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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD REVIEW: The Wolf Man (1941) 2-Disc Special Edition



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#1 of 9 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted February 12 2010 - 01:30 PM

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THE
WOLF MAN
LEGACY SERIES
2 DISC SPECIAL EDITION
 
Studio: Universal
Original Release: 1941
Length: 1 hour 10 mins
Genre: Horror/Adventure
 
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Color/B&W: Black & White Feature/Color Supplements
 
Audio:
English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
 
 
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Rating:  Not Rated (Mildly Scary Moments)
 
Release Date: February 2, 2010
 
Rating:  3    
 
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Kowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers, J.M. Kerrigan, Fay Helm, Forrester Harvey
 
Written By: Curt Siodmak
Directed By: George Waggner
 
 
The Wolf Man appears again on DVD, in a 2-Disc Special Edition, just in time for the release of the new feature film with Benecio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins.   The basic story here is one that really can’t be spoiled, since it feels timeless even in its first telling. Essentially, a young man is bitten by a werewolf and finds himself cursed to become one whenever the moon is full. The movie is fun, if a bit quaint, with its atmosphere limited to some archetypal foggy night exteriors on the Universal Backlot and two intense performances by Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya. Lon Chaney, Jr. brings an everyman quality to the title character, which isn’t a bad thing, as it allows the audience to identify with him a little more easily, even as the scenario gets wilder.  The plot moves along rather quickly until things come to an end after just over an hour, presaging multiple sequels, reimaginings and remakes, like the one now debuting in theatres.
 
This is the third time the movie has been released on DVD, not counting two box sets of horror collections. Its first release, in 1999, included a featurette, a trailer gallery, some archival photos and publicity materials, and a commentary with Tom Weaver. All of this material has been carried forward on the first disc of this 2-disc release, with a trailer for the new film added into the mix. The 2nd disc adds in a featurette about make-up artist Jack Pierce previously seen in the Legacy Series release of The Mummy, the Universal Horror documentary included on earlier Legacy Series releases, and two new featurettes, one covering the movie’s story and the other focusing on Lon Chaney, Jr. The packaging announces a digitally remastered picture, which looks fine but shows no revelations in detail that I could discern. Fans of the movie who have already picked up the 1999 DVD or the 2004 “Legacy Collection” release (which also included three other Wolf Man movies including the direct sequel with Frankenstein) will need to rent this release to see if the new transfer or the new featurettes is enough of an incentive to dip again. Fans who have never picked this title up before, on the other hand, would do well to grab this release.
 
I think I should also be very clear here for those trying to see the difference between the various DVD editions of this movie, so here is the simple breakdown:
 
1999 – Initial DVD release, includes the Tom Weaver commentary, Monster by Moonlight, the publicity archive and the trailer gallery.
 
2004 – Legacy Collection release (timed to coincide with Van Helsing) – This includes everything from the 1999 edition, along with an introduction by Stephen Sommers, and three other complete Wolf Man movies, including Werewolf of London, She-Wolf of London and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man.
 
2010 – Legacy Series 2-Disc Special Edition – Everything from the 1999 Edition, along with a 2nd disc of featurettes, including the Jack Pierce makeup featurette and the Universal Horror documentary seen on prior SE releases, and two new featurettes, on the film and on the star, Lon Chaney, Jr..   This edition uses a remastered transfer of the movie, and adds a trailer for the new film, The Wolfman. This edition DOES NOT include the other three Wolf Man movies from the 2004 edition.
 
VIDEO QUALITY3/5
The Wolf Man is presented with a remastered black and white print in the film’s original 1.33:1 ratio.   I believe the source print is the same one used for the prior DVD releases, and it holds up nicely, as it should, since it’s about ten years younger than its monster brethren Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy. The transfer is good enough that the process photography shows its seams a bit, as does the crossfaded/double exposed werewolf transformation, but these are simply aspects of the technical limitations on the filmmakers. The transfer just gives us a better look at the techniques, much in the same way that the recent high definition release of The Wizard of Oz shows us the painted backdrops used in many scenes there.
 
AUDIO QUALITY 3/5
The Wolf Man is presented in an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix that makes the dialogue clear and allows the music and growling effects to jump out at the viewer when needed. 
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SPECIAL FEATURES 3/5
The Wolf Man includes all the special features from the original 1999 DVD release, and adds to them two featurettes seen in the recent Special Editions of classic Universal monster movies, two new featurettes and a trailer for the new film opening in theatres today.
 
On the first disc, we find:
 
Feature Commentary by Tom Weaver – This scene-specific commentary was available on both the 1999 and 2004 DVDs. Weaver has a lot of fun watching the movie with the viewer, offering historical background on the actors and sets on the screen, and making some occasionally hilarious observations. (He notes the oddity of the Talbot telescope somehow seeing at street level for a view into the town below...)
 
