Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers, J.M. Kerrigan, Fay Helm, Forrester Harvey
Written by: Curt Siodmak
Directed by: George Waggner
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 70
Date: 12/09/1941

The Wolf Man (1941)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Bane of His Existence

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Descended from the most fastidious and intricate of silent film actors, Lon Chaney Jr. was a surprisingly warm and down-home actor with lots of aw-shucks appeal. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, he was very good at showing inner torment -- such as that of a man who changes into a wolf by night.

Chaney's big break, The Wolf Man (1941) ultimately lacked the vision of more inventive filmmakers like Browning or Whale; he was saddled with the studio director George Waggner. Still, it's a good, solid film, held together by Chaney's appealing performance and great supporting players like Lugosi as Bela the gypsy who turns into a wolf, Maria Ouspenskaya as Bela's mother, and Ralph Bellamy (who had just finished His Girl Friday) as one of his usual milquetoasts.

The Wolf Man has the best commentary track in the series, by Tom Weaver, who actually sounds like he's enjoying himself. The other three are all too dry and rigid.

The Wolf Man's bonus features do not fare as well as those of Dracula and Frankenstein. The first sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) starts off well, but bogs down when Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) tries to find a cure for his lycanthropy by tracking down Dr. Frankenstein's records. Lugosi plays the Frankenstein monster in one of history's most infamous cases of miscasting. It feels horribly pathetic after Lugosi turned down the role a dozen years earlier.

Werewolf of London (1935) was an early attempt by Universal to cash in on the hairy monster, but as played by Henry Hull, the film just didn't catch on. The plot has Hull hunting for a cure by means of a rare flower found only in Tibet. The monster isn't animal enough; when he goes out for his nightly kill, he pauses to put on his hat and coat!

She-Wolf of London (1946), however, is the dullest of all. June Lockhart thinks she's a werewolf, but she's not. Chaney handled the werewolf's torment with consummate style, but Lockhart merely sinks into the wallpaper. The movie doesn't even show the monster. This was one of Universal's last attempts to be serious before they began teaming the monsters with Abbott and Costello.

The overall quality of the films is excellent, but this, as well as the other box sets in the Universal Monster Legacy Collection, has a few small problems. Universal is shamelessly using it to promote its horrible big summer movie Van Helsing, and so hack director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) keeps popping up to talk about how these old movies inspired him. Hopefully these box sets will remain a staple of any DVD library, and so a year from now those segments are going to look ridiculous.

In addition, the menus can be confusing. Each set comes with two discs. The main feature is on a beautiful one-sided disc with a picture on the front. The bonus features are scattered on both sides of the second disc. On each disc the menu comes up exactly the same, forcing the viewer to guess which disc the chosen movie might be on.

Those quibbles aside, I'm absolutely thrilled to add these chilling films to my library.

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