universal’s master creature-creator, Jack Pierce. The photography, by Joseph Valentine, is as always with Universal superb, perfectly capturing the haunting atmosphere of the Welsh moors.
While this wasn’t the first Universal werewolf film, (that honor belongs to the previous entrant) this is the one that set the mold, as well as creating the character that would carry Universal through the ‘40’s. One of the greatest of Universal’s classics, it’s easily deserving of Must-Have status for any Horror-Fan’s collection.
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN
This film, a direct sequel to 1941’s THE WOLF-MAN, is definitely more of a Wolf-Man feature with the Frankenstein’s Monster as a guest star than a true pairing of the two Universal All-Stars. Not one of Universal’s best, it nonetheless is an enjoyable movie, and set the pattern for the great Universal “Monster-fests” which dominated the next few years for the Studio.
Directed by Roy William Neill, and written by Curt Siodmak, the script begins to show some of the weaknesses that would plague the franchise through the rest of it’s run: Loose, disjointed plots; stilted and stiff dialogue; and unimaginative, overused premises. This film suffers from some of these problems; not many, but enough to be noticeable. The overall pace of the film is slow, with too much time spent developing characters with which audiences were already familiar.
The convoluted paths Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot must take to move the story along simply aren’t convincing, though his performance in his signature role is a joy to behold. Bela Lugosi assumes the role that he turned down 12 years earlier; he was correct the first time. He simply lacks the physical stature to pull it off convincingly, and the Monster becomes little more than a stumbling ogre, lacking any of the humanity and pathos that Karloff brought to the character. The rest of the cast is good; not outstanding, but they deliver when called upon.
The cinematography is excellent, and the Special Effects, including a spectacular final sequence, are unusually good for the early ‘40’s. The atmosphere, the look, the feel of the film is quintessential Universal, and by this point is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. Not the best, but definitely enjoyable, and certainly a perfect fit in this collection.
SHE-WOLF OF LONDON
One of the lesser-known films in the Legacy Collections, SHE-WOLF OF LONDON is completely unrelated to the Chaney Wolf-Man films; it isn’t a true werewolf film at all. Directed by Jean Yarbrough, and starring Don Porter and June Lockhart, it has most of the hallmarks of the Universal films of the mid-‘40’s: Beautiful photography; adequate acting; stable direction; somber, gothic production design; and woefully weak scripts.
The cast of unknowns does a good job with the material provided, and they do manage to convey a sense of reality and believability to the weak script by Dwight V. Babcock and George Bricker, who take a relatively interesting premise and do very little with it.
Maury Gertsman’s photography is well up to Universal’s reputation, and the film just… feels and looks, right. This is what Universal Horror films of the ‘40’s were: Professionals working with what they had to turn out decent entertainment. Not high art, not inspired filmmaking, just good quality movies. More of a Mystery than a Horror film, it nonetheless is an enjoyable, if not great, example of the typical Universal “Factory film” of the immediate postwar period.
This movie’s a tough one for me to rate objectively. I don’t know if most would consider it a Must-Have; I do, and am glad that Universal saw fit to include in this collection.
There are several bonuses on these discs, which do bear mentioning. The best of these is the documentary MONSTER BY MOONLIGHT, hosted by John Landis, director of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and directed by film historian and Universal Horror expert David J. Skal. This is a loving tribute to Chaney, Pierce, Siodmak, and all those responsible for bringing one of Universal’s greatest Monsters to life.
There is also a commentary track, by writer Tom Weaver, on THE WOLF-MAN, as well as a featurette with director Stephen Sommers on THE WOLF-MAN, and the inspiration he drew from it in making his 2005 feature film VAN HELSING.
We now ready ourselves to witness the rebirth of the Wolf-Man franchise as Joe Johnston’s big screen remake hits theaters nationwide, and as a new Legacy Special Edition DVD of THE WOLF-MAN is in stores nationwide. This release features new content, including documentaries produced by Constantine Nasr, [see Constantine’s interview with our Staff Correspondent Bobbie Culbertson, above] on both Lon Chaney and Jack P. Pierce.
Still, that DVD, and perhaps the remake itself, would not have happened if not for the renewed interest in the Monsters of Universal Studios, fueled by the Legacy Collection DVD’s released in 2004.
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Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.
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