Monster by Moonlight (32:38, Full Frame) – This featurette has been available on both the 1999 and 2004 DVDs. It’s an affectionate look back at the franchise, narrated by John Landis, discussing the cast, the production and the sequels.
 
The Wolf Man Archives (6:46, Full Frame) – This feature has been available on both the 1999 and 2004 editions. It’s a nearly seven minute display of various posters, lobby cards and production stills, backed with score from the film, including the three note signature theme for the title character and the dramatic music that accompanies his metamorphosis.
 
Trailer Gallery – (7:53 total, Full Frame) - Trailers for The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London and She-Wolf of London are included here, as they were in the 2004 Legacy Collection. Picture and sound quality is a bit distressed, but they’re fun to watch as a series of ways the studio would try to tell this story. The Frankenstein sequel itself comes across as a direct reach to the fans in a manner that’s just as obvious as last year’s Transformers sequel. For this DVD release, Universal has thrown in one additional trailer – a non-anamorphic preview for their new remake, The Wolfman, with Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins.
 
On the second disc, we find three more featurettes and a documentary:
 
The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth – (10:08, Anamorphic) - NEW FEATURETTE – This featurette looks back at the movie again, this time including some ideas about writer Curt Siodmak’s inspiration for the title character. One interesting notion is that the idea of an uncontrollable animal evil lurking within a normal person might well explain how apparently normal Germans could become Nazis or support them.
 
Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr. – (36:53, Anamorphic) - NEW FEATURETTE – This featurette is actually the jewel of this edition. It’s an affectionate look back at the life and career of Creighton Chaney, who wound up being forced to take his father’s name in order to keep his acting career alive. And it’s a sad story – of a man who wanted to be a successful actor outside of the shadow of his legendary father, but who spent almost all of his career in either smaller character parts or in lower budget pieces. His success in Of Mice and Men and The Wolf Man are shown here, but balanced by the long decline that came afterward. Footage of an increasingly older and bloated man, along with a frank discussion of his troubles with alcohol, gives this featurette a weight you don’t normally see in these materials. It’s an honest portrait of a troubled man who could paradoxically be the friendliest man you could imagine – particularly to children and animals.
 
He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce (24:58, Anamorphic) – This featurette was previously included on the Special Edition for The Mummy 18 months ago.  This 25 minute featurette explores the work of makeup artist Jack Pierce, who created multiple horror makeups for Universal over 75 years ago, including Frankenstein, for which a bit of color on-set footage is shown, revealing the monster in all his green glory. (One wonders if that had any impact on the eventual coloring of The Incredible Hulk...) The piece also covers several other works of Pierce, including the legendary smile for The Man Who Laughs, which is universally acknowledged to be a primary origin of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. As an incidental note, the “Monster by Moonlight” featurette acknowledges that Pierce’s groundbreaking work on The Man Who Laughs was actually triggered by the departure from that film of Lon Chaney, Sr,, which brings things full circle, in a way.
 
Universal Horror (1:35:14, Full Frame) – This 1998 documentary, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, has previously been seen on television and has been available on the Special Edition DVDs of Dracula and Frankenstein. It essentially covers the gamut of classic Universal horror films, starting from before Dracula and including several lesser-known films to boot. As is usual with these documentaries, the piece consists of interviews with surviving crew members and cast (including Fay Wray from King Kong) and various scholars and family members, intercut with footage from the films and the odd production still for variety. It’s fascinating material, for those who have not seen these interviews before.
 
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself, as well as for the special features.   A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference.  
 
 
IN THE END...
 
The Wolf Man is given its latest DVD release here, just in time for the new film to hit theatres. It’s a nice enough film, with its own atmosphere at times, but fans of the film who already have one of the earlier releases may want to rent this, just to see if the two new featurettes themselves motivate a fresh purchase. I personally think the featurette on Lon Chaney Jr. is very special in itself, but I don’t know if it’s enough to prompt a double or triple dip. On the other hand, for those who have not picked up this title before, this would be an easy purchase.
 
Kevin Koster
February 12, 2010



#2 of 9 OFFLINE   mdnitoil

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Posted February 12 2010 - 04:34 PM

Just for giggles I slapped in my original single disc and did an image comparison for the first 10 minutes or so.  To my eyes the new release looked sharper with noticably less scratches and specks.  It would appear that some cleanup has occured with this latest release.  That being said, the difference isn't so dramatic that someone should run right out and upgrade, but I thought it was worth noting.

#3 of 9 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted February 12 2010 - 06:14 PM

Thank you for the comparison.   It sounds like you're talking about the 1999 release, not the 2004 one.  Am I thinking the right thing?  And did you notice any difference in the sound?

When I reviewed the SE of The Mummy a couple of years back, I noticed the same kind of improvement in the picture from the 1999 disc, as well as less hiss on the audio track.  Did this happen here as well? 

