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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection

And his hair was always perfect

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 22, 2007 -- The Wolf Man was one of my favorite monsters when I was a kid. Back then, horror films were different than they are now. They were not threatening. All were G rated. The monsters were not sadistic. One could feel sympathy for them. Today's horror films, on the other hand, emphasize cruelty, torture, mutilation and a celebration of evil manipulation. They encourage the audience to enjoy the suffering of others. The Wolf Man was even more sympathetic than most of the classic monsters. Inflicted by a terrible curse, he transforms unwillingly into a killer and is unable to do anything about it.

The Legacy Collection two-disk DVD set from Universal Studios includes several of the classic werewolf movies, “The Wolf Man,” “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” and “She Wolf of London.” Also included is the earliest of the Universal Studios werewolf films, “Werewolf of London” (1935). Considered by some critics to be a superior film, it never captured the imagination of audiences the way “The Wolf Man” did six years later. Henry Hull starred in “Werewolf of London,” but was never the sympathetic character that his successor, Lon Chaney Jr. was. He was more like the scientist/creature in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a story that this film follows closely. Also starring in this film is Warner Oland, better known as Charlie Chan, by this time in the last years of his busy film career.

I think “Werewolf of London” would have been forgotten, had it not been for the success of “The Wolf Man.” This film, and its sequels, are what made werewolf movies famous. This iconic film has been endlessly copied over the years and werewolf movies continue to be made because of it. Lon Chaney Jr., son of the famous silent film star (Lon Chaney was known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces” and played some monstrous characters himself, including playing Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and Erik the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera”), played the werewolf in “The Wolf Man” and in four sequels. He is the only movie star to appear in five of the classic Universal horror films as the same character, Larry Talbott, in each one. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the other famous actors who starred in many Universal monster movies, played different roles, never playing the same character in every sequel the way Chaney did.

Chaney is excellent playing tortured soul Larry Talbott, doomed to be a beastly murderer. The fine “Wolf Man” commentary audio track by film historian Tom Weaver points out that the story of the Wolf Man is much like a Greek tragedy, a fact noted by many since the film was made. Try as he might in this and subsequent films, Talbott can never shake the curse of the werewolf. He is doomed to lose control of himself and kill again. A sort of partner in this curse is the old gypsy woman, Maleva, played by Academy Award nominee and acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya. This is the role she is best known for. It was Maleva's werewolf brother, Bela (played by horror legend Bela Lugosi) who bit Larry Talbott and made him a werewolf.

In the elaborate werewolf myth invented by screenwriter Curt Siodmak, not only is the werewolf doomed to kill, he is also destined to know his next fated victim by the sign of of the pentagram, a five-pointed star, he sees upon them. Siodmak, a German Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany, was well aware of a similar six-pointed symbol, also called a pentagram, the Star of David, used by the Nazis to mark their Jewish Holocaust victims. This fact is mentioned by Siodmak himself in an interview featured on the documentary, “Monster by Moonlight,” which is included in the DVD set. Others in this well-made documentary include makeup wizard Rick Baker, Jan-Christopher Horak (director of Universal Studios Archives and Collections), John Landis (director of many films, including “An American Werewolf in London”) and film music historian John W. Morgan, along with conductor William T. Stronberg. Baker talks at length about Universal's Jack Pierce, head of the makeup department. Pierce created all the original makeup effects for Universal's classic monsters. Baker talks about how Pierce, talented as he was, finally was fired because he refused to adopt new, faster makeup techniques and materials, including foam rubber. The monster transformation scenes in Universal's classic werewolf movies starring Lon Chaney Jr. took hours of painstaking work by Pierce.

Another good film on the disk is “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” (1943) the first of many pairings of two or more of Universal's classic monsters. The idea here is, if one monster is good, two is better. This film has some of the same actors that were in “The Wolf Man,” including Chaney and Ouspenskaya, reprising their roles, and Patric Knowles, who becomes a mad doctor with a different name in the second film. Bela Lugosi, who was a werewolf in the first film (and was best known as Count Dracula), becomes the Frankenstein monster in this film. There are other actors who reappear as well, including Dwight Frye, the actor who played Fritz in James Whale's classic film “Frankenstein” and Renfield in the classic 1931 horror film “Dracula.” Universal had a stable of actors like Frye who appeared in many of its classic horror films.

“Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” features a battle between the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man at the film's climax. Larry Talbott, who died in the first film, comes back to life after a couple of grave-robbers open his tomb, exposing him to moonlight, reanimating him as a werewolf. The moon was not mentioned as a trigger of lycanthropy in the first film, but it is in all the other films in the series. The moon is also not shown “The Wolf Man,” something you would expect in a classic werewolf movie. Talbott finds the gypsy woman, Maleva, who takes him to meet Dr. Frankenstein, who might be able to use science to lift the curse of the werewolf and allow Talbott peace at last. There is a strange grape festival music and dance number in the middle of the film. In the musical number, Talbott is tormented by some guy in a Bavarian get-up who is lip-synching a song about “life is short, but death is long.” This is one of the stranger scenes you will see in any monster movie. Not a bad musical number, though.

“She Wolf of London” is the lesser of the four movies in this set. It is also more subtle, more along the lines of the original script for “The Wolf Man,” which included no creature transformation scenes. Originally “The Wolf Man” was written as a psychological drama in which the question of whether the Wolf Man was really a werewolf, or just thought he was one, is never answered. In “She Wolf of London,” we never see the main character, Phyllis Allenby (played by June Lockhart who would go on to have a long career in movies and television, including a stint as the main mom on the “Lassie” series), turn into a werewolf, for good reasons, it turns out. The movie is more of a gothic murder mystery, complete with a sort of comic Holmes and Watson detective duo. It is not a monster movie at all, and doesn't really belong in this set.

The other three movies in the set, “Werewolf of London,” “The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” could all be considered classic Universal monster movies. “The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” both rate a B. “Werewolf of London” is more along the lines of an inferior adaptation of “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which was done much better in several other versions, notably the 1941 version starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. It is probably best known now through Warren Zevon's classic pop song of the same name, which has a number of funny lines, including “I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's and his hair was perfect.” “Werewolf of London” rates a C. “She Wolf of London,” a weak gothic murder mystery, rates a D.

The DVD package has a couple of good features, a good original documentary about the Wolf Man Films, “Monster by Moonlight,” and a good audio commentary on “The Wolf Man” by Tom Weaver. His commentary is fast-paced, bright and breezy with a light conversational tone. Weaver's commentary is filled with facts and interesting trivia. Unfortunately, the other short (five and one-half minute) documentary in the set, “Universal's Classic Monster: The Wolf Man” is little more than an advertisement for the film “Van Helsing.” The best thing one could say about the film “Van Helsing,” is that it helped inspire Universal Studios to reissue classic Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Dracula and Mummy movies in these legacy collection sets. Universal's Classic Monster Collection, an eight-disc, boxed set which is separate from the legacy collection, has a few of the same films found in the legacy collection, but also includes The Phantom of the Opera, The Invisible Man and Creature From the Black Lagoon.

The video transfers on the DVD are of good quality, but it appears there are some minor defects on the original film, such as spots and scratches. These are, after all, very old films. The audio quality is also good. The original audio of the films was monaural. The original aspect ratio of the films was 1.37:1, which is very close to the 4:3 ratio (1:33:1) of conventional televisions, also known as “full frame.” Since the four films are all fairly short, with full frames (meaning less digital data than widescreen) and monaural soundtracks, they all easily fit on two dual-layer disks (one is double-sided). French and Spanish subtitles are included, along with English closed captions. Altogether, this is a desirable collectible set for fans of the classic monster films. It is not quite as good a value as the other set I have reviewed, Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection, but it is worth having in its own right, particularly because of the historic importance of these films, and the extras. I bought these two legacy collections for $12.50 apiece for Christmas and consider it money well spent because I'm a fan of the genre. The overall quality of the package is B. You should check for small defects in the plastic holding the DVDs and smooth them if you find them, otherwise, the DVDs could be scratched.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics, theater tickets and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2007 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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