06 October 2010

DVD: "The Wolf Man" - The Legacy Collection

The Wolf Man - The Legacy Collection
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
DVD Release Date: 27 April 2004
List Price: $26.98

In 2004, Universal released a total of six volumes in their Legacy Collection line commemorating their classic "Universal Monsters" features as a tie-in with the release of that year's Van Helsing.  The Wolf Man collection doesn't offer the same kind of cohesion as its Dracula or Frankenstein counterparts, and while I know this should be evaluated on its own merits, there's a reason it's difficult to confine the evaluation to just this collection as you'll see.

Disc One
The Wolf Man
Starring: Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Eveyln Anders and the New Monster Character Creator Lon Chaney, Jr. as "The Wolf Man"
Screenplay by Curt Siodmak
Directed by George Waggner

Larry Talbot (Chaney, Jr.) is the prodigal son, returning home to his father's Welsh estate after his elder brother's death.  He wastes no time pitching woo to a local woman, or in being attacked by a werewolf (Lugosi), which turns poor Larry into a lycanthrope.  Chaney is genuinely charming as Larry, creating a very sympathetic character, and screenwriter Curt Siodmak deftly balances parallel stories of a love triangle, as well as exploring a contentious father/son relationship.  The werewolf story at times seems to intrude on these more interesting story lines.  The film is far more dynamic than Dracula, but isn't quite as compelling as Frankenstein.

The Wolf Man Audio Commentary with Tom Weaver
Weaver's commentary is informative, offering trivia about the story, the production and those responsible for making the film.  This is a guy who clearly knows his Wolf Man, but doesn't take it so seriously that he doesn't rush to point out plot holes or continuity errors.  His language is era-inappropriate at times, though, and while I'm certainly no prude, it was a bit distracting to hear some of the words that would never have been allowed in the film being discussed.  If you can get past that minor detail, it's one of the better commentary tracks I've heard in quite a while.  Sadly, this is the only commentary track to be found in this collection.

Steven Sommers on Universal's Classic Monster: The Wolf Man
A fluff piece that's really just a spotlight on the Wolf Man character as depicted in Van Helsing, acknowledging his cinematic predecessors.  It would have been well suited for the Van Helsing DVD release, but here it just feels like the crass act of commercial marketing that it is.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Starring: Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles with Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Maria Ouspenskaya and Lon Chaney, Jr.
Screenplay by Curtis Siodmak
Directed by Roy William Neill

Recall that I mentioned it's a bit difficult to evaluate this volume exclusively on its own?  This film is why.  It's not just a sequel to The Wolf Man, but to the first three Frankenstein features, as well.  There is sufficient expository dialog to fill you in about the Frankenstein story elements, but of course you'll eventually want to add those to your library as well.  It makes for a rather convoluted viewing of the series, moving across discs to follow these films in their original release chronology.

Anyway, here Larry (Chaney) seeks out Doctor Frankenstein in hopes that he will know means through which Larry can end his suffering.  Unfortunately for Larry, the mad scientist has already been killed in one of the intervening Frankenstein pictures and surviving daughter Elsa wants nothing to do with her family's legacy.  Again, it's the non-monster stuff that's the most compelling.  At one point, Elsa is in the same room as The Monster (Lugosi), who for all intents and purposes is her "uncle," and Larry is accompanied by Maleva (Ouspenskaya) who has sort of adopted Larry in lieu of the fact it was her son who was responsible for infecting him in the first movie.  No one ever says a word about the odd family dynamics in the scene, but they're unmistakable.  Throughout the whole affair, the monster-weary villagers of Vasaria add pressure to the efforts to end Larry's life--which he'd gladly consent to, if they actually had it in their power to kill him.  The family dynamics and the commentary on death are poignant, but they are quickly displaced by gratuitous monster-on-monster violence, and the third act feels tired and offers no real resolution for these themes.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man Theatrical Trailer
Strangely, The Wolf Man is the only feature here whose trailer is not included.  This one plays up the aforementioned conflict between the titular monsters, suggesting a battle royal.  That eventually occurs, but it's an example of a marketing department knowing that audiences would come for the creatures and perhaps stay for the portions of the film that were allowed to try to develop the characters.

Disc Two
Disc two is interesting--especially compared to other volumes in this line--because neither of the films presented here are part of the Universal Monsters continuity.  Furthermore, Universal felt that they needed to be on a "flipper" disc, though with their short run times they could surely have fit on a single-sided disc.

She-Wolf of London
Starring: Don Porter, June Lockhart, Sara Haden, Jan Wiley, Lloyd Corrigan and Dennis Hoey, Martin Kosleck, Eily Malyon, Frederic Worlock
Screenplay by George Bricker
Directed by Jean Yarbrough

Phyllis Allenby (Lockhart) is happily engaged, but soon discovers a problem: the famed "Allenby Curse," through which she suspects she has begun to become a She-Wolf.  I won't spoil anything for you, but the film feels much more like a primitive episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent than a Monster movie.  Hearing so many obviously American voices in what is supposed to be London only cheapens the film--though that's not to say the performances themselves are bad.  By the end of the 62 minutes, one wonders whether there wasn't something else in the Universal vault more worthy of inclusion here.

She-Wolf of London Theatrical Trailer
Like that of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the trailer is designed to convince audiences that this will be a sinister Monster movie.  I tip my hat to the marketing department, because I didn't really think there was enough Monster-type footage to even string together such a trailer.

WereWolf of London
Starring: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson with Lester Matthews, Spring Byington, Clark Williams, Lawrence Grant
Story by Robert Harris
Screenplay by John Cotton
Directed by Stuart Walker

WereWolf of London pre-dates The Wolf Man by six years and is the only title here "presented" by Carl Laemmle, the Universal executive responsible for shepherding the rest of their Monster franchises.  It's really the most cohesive of the four films collected here, perhaps because it was produced prior to the rise of crossover sequels in which featured Monsters interact with one another.  Anyway, botanist Wilford Glendon (Hull) has returned to London with both a rare biological specimen...and lycanthropy, courtesy of the werewolf who attacked him during his expedition.  Soon enough, Glendon is running around London and the body count rises.  The tension between Glendon and his wife's former beau, her socialite friends and the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Orland) dominates the film so much that when Glendon transforms into the WereWolf, we are invested enough to fear for what he will do while almost grateful for the escape from the other story lines.

WereWolf of London Theatrical Trailer
A rather stoic trailer, really, which is in keeping with Henry Hull's performance.  It lacks the casual charm of Lon Chaney, Jr.'s turn as The Wolf Man, but if you can get past the cold distance of the thing, there's actually a thoughtful film being promoted here.

Monster by Moonlight - An Original Documentary
This is a feature produced for this DVD release that examines how these films shaped werewolf lore, as well as how previous lore informed Curtis Siodmak's screenplays.  Also explored is the evolution of the make-up and the transformation scenes, and the legacy of make-up artist Jack Pierce.  She-Wolf of London warrants a brief, obligatory mention, but the lion's share of the documentary goes to the two Lon Chaney, Jr. features. Is this the definitive Wolf Man documentary?  No, but it's the only bonus feature here aside from the shameless Van Helsing promo and it's a nice way to wrap up the collection.

The problem with this collection, then, is that of its four films, only two of them actually relate to one another; She-Wolf of London and WereWolf of London are entirely independent of one another, or the other films.  The Wolf Man - The Legacy Collection is a necessary companion piece to the Dracula and Frankenstein volumes--especially since Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is only to be found here.  But one gets the sense that The Wolf Man was always a second tier character in the Universal Monsters canon.  He's certainly treated that way with this collection.

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