And thank you again - you've saved me the cost of the rental I did the last time.

#4 of 9 OFFLINE   mdnitoil

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Posted February 13 2010 - 02:08 AM

Yes it was the 99 that I was comparing to.  My understanding was that the differences between the 99 and 04 were minimal at best, but that could certainly be wrong.  Since I had all the monster double feature releases which covered all the Wolfman sequels, I never bothered with the 04 version.  I'll have to go back and pay more attention to the audio as I didn't really notice anything.  Take that with a grain of salt though, I'm not much of an audio guy and any difference would have to be dramatic if I'm not paying attention.  I'll post again with a little more detailed comparison.

#5 of 9 OFFLINE   mdnitoil

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Posted February 13 2010 - 02:51 AM

Some more specific observations on the differences between the '99 and '10 versions.

Film artifacts are definitely reduced.  The '99 exhibits a healthy amount of specks and scratches.  It appears like the transfer was taken from the best source materials available, however little or no effort was made to do any digital cleaning.  The '10 version is noticably cleaner in this regard.  The difference isn't at all subtle when doing A/B comparisons.

Contrast levels appear better on the '10 version.  Blacks certainly appear darker and whites have less of that mustard tint.  I didn't notice any kind of blooming which would be indicative of over boosting.  To my eyes, the better contrast revealed more shadow detail.  The '99 wasn't bad at all, but compared to this new release, the '99 looks faded.  Earlier I had said that the new version looked sharper, but I now believe it was this difference in contrast and detail that I was really seeing.

Grain appears to be about the same in both versions, perhaps slightly reduced in the '10 version.  It's evident in both versions but not distracting.  Just enough to give it a nice film-like presentation.

The framing appears to be the same or at least very similar.  No obvious differences here.  The '99 has been safety matted during the credits for overscan.  This matting continues right up until Chaney arrives at Talbot castle.  Strangely, the '10 has not been safety matted during the credits.  Then, once the credits finish, it is safety matted for the segment when the dictionary is focused on and the defintion of lycanthropy is shown, then the safety matting goes away during Chaney's drive to Talbot castle.  Not sure what the heck went on there.

Unfortunately, I could tell no real difference in the audio presentation outside of the fact that the '10 version is louder.  I couldn't discern any difference in hiss outside of the fact that I turned my volume down for the '10 version, so my inherent system noise was reduced.  It wasn't loud to the point of distraction, just that there is a distinct volume difference.

Hope this helps.

#6 of 9 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted February 13 2010 - 09:19 AM

Thank you very much Scott. 

Your input is very helpful.

It sounds to me that the new transfer, along with the Lon Chaney featurette, may well be enough to justify a double dip.   On the other hand, the big fans of this franchise have likely already grabbed it within the last week...

I'm just happy that they continued to retain the earlier supplements, so that first time buyers aren't stuck trying to dig through the earlier releases.  It's because of that kind of thing that I still have over 30 Laserdiscs...

#7 of 9 OFFLINE   mdnitoil

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Posted February 13 2010 - 09:37 AM

Much like the Mummy, this is the best presentation on home video currently available, although I recall some complaints about zooming on the Mummy reissue.  Both Dracula and Frankenstein have their own particular quirks that may take them out of the running, but these last two Legacy versions for Wolfman and Mummy have been worthy upgrades.  Since I went the original '99 and double features route, it's a no brainer to retire my single disc '99 in favor of this one.

#8 of 9 OFFLINE   bgart13

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Posted February 13 2010 - 11:31 AM

 I've read some complaints re: THE MUMMY haven't seen a visual comparison. Anyone here seen one? I'd like to get it, even if it is not my fave of the Uni's.

Ben


#9 of 9 OFFLINE   Kevin EK

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Posted February 13 2010 - 02:09 PM

I did not notice zooming problems on The Mummy when I reviewed it a couple of years ago.

For that review, I rented the 1999 DVD of the title and checked the picture quality in several scenes to compare it.  What I saw was an improved transfer of what looked like the best print or the only print available.  If there are specific scenes that were affected in that title, I'd love to hear about it, as I could go back and recheck it myself.

My feeling with that title and this one is that the current DVD edition is a nice upgrade of the '99 release with a couple of additional featurettes thrown in for good measure.  The Mummy also had an additional commentary added into the mix to boot.  For The Wolf Man, you get a preview for the new movie and the Lon Chaney featurette.  You could argue that it would be nice to have the additional movies from the franchise, as included in the 2004 release, but it's my feeling that the quality of the subsequent Mummy movies really spiraled down after the first one.  I actually chose to grab the 2004 editions of Dracula and Frankenstein because in those cases, I wanted to get the other titles.  And as it turns out with the Wolf Man character, those sequels also encompass the other appearances by him as well.