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06 March, 2010

DVD Review: THE WOLF-MAN Legacy Special Edition Two-Disc Box Set

Title: THE WOLF-MAN Legacy Special Edition Two-Disc Box Set

Year of Release—Film: 1941

Year of Release—DVD: 2010

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

For the past decade, Universal has been actively involved in reinventing their classic Horror icons—Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Wolf-Man, and the Gill-Man—of the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Stephen Sommers began this resurgence of interest in the classic Monsters with his excellent remake of THE MUMMY in 1999, and with the equally entertaining sequel THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001). In advance of the 2005 theatrical release of Sommers’ ultimately disappointing VAN HELSING, Universal Studios Home Entertainment opened the studio’s vaults, releasing the Legacy Collections DVD Box Sets of their classic horror titles. That largesse has continued unabated ever since, with a Bela Lugosi Collection, two superb box sets of the 1950’s Sci-Fi Horrors, a collection of their b-Horrors from the 1940’s, even the Inner Sanctum mysteries of the mid-‘40’s.

Virtually every Universal property of the Golden Age of Horror (with the exception of 1933’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, which is in desperate need of a DVD release) has become available in the past six years. Several films have been chosen for special treatment in connection to significant anniversaries, such as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE MUMMY, all of which celebrated 75th Anniversaries within the last five years. The latest film to receive this Legacy Special Edition treatment is their most popular Monster-movie of the ‘40’s, 1941’s THE WOLF-MAN. While this is obviously motivated by the studio’s desire to support the big screen release of the Joe Johnston-helmed remake, (in theaters now and reviewed below—ed.) it’s nonetheless appreciated by those of us who are devoted fans of the Universal Horrors.

I first reviewed THE WOLF-MAN six years ago, revisited it last month, [“DVD Box Set Review: THE WOLF-MAN Legacy Collection (2004),” 6 February 2010] and those words still hold true.

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.

When called upon to review a movie with which virtually every horror fan is familiar, one’s task is not so much to tell them why they need to have this film in their collections, but why they should own this release of it, if the reviewer feels that they should. And to be honest, if you have the 2004 Legacy collection, and don’t consider yourself an especially devoted fan of THE WOLF-MAN, Lon Chaney, Jr., or the Universal Horrors, then my advice would be to pass on this offering.

However, if, like the Unimonster, you’re a devoted fan of all three, then this DVD is a definite Must-Have. In addition to the movie itself, the viewer is treated to a handful of documentary features, a mix of previously released material and newly produced documentaries. The old includes 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 documentary, first released on the 2004 WOLF-MAN Legacy Collection, is a loving tribute to Chaney, Pierce, Siodmak, and all those responsible for bringing one of Universal’s greatest Monsters to life.

Also included is a documentary by Constantine Nasr, first released in the 2008 Legacy Special Edition of THE MUMMY. He Who Made Monsters—the Life and Art of Jack Pierce, pays long-overdue tribute to the man responsible for creating the Monsters that have frightened and captivated fans for nearly eighty years. It’s not near to being recognition enough for Pierce’s contributions, but it is a step in the right direction.

By far the best of the older material, however, is the feature-length documentary UNIVERSAL HORROR, released in 1998. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, this documentary is a virtual love letter to the monsters, from generations of devoted fans. Exploring the history of Universal Horror Films from the silent era to the end of the Golden age, this is an invaluable reference to those interested in the original “House of Horror,” and a treat for those who love classic Horror Films.

There are also two new productions by Nasr: The Wolf-Man—From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth; and Pure in Heart—The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr.

The first of these, The Wolf-Man—From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth, is an exploration of the werewolf mythos, and how it was largely the creation of one man, screenwriter Curt Siodmak. From the now-famous line, “Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright,” to the necessity of a silver weapon, wielded by one who loves him, to kill a werewolf, the legends of lycanthropy that fueled forty years of genre films were made up from whole cloth by Siodmak. Not until 1981 brought a new vision of werewolves, two competing yet similar reinventions of the sub-genre, was there a significant divergence from Siodmak’s winning formula. Though this featurette is too short to do adequate justice to Siodmak’s contributions to Horror history, it is entertaining, and fans of classic Horror Films will enjoy it.

The second new documentary, Pure in Heart—The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr., is the more informative, and more interesting of the two. This is a loving yet honest look at the life of Creighton Tull Chaney, from his childhood as the estranged son of the great actor, to his death at the age of 67, ironically from the same disease that claimed his father in 1930. It examines the complicated relationship Creighton had with Lon, including how Lon had led Creighton to believe that his mother Cleva had died when the boy was still an infant; in reality, she had been committed to an asylum. It also explores the difficulty Creighton had in becoming an actor, a career choice so opposed by his father that he enrolled Creighton in a vocational school for plumbers.

Fans of Lon Jr. will appreciate the honesty and forthright approach the filmmakers brought to this documentary, as well as the attitude that despite the flaws inherent in the man, and the demons that plagued him, he was a good, kind-hearted, gentle man, one who simply wanted to act. He was the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s great Monsters of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, and for more than 68 years, he alone could claim the role of Lawrence Talbot—the Wolf-Man.

This DVD may not be a must-have for the casual Horror fan, or even the fan of classic horror who already owns the 2004 Legacy Collection. But for those of us who have a special affinity for the great Horror Films of Universal Studios, it’s yet another gift from the vaults.

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