Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his ancestral Welsh home after the death of his elder brother. Talbot begins to settle in to his old digs, but when he becomes wounded while interceding in a nocturnal wolf attack, he discovers to his horror that he has inherited the curse of the creature he killed; he is now a werewolf, doomed to transform into a bestial man-thing whenever the full moon rises.
The Wolf Man is significant to genre films not only as the crowning bookend to Universal's horror boom of the 30's, but as the movie that created an entire mythology which became accepted as fact: the full moon, silver, the pentagram that marks the werewolf's next victim - all invented by screenwriter Curt Siodmak, using a blend of established folklore and his own imagination.
Once one gets past the fairly extraordinary concept of the unabashedly American Chaney playing the son of an English lord, the movie is a sturdy addition to the Universal pantheon. The cast is quite good, boasting not only Claude Rains, and Ralph Bellamy, but Maria Ouspenskaya and Evelyn Ankers - genré stars in their own right - and Bela Lugosi as the tragic, original werewolf. Remarkable (and typically tortuous) makeup by Jack Pierce cemented the Wolf Man's position alongside the Frankenstein monster and Dracula in upcoming Universal team-ups.
Determined (and probably against all common sense) to establish Lon Chaney, Jr. as a one-man monster squad like his father, Universal squeezed the actor into every single horror icon they had; of these, Chaney always professed the Wolf Man to be his favorite, as it was the sole role he had originated. Indeed, no one ever played Larry Talbot but Chaney, who brought a properly tortured bearing to the character.
Though the image is razor-sharp and without a speck of grain, the print evidences a lot of dust damage and speckling. Scratches are at a minimum, though, and there is no evident splicing to excise damaged footage - overall, the movie looks great for something that's well over half a century old. I continue to be impressed with the sound mastering for this series - though the volume is low, it is uniformly free of hiss.
"Monster by Moonlight" is a typically complete David J. Skal featurette (hosted by John Landis!) that covers the origins and making of the movie, along with a mini-history of the Talbot character in subsequent films. "The Wolf Man Archives" is a collection of publicity material and photographs backed by the movie's distinctive score. "Production Notes" provides momentary distraction, but is pretty brief and has few facts not covered in the other materials. Brief bios and impressive filmographies are included for all the major players and director George Waggner.
There is also a theatrical trailer, which is in pretty ragged shape, and makes you appreciate the video quality on the feature all the more.
Another high point of the Universal Monster Collection has also been the commentary tracks; this one is provided by genré specialist Tom Weaver, and it's a delight. Weaver is informative about continuity errors, the makeup, the transformation scenes, and the differences between Siodmak's original script - in which it is possible that Talbot is simply hallucinating his transformations - and the more overt monster movie it eventually became. He is also not above the occasional wry remark.
Like most of the other discs in this collection, this a fine addition to the library of the horror fan or film history buff. Now, Universal, where is my similar disc of Island of Lost Souls? Hm?*
(It has been rightly pointed out that Paramount released Island, not Universal, but the Doctor also points out that Universal Home Video distributed the VHS version of that movie in the 90s, and he just wants anybody to release the bloody thing on disc. -ed.)
Dr. Freex, 3/28/2001